On the eve of the SEC Tournament, Florida finds themselves in a most unfamiliar position: win four straight games- including one against the best team in the country- or they won’t be participating in the NCAA Tournament. As I wrote yesterday, the SEC Tournament is Florida’s last chance to dance.
Florida’s lost games in quite a fascinating array of ways this season. They’ve been lit up by red hot shooting, they’ve been blown out of the gym from the get-go, they’ve been blown out of their own gym in the second half, they’ve beaten themselves via horrendous free throw shooting, and they’ve beaten themselves by literally scoring the go-ahead layup for their opponent.
But there has been one constant positive all year, even as the losses have piled up like autumn leaves: the defense.
Here’s something I’ll bet you didn’t know: Florida is one of 27 teams in the country that gives up less than 60 points per game. The Gators’ lack of a lane presence on offense and inability to rebound on both sides of the floor somehow has no effect on their ability to keep opponents’ numbers on the scoreboard extremely low. But it just goes to show that defense alone not only doesn’t win championships, it doesn’t even allow teams to compete for championships.
Only once this year (against Miami) have the Gators lost a game because of their defense. That’s the anomaly, so throw that game out. Florida’s losing games this year because of offensive scoring droughts. Take, for example, the Kansas game. From 16:40 to 1:09 in the second half, Florida scored nine points. That’s not bad, or even awful, that’s downright unacceptable, and that’s why Florida lost 71-65.
But scoring droughts are the norm for these Gators. In the second halves of five different games, Florida went five minutes or more without a point. Predictably, each team- Kansas, FSU, UConn, Alabama and Missouri- took advantage and staged a frantic comeback to take the lead, and only Alabama couldn’t turn the Gators’ drought into a win. That’s not to say the droughts can’t come in the first half. It took Florida seven minutes or more to score their first points of the game against North Carolina and Vanderbilt, and five minutes to get on the board against Georgia. And then there’s the eye-popping number of times the Gators have four or more consecutive possessions without a point from the field; I stopped counting at 110. Why bother? That’s bad enough, and it gets the point across. More than a hundred and ten times this year, Florida has failed to score on four straight possessions.
The only way Florida has been able to consistently get points this year is by creating live ball turnovers on defense, and then scoring in transition. It’s always a plus when you’re able to do this, but that alone can’t win you games. You need to generate offense if you want to beat the great teams; Florida’s defense locked down on Kentucky, holding them to 67 and 68 points in two meetings, well below the Cats’ season average of 75 per game, and still lost both games because they just couldn’t score.
The sad truth is, I don’t know what the answer is. I really don’t. Chris Walker, while supremely talented, has looked largely out of place all season. Past years have suggested that Michael Frazier will be an NBA shooting guard one day, but he’s had a nightmare junior season. Kasey Hill could audition for the Harlem Globetrotters with his dribbling skills, but his inability to finish at the basket and his propensity of tossing lazy passes made those dribbling skills irrelevant. And so on and so forth. Every player has some form of talent, but it hasn’t translated into consistent scoring on the floor all year; attempting to convince anyone that it suddenly will in the SEC Tournament is simply irrational.
Somehow, some way, Florida must find a dependable source of scoring this weekend. Guessing who that source could be is all but futile. And so we as Gator fans are left with nothing but hope, blind hope, that the Gators will find that source tomorrow and ride it- or them- to an unlikely SEC Championship. Failure to do so, and provide a worthy complement to its suffocating defense, will result in a very quick trip to Nashville- and in this team being labeled as Billy Donovan’s worst.