They’ve lost three games in a row, they sit one measly game over .500 in the middle of February, and they have deeply embedded issues that are certain to cost them more games down the road. And yet, they’re right smack in the middle of NCAA Tournament conversation.
This is the profile of Mike White’s Florida basketball team, a wildly inconsistent and significantly undersized squad that has shown flashes of promise but, more often than that, appears flustered and out of its element against better teams. This squad will have spurts where it looks like it can beat anybody in the country, and others where it looks like it doesn’t belong in any sort of postseason whatsoever. The nature of this Jekyll and Hyde routine the Gators put on, however, is not congruent with the binary nature of the Big Dance, where you’re either in the NCAA Tournament field or you’re not. And for a team that can’t seem to settle on an identity, the Selection Committee is going to be left with a quandary.
I think if any of us were hooked up to a lie detector, we would all reasonably say this Florida team doesn’t deserve the right to compete with Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and Duke for the same championship. The key here, though, is that this isn’t the least bit relevant. Blame Las Vegas, TV, money, or whatever, but the fact of the matter is that the NCAA needs 68 teams to fill out its field. And the metrics really, really like Florida.
Coming into today, the Gators sit #37 in the Basketball Power Index. Twelve of Florida’s 23 games were against fellow top 50 BPI residents, and the Gators won two of them (against Mississippi and Butler). The Ken Pomeroy rankings tell a similar story; the Gators came into today ranked #38, with two wins over top 55 opponents. Thus, most projections as of this morning have Florida either in the field of 68 or close to it.
That means that despite its ugly 12-11 record, the Gators are theoretically still very much alive in the chase for a national championship. Sure, go ahead and laugh at that statement, but remember that since 2011, eight teams seeded 9th or lower have reached the finals of their Regional1 – and half of those teams won their Regional and advanced to the Final Four2. These were some of the lowest ranked teams in the eyes of the Committee, and therefore some of the last teams into the field.
And so, Florida still really, truly does have a national championship to play for. This team isn’t good, you’ll never find me arguing that it is, and you’ll be hard pressed to find anybody who thinks it is, but that is not what this discussion is about. All I’m saying is that this team still has literally everything in front of it to play for.
Which all falls back to White and his future, a topic that seeps into every discussion about Florida basketball because it has to, and for those of you who hate that it does, try to save your eye rolling for later because this is going somewhere. I’ll be blunt: I’m already out of patience with his inability to recruit/develop a reliable paint presence, his team’s sophomoric “ill-advised three and out” offense when he supposedly wants to be a dribble drive team and his masochistic fetish for losing in the O’Connell Center, and I know that I’m not the only one. But I also know that Scott Stricklin’s personal rope for him is longer than mine, and his is the one that matters. And through the years, across all levels of all sports, various coaches have found their way into and then out of disfavor with their team’s fan bases, which means that there’s a precedent for White to coach his way off the hot seat.
It can start tonight against Vanderbilt, a team that’s owned White so far (6-1) but comes into tonight’s game winless in its ten SEC games this year. A loss to the Commodores would be fatal, not just in terms of this team’s resume but its morale. A win, on the other hand, and the Gators could springboard forward with some real momentum, and earn the famous categorization of “peaking at the right time.” The seven remaining games on the schedule don’t set up an ideal path to do that, not with two games against LSU and road games against Alabama and Kentucky, but maybe a win tonight would inject this team with the sort of belief in itself it needs to have to focus on the little things and maybe steal a game or two the oddsmakers say it should lose.
So despite all the woes, struggles and frustration, this team still has everything sitting right in front of it. Let’s see if they can play like a team that knows that and wants to take advantage.
1(11)VCU (2011), (9)Wichita State (2013), (11)Dayton (2014), (10)Syracuse (2016), (11)Xavier (2017), (9)Kansas State (2018), (11)Loyola-Chicago (2018), (9)FSU (2018)
2(11)VCU (2011), (9)Wichita State (2013), (10)Syracuse (2016), (11)Loyola Chicago (2018), who in fairness won its conference and was going dancing anyway as an autobid