Questions Loom About Florida’s NCAA Chances

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 11th, 2014

Florida entered Selection Sunday last March with just two losses and was a mortal lock for a #1 seed. This season the Gators entered the second week of December with twice that many losses after letting a 15-point halftime lead slip away against Kansas. It seemed as if Florida might flip the script on its early struggles when the Gators jumped out to that lead in Allen Fieldhouse, and had they held on they may have briefly put to rest all the hand-wringing over injuries and missed players. Instead of grabbing the most impressive road victory of the young season, the Gators folded down the stretch, and that missed opportunity raises legitimate questions over whether Florida is in early trouble in terms of the NCAA Tournament.

Billy Donovan's Gators have a lot of work to do if they want to make their sixth-consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. (AP)

Billy Donovan’s Gators have a lot of work to do if they want to make their sixth-consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. (AP)

The name of the school on the front of the jersey and the coach walking the sidelines gives the Gators a benefit of the doubt that most other schools in this position would not receive. We’ve already seen this exhibited when voters in both polls put an inexperienced team with a lot of question marks in their preseason top 10. Over the last decade-plus, Florida has not only earned this respect and still, quite frankly, might be the second best team in the SEC. Their four defeats have all come at the hands of teams currently ranked in the top 22 of KenPom’s ratings, and three of these were away from the O’Connell Center. The concern, however, is whether Florida’ remaining schedule provides enough opportunities to put together a Tournament-worthy resume. The SEC doesn’t do the Gators any favors since its two games against Kentucky is their only real chance at a marquee win. It’s not ideal, but a lack of headline-grabbing wins shouldn’t be fatal for a school that doesn’t have to fight for respect.

The key then for Florida might simply be amassing a good number of wins and beating the teams that it should beat. Monday’s beatdown of Yale was a good first step, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that they needed overtime to get by Louisiana-Monroe. In short, the Gators haven’t proven much yet. Upcoming games against Wake Forest (#123), Florida State (#104) and UConn (#33) should provide a good indication of whether Donovan’s crew can right the ship, as that stretch is more or less what the Gators will face in SEC play. The path to a Tournament resume could be a 4-1 finish to non-conference play, and then a 12-6 or better mark in league play. That would put the Gators at 20-11 and an SEC Tournament win or two could be enough to get them over the hump. Without two wins over Kentucky, though, this is a seriously flawed resume, and it looks a lot like what Georgia offered last year and Alabama put together in 2012-13. Neither of those teams made the NCAA Tournament, of course, but again, Florida is likely get greater deference from the committee.

There is reason to believe that this Florida team can take care of its business despite a tumultuous start. Devin Robinson (4-of-9 shooting, 13 points, five rebounds) and Chris Walker (5-of-6 shooting, 12 points, five rebounds) each had the best games of their young careers in the loss to Kansas. Walker followed this up with a similarly strong game (13 points, six rebounds) against Yale, which suggests he might finally be figuring it out. Kasey Hill is also on a serious hot-streak in dishing out assists, with a 25-to-4 assist to turnover ratio in his last four games. Most importantly, the young and inexperienced Gators have actually posted good defensive numbers against a tough schedule. They are currently 14th in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and have allowed opponents to score just 0.904 points per possession this season. Those stats should hold up well against largely flimsy SEC competition.

The Gators’ biggest problem to me, besides an incomplete roster, has been a lack of someone emerging as a crunch-time scorer. Florida had no answer during Kansas’ 17-0 run late in the second half last Friday, which was very similar to the late Angel Rodriguez-led run that beat the Gators a few weeks ago. There could be a cold-blooded, winning-time scorer on this team: Wayne Selden hit jumper after jumper during that Kansas run, and he certainly wasn’t that guy for the Jayhawks last year. Hill, Michael Frazier or someone else needs to make a similar jump in leadership and confidence if Florida is going to get over the hump. It seems foreign to talk about the Gators’ NCAA Tournament chances in any way other than a lock, but that is where things stand right now. Whether they can piece together a reasonable resume will be one of the more interesting SEC storylines to watch as the rest of this season unfolds.

Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) (231 Posts)

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