Still Plenty of Questions Surrounding Gators

Posted by rtmsf on February 29th, 2012

David Changas is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after last night’s Florida-Vanderbilt game in Nashville.

As the college basketball regular season draws to a close, talk of bubbles being popped and which teams will secure #1 seeds dominates the conversation. What does not get discussed as much is the teams that are solidly in the field, but who no one expects to hear much from once the Big Dance arrives. One such team is the struggling Florida Gators. After dropping their second road contest in a row to Vanderbilt on Tuesday night, the Gators are staring at the likelihood of ending the regular season with three consecutive losses.

For Better Or Worse, Billy Donovan's Crew Lives By The Three-Point Shot (AP)

Mighty Kentucky comes to the O’Connell Center on Sunday in the regular season finale seeking a perfect SEC record (assuming a home win over Georgia Thursday night). From what the Gators have shown us in their last two outings – and from what Kentucky has shown us over the past two months – there is little reason to think the Wildcats won’t achieve conference perfection. A look at Florida’s resume shows very few wins over quality teams. The Gators have handled most of the teams they should have beaten – Tennessee (twice) and Georgia notwithstanding – but home victories over Florida State and Vanderbilt and a road win against an Alabama team playing without its two best players are the only wins the Gators have over NCAA Tournament-bound teams.

Despite their 22-8 record and their top-20 RPI rating, there are serious concerns about the Gators heading into March. From what we saw in Saturday’s 76-62 trouncing by Georgia in Athens, after which Billy Donovan did not hide his disappointment with his team’s effort, and after Tuesday night’s collapse against Vanderbilt’s zone down the stretch, there is little reason to believe that a repeat of last year’s Elite Eight trip is ahead. In fact, a Sweet Sixteen run would be a surprise.

Anyone who has watched Florida knows that the Gators are a talented offensive squad that attempts and makes more threes per game than any team in the country. The Gators have been an offensively efficient team that scores in bunches.  Starting guards Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker have combined to attempt 12.6 threes a game, and while they make 42% of their attempts, this is a staggering number. As a team, Florida has attempted an NCAA-leading 25.6 threes per game, and though it makes nearly 40% of them, Donovan must be concerned about the Gators’ reliance on their outside game. It is apparent from watching Florida that the Gators’ biggest problem is their reliance on threes and their lack of a consistent post presence. Florida’s interior game has become virtually nonexistent and that was apparent in Tuesday’s loss to Vanderbilt. The Gators got four points from their only true low-post threat in sophomore forward Patric Young.

Unless Patric Young’s Becomes A Viable Low-Post Threat, Florida’s Stay In The Big Dance Will Be A Short One (Getty)

While Young has been struggling with an ankle injury, it is difficult to understand why he has been a non-factor so often lately. His only baskets against the Commodores came in the first half on putbacks. Young spent a good portion of the second half on the bench, as Donovan appeared to abandon any thought of working the ball inside to its big men. For a player with an NBA body and first-round potential (he is projected by NBAdraft.net to be selected with the 24th pick in June), and who has shown signs of dominance at times, Young’s relatively limited contributions of late to a team that needs him is puzzling. At times this year, Young has shown the impressive low post game he flashed in the Gators’ deep NCAA Tournament run last year, but Tuesday night showed good teams what they need to do to beat Florida.

Other than Young, junior forward Erik Murphy is Florida’s only other low post option, and he is a player better suited to roaming the perimeter and knocking down the occasional three. While he was not an offensive force, the Gators also clearly miss Will Yeguete. They have struggled to adjust to life without the sophomore forward, who is likely lost for the season after breaking his foot against Auburn on February 21. Yeguete had been very productive in SEC play, and provided much-needed depth on the interior. He was clearly the team’s best rebounder, and though the Gators’ press was effective at times on Tuesday against the Commodores, it doesn’t function nearly as well without Yeguete.

Freshman Brad Beal, who is now the team’s leading rebounder even though he is a wing, gives the Gators a dimension they didn’t have a year ago. The slashing and supremely athletic Beal can break down defenses and create mismatches on the perimeter. He gets to the basket with relative ease, even against quality defenders. Early in the second half Tuesday night, he got the Gators back into the game with several drives to the basket that Vanderbilt couldn’t stop. Eventually though, Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings made the decision to switch to a 3-2 zone that limited Florida’s – and especially Beal’s – ability to get to the basket. The Gators, who limited their three-point attempts during the first half and early in the second, fell back to relying almost exclusively on threes. Unfortunately for Donovan’s squad, the shots weren’t falling (the Gators went 8-of-24 on the night), and Vanderbilt pulled away for a 77-67 win.

Ultimately, Tuesday’s game showed us that the Gators’ run in March will end when those threes don’t go down, and when teams take away penetration from the Gators’ lightning-quick guards. It is difficult for teams that rely so much on the three to make deep March runs, especially against quality opponents. Unless Young’s early-season form returns and he becomes a viable low post threat, Florida’s stay in the Big Dance this year will most likely be a short one.

Vandy takes down the Gators:

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