For some of the worst teams in the SEC, such as South Carolina, Georgia and (gasp!) Kentucky, the situation is pretty clear. Win four straight games in the SEC Tournament in Nashville, or the season is over.
For Mike White and Florida, though, the waters ahead are less perilous. Barring major chaos in conference tournaments around the country and an opening game loss to either Texas A&M or Vanderbilt, the Gators will be dancing next week. That much we know- or at least, we’re as close to knowing as anything in the era of COVID-19.
That gives Florida a different approach this week in Nashville. Whereas other teams are playing for their seasons, the Gators have a chance to use their opponents to shore up some things they don’t do especially well, to fine-tune some weaknesses and get some live reps against teams that are playing for their seasons.
This Gator basketball team, for example, has developed a habit of- at the most critical of junctures- not rebounding. The Gators rank 137th in the country in rebound rate, despite Colin Castleton pulling down a healthy 5.7 boards a game from his forward slot. But the overall stats don’t do justice to just how astoundingly bad the Gators can be at this in spurts. In one stretch against Tennessee from the end of the first half through the beginning of the second half, the Gators and Vols combined to miss seventeen shots. Tennessee rebounded sixteen of them- many of which came with Castleton on the floor. That isn’t merely bad, that’s objectively horrible. And it might spell doom for Florida next week.
This Gator basketball team also has a habit of falling asleep offensively, and turning the ball over in bunches. For a twelve minute stretch late in the first half and early in the second, Missouri outscored Florida 25-10. The Gators stopped moving the ball around and started turning it over. In fact, Florida turned it over an incredible ten times in that twelve minute span. That isn’t merely bad, that’s objectively horrible. And it might spell doom for Florida next week.
And zooming out and looking big picture: this Gator basketball team seldom finishes down the stretch, period. Maybe the most amazing thing is that when things fall apart late in a tight game, they all fall apart at once- defensive/rebounding effort, valuing the ball, moving the ball, spacing, boxing out, setting screens- you name it, the Gators stop doing it. It’s usually a total team effort. Predictably, these meltdowns result in gaudy end-of-game scoring runs for the opposition, like a 13-1 run for South Carolina to close out the 72-66 upset and a nearly identical 14-2 Arkansas rip to secure the Hogs’ 75-64 win. That isn’t merely bad, that’s objectively horrible. And it might spell doom for Florida next week.
This week is the Gators’ last chance to get better as a basketball team so that these things don’t end their season. This team can use Texas A&M or Vanderbilt and then Tennessee to practice rebounding, to practice ball movement and security, and to practice finishing out games. Whether or not Florida wins the SEC Tournament is immaterial if they leave Nashville having experienced that lightbulb moment and become a tougher team to beat next week because of it.