There’s something so satisfying about seeing Bruce Pearl’s team lose a basketball game. That joy is magnified exponentially when Pearl loses to the Florida Gators, and that’s what happened last night. (So Gator basketball does give you reasons to smile after all!)
For the 24th time in succession, the Gators beat an SEC team on the hardwood, claiming a relatively easy 75-55 win over Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers. Yet the game itself was more lopsided than the final score indicated. Florida went way out in front, building a 47-23 lead early in the second half, and then hit the cruise control button. The Tigers made a half hearted run, eventually cutting the lead to 63-53, before Florida closed the game on a 10-2 run to win 75-55.
The immediate takeaway is that Florida was better than Auburn, and played like it for a full 40 minutes. Not 25 minutes like they played against Kansas, not 35 like they played against Miami, but the full 40 minutes. As soon as Auburn started to pull within respectability, the Gators stepped up and put them away. When Michael Frazier hit a layup to put Florida up 69-53 with 3:46 left, the game was over. Every team is going to have a lull here or there- that’s what happens in an up and down game like basketball- but this time, the Gators minimized theirs and recovered to finish the opponent off, and that’s something to feel good about- even if that opponent was Auburn.
But beating Auburn isn’t going to get the Gators into the NCAA Tournament. By choking against Miami, UConn and Kansas, the Gators have put themselves in the unenviable position of having to win every single game left on their schedule not against Kentucky to ensure themselves a spot in the Big Dance. Anything less, and they risk leaving their fate in the hands of the Selection Committee. You think I’m kidding? Take a look for yourselves; going 15-3 in the SEC puts the Gators at 22-9 heading into the SEC Tournament, with precisely zero impressive out of conference wins- and depending on who that third SEC loss is, zero impressive overall wins. So now, thanks to that horrific trio of losses, the Gators can ill afford to stumble again (again, not including two games against Kentucky). And based on what we’ve seen from this team on a game to game basis, I have trouble believing that they won’t.
Very early on, I learned to trust the Gators last season. They’d pull out close game after close game, and even when I thought for sure they were done, they’d find a way to win. It was remarkable, and after awhile, I didn’t even get nervous. I’d just shrug, look at (or text) my friends, parents, girlfriend, etc. and tell them to calm down, Florida’s going to win, just chill out… and save for two games against UConn and one against Wisconsin early in the year, I was right every single time.
I have no such trust for this year’s team. They lost it in Paradise Island against Georgetown when LJ Peak and Devauntes Smith-Rivera hit back to back shots in the waning moments, proving that the Miami game (and Angel Rodrigues going off in the final minutes) was not a fluke and that this team was indeed vulnerable. Subsequent blown leads against Kansas and UConn, along with the you-know-what against FSU, led me to believe that this team is simply not clutch. As Jordon Granger hit a three to cut Florida’s lead to 63-53 with 5:22 to go, I was legitimately convinced that Florida was going to lose. Why shouldn’t I have been? Florida has already given away three 13+ leads; why should I believe they wouldn’t blow another one?
The thing is, it’s a team effort; everything goes to pieces simultaneously. Dorian Finney-Smith and Chris Chiozza can be absolutely balling, but all it takes is one smart defensive switch and the two of them are shut down- while at the other end of the floor, someone (say, KT Harrell of Auburn) suddenly finds a hole in the Florida zone and buries a few threes. That’s how runs happen, and fortunately, Auburn isn’t good enough to have used that to their advantage (in the win column, anyway).
So I’m worried about this team. Florida tried to blow it again, but were up too much for that to be a serious possibility. But the Gators simply have to learn to close, or they’ll go from a Final Four team to staring at ESPN, and not CBS on Selection Sunday- as a hopeful for the NIT.