Well, that was fun while it lasted. The thought that the Gators could make a run at the SEC title, a top 4 seed and maybe even the Final Four was just a bit unrealistic. Instead, let’s face the cold, hard facts. This Gators squad is unexplainable. It has experience… yet the experience of those guys has been underachievement, inconsistency and ultimately failure. It has size inside and shooters on the outside… yet it fails to pound the ball inside and the outside shooters take too many rushed, contested shots. This is not a very good basketball team, despite what you’ve been told previously. On some nights, it can be a dangerous team that can play with most teams in the country. On others, it can lose to any team in the country.
The Gators still stand in decent shape to make the Big Dance. They have a strength of schedule that is top 10 right now. After SEC play is completed, it will probably still be somewhere in the 20s or 30s. The RPI is still in the top 20. So the Dance remains a strong possibility. Nine wins in SEC play will probably lock up a berth given the non-conference schedule. Ten wins will take any drama out of Selection Sunday. So can they get there?
Well as you’ve heard, the SEC is way down this year. But is that bad? Five teams (Kentucky, Florida, Vandy, Tennessee and Georgia) have top 40 RPIs right now, four within the top 25. Mississippi State just got big-time talent Renardo Sidney cleared to play. And the way Florida plays anyway, it is hard to find any “gimmes” on the schedule. Thursday’s visit to Auburn (easily the worst team in the SEC) should be one but nothing is easy for the Gators on the road and the Tigers beat Florida State a couple weeks ago. UF follows that up with a Saturday home game against Arkansas, another one that should be a W. But John Pelphery knows Billy and his teams well and the Gators will need to be ready on a short turnaround. You can just look at the schedule and know this team will be flirting with 9-10 wins the whole way. Get ready for another stressful March, even with those four extra bids this year.
There are many frustrating things about this team but I wanted to specifically hit on two. First, the O’Dome is really struggling. The student section still brings it every night but the rest of the building is too reserved and there are far too many empty seats. The homecourt advantage that good teams thrive on just can’t be found in Gainesville. I know it has always been a struggle to consistently fill the place with raucous crowds (2006 and 2007 exempted), but it is still frustrating when 50,000 students and 125,000 city residents can’t fill a 12,000-seat hoops arena 15 times a year. The average crowd this year is around 9,300. That’s pathetic and embarassing. Three losses at home already with more likely to come. We have to get back to where we were in the early and mid 2000s with a loud, rocking arena that intimidated opposing teams.
The second most frustrating thing for me this season has been Kenny Boynton. I hit on his struggles somewhat in my previous hoops column. Boynton’s numbers are only slightly down from last year. As a freshman, he averaged 14 points per game and he’s at 12.6 this year. His percentages are actually almost identical. But after learning how to play in the SEC last season and then exploding in the NCAA Tournament, Boynton set the stage for a big jump. He was a preseason All-SEC pick. And yet Boynton continues to be a streaky shooter who settles for way too many jump shots. His athleticism and strength at the rim allows him to create and penetrate but he rarely does so. And that means he goes long stretches without positively impacting the game. As Florida’s most dynamic offensive threat, he has to play smarter and more aggressively. But his continued poor play and obvious deficiences mean he must not have a great basketball IQ. And he’s bringing the Gators down with each poor shot.
I no longer hold any illusions about this team making a deep run in the tourney. There was such optimism after last year’s trip back and shootout with Jimmer Fredette and BYU. But this team has proven year after year that it cannot string together multiple wins. So goals and expectations have to be re-evaluated. I will view this season as a success as long as they make the Tournament. They don’t need to win a game, they don’t even need to be competitive. Just make the tourney, keep the momentum going and hopefully Billy can keep accumulating talent and slowly build this thing back up again. Sadly, that’s all Florida basketball is right now.