The fall from grace is now complete.
Beating West Virginia appeared to vault the Gators into the NCAA Tournament, but a subsequent collapse that included four straight losses- in three of which they surrendered 85+ points- returned them to the same state of uncertainty in which they meandered prior to clobbering the Mountaineers. With the point of the season in which effort and hustle are to be commended in the rearview mirror, the Gators knew that all that mattered was winning today’s game against Texas A&M. They didn’t do it, and now it’s time to face reality: Mike White’s first Gators team, in all likelihood, is not going dancing.
The Gators hung with Texas A&M the whole way, never trailing by more than six, and even held the lead at points in the game. Kasey Hill, for all the criticism he takes, turned in his second effort in as many days that bordered on spectacular, delivering 18 points off the bench. John Egbunu, playing with a stress fracture in his thumb, chipped in 11 points and grabbed six rebounds. And three of the five starters- KeVaughn Allen, Devin Robinson and Dorian Finney-Smith- all finished in double figures.
But the Gators were ultimately done in by one of the same things that has plagued this team since February: inconsistent guard play. Which is supposed to be Mike White’s forte (and in anticipation of the next question, I’ll touch on White more next week).
Chris Chiozza seems to have regressed a bit from last year, but his play today made me wonder if he was even the same player. Consistently making bad decisions throughout the game, Chiozza was responsible for three turnovers and about four more irresponsible actions that his teammates bailed him out from. I like Chiozza, and occasionally see reason to believe that he could be a star, but some of the things he did today- no look passes right to Texas A&M players, trying to wiggle around two defenders rather than taking what looked like a clear path to the hoop and taking shots that were better designed to be taken by Allen or Finney-Smith- elicited real concerns about the future of this team. Fans get on Kasey Hill a lot, but not only was he not the problem today, Chiozza was doing a lot of the same things Hill often gets criticized for.
Despite the severe offensive limitations, Florida launched a late 8-2 run to tie the game at 61 with 2:24 to go, courtesy of two free throws from Hill. But A&M responded with buckets from Jalen Jones and Alex Caruso, and then Danuel House delivered the knockout punch with a three to push the lead back up to six with :59 showing on the clock. The teams then swapped free throws, the last two of which from Caruso put a bow on the whole thing.
Done deal. No more hypotheticals. No more chances. No more what ifs.
Barring a gigantic surprise on Selection Sunday, the Gators’ minuscule national championship hopes are gone.
The NIT isn’t such a terrible consolation prize in some instances, and can even be viewed as a nice achievement for some less promising teams, but this Gators squad just felt like it was destined for more after that West Virginia win. So while I’ll obviously be watching the Gators play their NIT games, and rooting for them like always, I’ll be doing so with a feeling of disappointment- the disappointment that stems from being let down.