The Gators actually moved up in the rankings following last week’s loss to Kentucky, an occurrence that dovetails nicely with the upward trend they’ve enjoyed in the last month and a half. But of course, that loss was not without consequences.
Luckily, those consequences won’t ultimately determine this team’s fate. The hope is that Florida can learn from the experience, though, and be better because of it.
So, what were the consequences? Well, the Gators ceded control of the SEC to the Wildcats with that loss, and unless you care to explain how Kentucky will lose to a Texas A&M team that’s barely .500, it will directly cost Mike White’s squad the official SEC Championship. It’s going to be Kentucky’s 50th SEC Championship, while Florida will be stuck at seven. Talk about prestige.
But conference championships have negligible value. Nobody remembers who won which conference in any given year; all basketball fans remember is who won it all (and maybe the other Final Four teams). Kansas wins their conference literally every single year, yet only have three national titles to show for it- one more than Florida. And the list of teams who won their conference only to get knocked out of the NCAA Tournament earlier than they should have is endless.
So it’s really not the end of the world to lose in Rupp and watch Kentucky celebrate their 50th conference crown. The focus now should be on what Florida learned from that loss, and what adjustments they make going forward.
First things first. Who are the Florida Gators? What is their identity? They don’t have a dependable inside weapon without John Egbunu- Kevarrius Hayes, wonderful as he is in other ways, does not fit that description at this point in his career- which means they’re going to have to do the bulk of their damage from outside the paint. Transition buckets are nice, but they can’t be counted on because they’re dependent on the other team turning the ball over.
That all means the Gators are a team of shooters, and that’s fine when shots are going in. But we’ve seen what happens on nights where the shots don’t go in, too, and the results could be even more disastrous in a one game season in the NCAA Tournament. Without a reliable inside scorer- and that means feeding the post and watching the big man work his way toward the hoop and score, not just grabbing rebounds and scoring on put backs- Florida is left to hope for the best with their outside shooting, fully aware of the fact that if they don’t either make a high percentage of them or at least rebound most of the misses, they’re in grave danger of losing a game they shouldn’t.
For all the talk about how hot the Gators are, that’s a frustratingly tricky dilemma to have to figure out as the calendar flips over to March. The Gators simply don’t seem to have a dependable Plan B to score points if KeVaughn Allen and Canyon Barry are missing their shots from outside, or if the other team doesn’t commit live ball turnovers. All they can really do in that situation is bog the opponent down with their defense and try to win an ugly low scoring slugfest, which as we saw in road games against South Carolina and Mississippi State is basically a coin flip.
Worse yet, this is completely uncharted territory for this team. Only Kasey Hill has any real postseason experience, and that came on a team with an established identity and had a surplus of experience in winning different types of games. And for Mike White, this is all new as well. White’s a tremendous young coach who will continue to figure things out as he goes, but the fact remains that he’s never taken a team to the NCAA Tournament before this year, and thus he’s never had to patch up a hole like this with the sport’s biggest stage on his horizon.
The fix is relatively simple: Florida is going to have to rebound better than they did against Kentucky moving forward, or at least be prepared to. There has to be an escape route to victory if the threes aren’t falling, and collecting the misses to set up a second opportunity to score is the only possibility. Not only did Cats pull down 44 boards to Florida’s 27 on Saturday, but the Gators were also outrebounded in four of their other five losses on the season. That’s a pattern.
Now, none of this is said with the purpose of writing this team off. Kevarrius Hayes may not have the baby hook shot in his arsenal like Patric Young, but has quietly grown into a monster on the boards throughout the course of this season, and dismissing the impact he can have on a game is foolish. Besides, all of this only becomes a relevant discussion if Florida doesn’t hit a respectable percentage of their outside shots in the NCAA Tournament, something that a quick scroll through their game-by-game results will prove is an anomaly. The loss to Kentucky was the first in the last ten games, and it came just a few days after reversing an earlier loss to fellow tournament-bound team South Carolina. It showed that Florida has to work on its rebounding these next two weeks; by no means should it be read as a reason to dismiss this team as a title contender.
It’s also worth throwing out the reminder that this team has repeatedly proven to be able to exceed expectations. White’s program is already way ahead of schedule in year two of his tenure, which is due in large part to his ability to quickly detect and then fix problems (most notably the increased ball movement after losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt). Mistake his inexperience for incapability at your own peril.
If Florida suddenly dominates the boards for the rest of the year, and goes on a run in the NCAA Tournament that’s even somewhat due to the rebounding advantage, that loss to Kentucky was worth it. And with a team that’s exceeded expectations, it wouldn’t be a surprise if that’s what happens.