On one hand, when the Florida Gators understand and execute their assignments, they are like a pack of wild dogs on defense. They scramble all over the court and make easy shots tough to come by for opponents. Such defense deserves an offensive game that can reward the defensive effort but that’s why the Florida Gators (17-10, 8-6 SEC) are where they are as the regular season is two weeks from conclusion and four games remain on the pre-tournament schedule.
For the most part, Florida’s defense Saturday was truly exceptional once the Gators got past the 10-minute mark in the first half against South Carolina in Columbia. Up to that point, the Gators played like their feet were stuck in the mud defensively and who knows what was actually going on in their minds on offense but all that changed when Kasey Hill provided the alley and Dorian Finney-Smith dunked it for an emphatic oop. That set the Gators off on a 20-0 run that enabled them to turn a 30-13 deficit into a 33-30 lead at the break.
The intermission cooled the Gators considerably and once off the ropes where their legs were wobbly, the Gamecocks got their own defensive mojo back. The result was a 20-minute slugfest and another five minutes of overtime pounding back and forth. Florida certainly played good enough defense to win the game, but a combination of bad shots and silly turnovers in the extra period gave away another winnable game, the fourth giveaway of the SEC portion of the schedule and the seventh overall. Getting to the NCAA Tournament would be a no-brainer if the Gators had simply matched defensive effort with better shooting – from everywhere on the floor including the foul line – and taking care of the basketball late in games.
Right now, the Gators are thought to be in the NCAA Tournament but they are another confounding loss away from turning off the people who will make the selection. Florida is a very good basketball team when Mike White has the Gators hitting on all cylinders, but it’s anybody’s guess which team shows up. Florida plays good enough defense to play with practically any team in the country and when the Gators nail some shots, they’re quite capable.
Four games remain. Will the Gators who have it all together show up every night? Or will this be two agonizing weeks in which we hold our collective breaths, wondering if this team can figure things out enough to get back into the NCAA Tournament?
SEC MEN’S BASKETBALL POWER RANKINGS
1. Kentucky (20-7, 10-4 SEC, #10 RPI): A stupid technical foul in overtime against freshman center Isaac Humphries cost the Wildcats a win at Texas A&M. The Wildcats need a 2-0 week if they intend to be a top four national seed when the NCAA selects its teams for the big dance. In the loss at Texas A&M point guard Tyler Ulis scored 22 points and handed out 11 assists. Make no mistake about it, the little guy is the SEC’s most valuable player.
This week’s games: Alabama; at Vanderbilt
2. Texas A&M (20-7, 9-5 SEC, #22 RPI): With wins over Ole Miss and Kentucky last week, the Aggies seem to have righted the listing ship. There are two very winnable games this week that will not only keep the Aggies in the SEC championship hunt but will help move them closer to a 4-5 NCAA seed. If the Aggies can get Jalen Jones playing consistently at the level he played against Kentucky (24 points, 8 rebounds, 2 steals) they should be able to get to the 23-24 win mark in the regular season.
This week’s games: Mississippi State; at Missouri
3. South Carolina (22-5, 9-5 SEC, #31 RPI): The Gamecocks got a much needed win in overtime at home against Florida Saturday. Their four remaining SEC games are all winnable. With 25-26 regular season wins, the Gamecocks could command a #5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Michael Carrera (14.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 46.9% on 3-pointers) continues to make his case for first team All-SEC, especially after his monster (20 points, 15 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 blocked shots, 3 steals, 4-8 on 3-pointers) game against the Gators. Not bad for a 6-5 power forward.
This week’s games: Tennessee; at Mississippi State
4. LSU (16-11, 9-5 SEC, #87 RPI): The Tigers went 0-2 last week and are in danger of making a date with the Nobody’s Interested Tournament (NIT) if they can’t right the ship. Stud freshman Ben Simmons was held out of the starting lineup in the loss to Tennessee because of some academic issues but he still had 21 points and 9 rebounds. He also had 8 turnovers.
This week’s games: at Arkansas; Florida
5. FLORIDA (17-10, 8-6 SEC, #32 RPI): The Gators snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Columbia when they lost to South Carolina in overtime. The Gators were done in by bad shooting (36.9% overall; 9-32 from the 3-point line), an inability to get stops at crucial times late in the game and critical turnovers in overtime. With four games to go, the Gators can ensure a trip to the NCAA Tournament with three wins but that means getting a road win either at LSU or Missouri. Against South Carolina, Dorian Finney-Smith (18 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal, 2 blocked shots) and Devin Robinson (17 points, 8 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 3 blocked shots) combined to hit 6-14 from the 3-point line. The rest of the team was 3-18.
This week’s games: Vanderbilt; at LSU
6. Vanderbilt (16-11, 8-6 SEC, #62 RPI): The schedule down the stretch is brutal so you can almost pencil the Commodores in the NIT. This week, the Commodores travel to Florida and then play host to Kentucky. Next week it’s Tennessee at home and a roadie at Texas A&M to end the regular season. It’s going to take a minimum of three more regular season wins and three SEC Tournament wins for the Dores to get into the big dance.
This week’s games: at Florida; Kentucky
7. Alabama (16-10, 7-7 SEC, #42 RPI): Just when you think Alabama has turned the corner, the Crimson Tide loses at home to Mississippi State, which was playing without Malik Newman. Alabama is going to have to finish the regular season no worse than 3-1 and pull off a couple of SEC Tournament wins to have any hope of something other than the NIT. Point guard Retin Obasohan (16.9 points per game) lit up LSU and Mississippi State for 57 points last week.
This week’s games: at Kentucky; Auburn
8. Ole Miss (17-10, 7-7 SEC, #85 RPI): To get into the NCAA Tournament, the Rebels need 20 regular season wins and at least two – maybe three – at the SEC Tournament. Anything less and the Rebels will be playing in the NIT again. Leading scorer Stefan Moody (22.8 points per game) has launched 421 shots from the field and has gotten to the foul line 211 times this season.
This week’s games: Missouri; at Georgia
9. Georgia (14-11, 7-7 SEC), #82 RPI): Georgia can almost forget the NIT after an 0-2 week. The Bulldogs will have to manufacture six more wins in the regular season and SEC Tournament to have a chance.
This week’s games: at Auburn; Ole Miss
10. Tennessee (13-14, 6-8 SEC, #120 RPI): The Vols have no size and not much talent, but Rick Barnes has turned them into a team nobody likes to play. If they could somehow finish with a winning record, Barnes should be SEC coach of the year since he goes with 6-4 Armani Moore (11.8 points, 8.2 rebounds) in the post most of the time.
This week’s games: at South Carolina; Arkansas
11. Mississippi State (12-14, 5-9 SEC, #151 RPI): Freshman Malik Newman (12.3 points per game) was out with a back injury Saturday but the Bulldogs still found a way to beat Alabama for their surprising second straight win. Considering the talent level he inherited, Ben Howland has turned in an outstanding coaching job to have the Bulldogs this close to .500 this late in the season.
This week’s games: at Texas A&M; South Carolina
12. Arkansas (13-14, 6-8 SEC, #136 RPI): The Hogs broke a 3-game losing streak when they beat Missouri Saturday but that’s about the only good news that’s come their way in the last two weeks. This is a team going nowhere. It will be interesting to see how long before the alumni turn up the heat on Mike Anderson, who has taken a serious step backward after last year’s 27-win season.
This week’s games: LSU; at Tennessee
13. Auburn (10-16, 4-10 SEC, #144 RPI): The Tigers broke a 7-game losing streak last week when they beat Arkansas on the road, but they fell back to their losing ways Saturday when they lost at home to Ole Miss. The season is in the tank for the Tigers who are already pointing toward next year when an outstanding recruiting class improves the roster from top to bottom.
This week’s games: Georgia; at Alabama
14. Missouri (10-17, 3-11 SEC, #195 RPI): The Tigers’ two-game winning streak came to an end against Arkansas. This was a week that saw second leading scorer Wes Clark dismissed from the team for academic issues. Head coach Kim Anderson is definitely on the hot seat.
This week’s games: at Ole Miss; Texas A&M
GATOR BASEBALL OPENS SEASON WITH A SWEEP
Not every weekend is going to be as easy as this one for Kevin O’Sullivan’s #1 ranked Florida baseball team, but the opening series with Florida Gulf Coast was a healthy glimpse at a team that has everything it takes to bring home the first national championship. In sweeping the visiting Eagles from Fort Myers, the Gators showed off a little bit of everything. They hit the ball extremely well considering this was the first time against pitchers they don’t see every day in batting practice. The fielding will get sharper, but UF showed it can cover ground and make plays. Starting pitching was good but not great but that’s to be expected in February. The bullpen was exceptional.
We saw enough in three games to know that one of the eight roads that leads to Omaha will run through Gainesville. This might very well be the most talented Florida baseball team ever and the scary thing about the Gators is that they are so young. There are only two seniors on the Florida roster and neither of them factor in the every day lineup or pitching rotation.
Barring some sort of unforeseen disaster, this is a team that is going to have a say in who wins it all this year … and might very well be THE team that does it.
Softball: The #1-ranked Gators ran their record to 11-0 with five wins at the Diamond 9 Citrus Classic at the Disney Wide World of Sports complex. The highlight of Sunday’s 10-0 win over Jacksonville State was All-American Kelsey Stewart busting out of her 10-game hitting slump with a 3-4 day that included a single, double and a home run. Through 11 games, the Gators have outscored opponents 90-4 (eight shutouts), outhit opponents 96-31. Florida pitchers have a combined 0.45 ERA, led by junior Delanie Gourley (4-0), who has yet to yield a run in 19 innings and has struck out 30 batters while giving up just six hits. Freshman Amada Lorenz is hitting .571 (16-28) with 12 RBI, while Janell Wheaton (.440) leads the Gators with 2 homers and 13 RBI. Taylore Fuller (.400) and Kayli Kvistad (.353) both have driven in 12 runs. The Gators hit the road next weekend to Palm Springs, California for the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic where they will face UCLA, North Carolina State, Washington, Nebraska and Utah.
Gymnastics: Florida’s second-ranked gymnastics team turned in the fourth highest score in the nation (197.750) as they easily outpointed #19 Missouri Friday night in Columbia. Kennedy Baker won her first ever all-around title with a 39575 while freshman Alicia Boren scored a 39.450 for second place. Bridget Sloan won the vault with a 9.925 and the floor with a 9.975, her season high and the best score posted by any gymnast Friday night. The Gators will host #7 LSU Friday night at the O-Dome.
Swimming: The Florida men claimed their fourth straight Southeastern Conference championship in Columbia, Missouri as Caeleb Dressel earned the SEC Commissioner’s Trophy as the high point scorer for the meet. It was Florida’s 37th SEC men’s swimming title in school history. Auburn, Georgia and Alabama followed the Gators in the final standings. Texas A&M won the women’s championship as Florida finished a distant sixth place.
Men’s Golf: The 5th-ranked Gators had a poor day three in the Sun Trust Invitational and finished third place behind South Florida and Vanderbilt. Freshman Sam Horsfield shot a 70 on Sunday to finish runner-up for individual honors.
Lacrosse: The #8 Gators stunned #2 North Carolina, holding on to take a 16-15 win over the Tar Heels as freshman Sydney Pireca scored five goals. It was the 99th win as Gator head coach for Amanda O’Leary, whose Gators play host to Dartmouth next Saturday.
Women’s golf: After one day at the Allstate Sugar Bowl Intercollegiate in New Orleans, #11 Florida is tied for third with Tulane, just one stroke behind co-leaders Arizona and Oklahoma State. Maria Torres is tied for second after shooting a 3-under 69.
Men’s Tennis: The #23Gators dropped a 4-3 decision to #6 Ohio State in Columbus Sunday afternoon. Next up for the Gators is Florida State at the Ring Tennis Complex next Saturday afternoon.
Women’s basketball: After losing to Georgia, 74-63, Sunday afternoon in Athens, the Gators (20-7, 8-6 SEC) need to finish with wins over LSU and Auburn in their final regular season games this week to have a chance at byes the first two days of the SEC Tournament. At 8-6 in SEC play, the Gators are tied with Missouri, Kentucky, Georgia and Auburn for the #4 position, which guarantees two days of byes.
South Carolina just renewed its deal with Under Armour and it’s a whopper -- $71.5 million in cash and apparel and equipment over the next 10 years. It’s second only to Auburn (10 years/$78.1 million) as the most lucrative apparel and equipment deal in the SEC and it ranks #7 nationally. Under terms of the deal, South Carolina will get $2 million in cash and $4 million in product this year and each year, the cash increases as does the product allowance.
Mel Kiper’s latest mock draft has Ole Miss LT Laremy Tunsil going #1 to the Tennessee Titans with North Dakota State QB Carson Wentz going #2 to the Cleveland Browns. Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves III goes #9 to the Tampa Bay Bucs. In the Kiper mock first round, Ohio State and Alabama have four players each while Clemson and Ole Miss have three each.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
Based on what you have seen, do you think the Gators will make the NCAA Tournament or will they have to settle for the NIT?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
I listened to Eric Clapton’s “24 Nights” Sunday afternoon. This album was actually recorded over quite a few live performances at Royal Albert Hall in London. There is backup help from the National Philharmonic Orchestra and there is guitar help from Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughn and Robert Cray.