Examining the Gators Close Game Woes

A few weeks back, Gators fans waited patiently for the Indiana-Michigan State game to end on ESPN before the network switched over to Florida-Missouri. While we waited, we were treated to a great finish with the Hoosiers pulling out the gutsy road win in the final minute. Two hours later, the Gators could not do the same in Columbia. Everything that Indiana did right to finish off its victory in East Lansing, the Gators did wrong at Missouri.

Florida did everything wrong down the stretch at Missouri

Florida did everything wrong down the stretch at Missouri

Why was Indiana successful where Florida failed? The easy answer is the Hoosiers are a much better team than the Gators. Most will concede Indiana might be better than Florida but it isn’t a huge gap. And certainly Michigan State is much better than Missouri. So what was the difference?

Explanations are tough for why Billy D's teams have struggled in close games

Explanations are tough for why Billy D’s teams have struggled in close games

Florida has now lost six games on the season, all away from Gainesville, with five of the six decided by six points or less. Even more distressing, Florida has blown comfortable late-game leads in four of the losses. These numbers become more biting when combined with Florida’s consecutive Elite Eight collapses in 2011 and 2012 and Billy Donovan’s overall 58-76 at Florida in games decided by five points or less.

Many will argue that luck is a huge factor in determining who wins and who losses a close game. The most recent example occurred this past Sunday, again with Indiana, this time against Michigan. If you watched the final minutes of that game, you saw no less than three glaring examples of luck on the Hoosiers side. First, the Wolverines missed three straight free throws down the stretch, including two front ends of 1-and-1’s. Second, IU should could have been called for an intentional foul on a breakaway layup but the refs didn’t do it. And third, Michigan’s last shot to win it rolled all the way around the rim before falling away and giving IU another close road win.

The definition of luck - this ball rolled completely around the rim and fell off. Making Indiana clutch and Michigan chokers.

The definition of luck – this ball rolled completely around the rim and fell off. Making Indiana clutch and Michigan chokers.

In Florida’s five close losses this year, no such luck entered into play at any time. In fact, it was usually the opposite (see the final minute of the Arizona game). So is Florida just unlucky? There is something to that but it isn’t the main reason for their struggles. The Gators contributions to their own late-game demises are obvious. Poor shot selection, increased turnover rate, inability to break the press, rebounding issues and poor defense have doomed UF more than bad luck. But there is no denying that if Florida had experienced luck like Indiana did against Michigan, they’d have won at least one of their close games.

Still to me there is one factor that may be more important than any of this. The Gators lack a star go-to player. Let’s go back to both Indiana examples for why that’s the most important factor. In the Michigan State game, potential player of the year Victor Oladipo made the plays down the stretch with a put back lay in and a dunk, then sealed the game with two free throws after securing a big rebound, all in the final minute. In the Michigan game, All-American Cody Zeller scored six in the final minute, including a whirling double move layup for the lead with 13 seconds left. We’ve seen it throughout the year with big-time players – Ryan Kelly against Miami, Otto Porter against UConn, Marcus Smart against Kansas and Trey Burke against Michigan State – making huge plays in the final minutes of big wins.

Despite all the Gators issues, they’ve had chances to win all five of those close road games. But when the Gators need a big play, where can they turn? Their most effective offensive weapon is Eric Murphy but he can’t create his own shot. Their most physically imposing presence is Patrick Young but his offensive game is severely limited. And their best off the dribble attacker is Mike Rosario but he doesn’t have the size and strength to attack and score against a packed-in defense in the final minutes.

This isn’t to imply that you can’t win close games without star players. But when you have stars, you can overcome some of the negative plays you might make earlier in the game knowing they will make a play late to help you win it. Without a star who can create his own shot, get into the paint and to the rim or draw two and three defenders to create an open shot for someone else, your margin of error is extremely small. Yes, you can still win close games with good execution and complete trust in your system, but all too often college kids on the road cannot stick to the fundamentals of that system and end up making mistakes that cost you.

Kenny Boynton was supposed to be the star the Gators relied on this year. Boynton was one of the top recruits in the country back in 2009 in a class with the likes of John Wall, Derrick Favors and Demarcus Cousins. For Billy Donovan, Boynton was a huge piece in rebuilding after the back-to-back titles and departure of the ‘04s. In fact, expectations were so high, no one thought Boynton would make it to his senior year in Gainesville. In his freshman season, he helped the Gators get back to the Dance and announced his presence on the national stage with 27 points in the Gators loss to BYU (which was of course a tight game the Gators had multiple chances to win but didn’t). Boynton’s big game resume grew in his sophomore season when he scored 17 against BYU and in the aforementioned Butler collapse.

As a freshman, Boynton matched one of the greatest scorers in NCAA history

As a freshman, Boynton matched one of the greatest scorers in NCAA history

But despite the sometimes gaudy scoring numbers, Boynton earned a reputation as a gunner with poor shot selection. Alongside Erving Walker, they could shoot the Gators into and out of any game. Boynton had his best statistical season last year when he averaged 15.9 points per game, shooting 44% from the field and 41% from three. But his poor shot selection doomed him in clutch situations and the Gators increasingly turned to Walker or Bradley Beal at the end of games. Don’t underestimate how much they miss Walker this season, either. I won’t make a huge point of it, but despite all his naysayers, he was never afraid to take or make the big shot at crucial moments. As great as Scottie Wilbekin is, it hurts to not have a point guard who can bury a big three in the final seconds.

The Gunners... this year's team misses the balls these guys had... especially Erving Walker.

The Gunners… this year’s team misses the balls these guys had… especially Erving Walker.

This year when watching Boynton, I have had eerie flashbacks to another Gator. In 1999, Billy Donovan signed an All-American guard who wasn’t supposed to last long in Gainesville before heading to the NBA. Brett Nelson helped the Gators reach the NCAA title game as a freshman and had his best season in 2000-2001 when he averaged 15.3 points per game on 45% shooting from the field and from three. By the time Nelson finished his senior year, he had forgotten how to shoot, making only 30% of his shots and averaging a paltry six points per game. Boynton’s numbers haven’t slipped to that level (12.5 pts/g, 39% FG, 33% 3PT) but watching him take ill-advised threes, I’ve often found myself thinking of Nelson. Yes the two play very different styles with Nelson a true point guard and playmaker while Boynton has always been a scorer. But their similarly disappointing senior seasons will be forever tied in my memory.

Nelson was a helluva player... until he inexplicably couldn't shoot anymore

Nelson was a helluva player… until he inexplicably couldn’t shoot anymore

On the eve of the SEC and NCAA Tournaments, all of these factors leave Florida in a very precarious situation. We know they will do well if they can shoot the ball from distance early and get up big. And perhaps they have a run in them like the 2006 team that also had six regular season losses, was extremely balanced without a superstar and entered the Dance as a 3-seed (which Florida currently projects too). They won every game by double digits except one, needing a late game miracle shot by Corey Brewer to get past Georgetown in the Sweet Sixteen. And therein lies the danger for this year’s team. As Billy Donovan said this week, the Gators will be in another close game at some point this season. We know they don’t have a star to save them so will they have the mental toughness to stick to Billy’s system down the stretch and pull it out?

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