A case can be made that the spring football practice that begins on Tuesday is the most important at the University of Florida since 2002 when Ron Zook took over as head coach, barely two months after he was surprisingly named as Steve Spurrier’s replacement.
With Zooker, we really didn’t know what to expect since he had never served a day as a head coach at any level of competitive football. The fact that a novice head coach was taking over for one of the great coaches in college football history rightfully made a lot of folks nervous.
Zooker was on a short leash but when he was dismissed in his third year, he left a ton of talent for Urban Meyer. Meyer, in turn, left plenty of talent for Will Muschamp, and Muschamp left what was essentially an NFL defense for Jim McElwain.
Now all that NFL defensive talent is gone along with the bulk of the holdovers from the Muschamp era, which means the team McElwain takes the field with on Tuesday is one largely of his own creation. He recruited all but 15 of the 83scholarship players on his roster so he’s either going to sink or swim with his own guys. Not only will McElwain be evaluating players that he brought to Florida but he’s going to find out if he tweaked his coaching staff just right or did he need to make another adjustment or two?
Because they played so well in the Citrus Bowl, the guys on the defensive side of the ball seem less of a concern than the offensive guys who enter year three under Doug Nussmeier having yet to crack the top 100 in NCAA total offense. Randy Shannon is a proven commodity as a defensive mind. Nussmeier? We have to give him the benefit of the doubt since 20 of the 26 games he’s coached at UF have been with Treon Harris, Luke Del Rio or Austin Appleby at quarterback. Although Nussmeier will have a brand new quarterback to work with this spring, the talent of Feleipe Franks, Kyle Trask and Kadarius Toney is infinitely better than the talent he’s coached either of the last two springs.
You can’t win a championship in the 15 practices of spring football, but you can set such a bad tone that winning one in the fall is next to impossible. If the Gators are going to contend for a third straight SEC East championship and perhaps flex enough muscle to scare the bejabbers out of whoever comes out of the West, then this can’t simply be a good spring practice for Jim McElwain and the Gators. It has to be a great one.
HOW THE GATORS CAN TAKE OUT KENTUCKY
For all practical purposes, Florida’s hopes and dreams of winning the SEC basketball championship require a win at Rupp Arena Saturday. The 12th-ranked Gators (23-5, 13-2 SEC) have to knock off the 10th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats (23-5, 13-2 SEC) and then score two wins next week against a hot Arkansas team (21-7, 10-5 SEC) that has won its last four and an improving Vanderbilt team (15-13, 8-7 SEC) that is on a three-game winning streak. Kentucky, on the other hand, gets the Gators and Vandy at home before facing disappointing Texas A&M on the road to close out the regular season.
While Florida’s schedule is difficult, if the Gators knock off Kentucky then they will only have to split their final two games to clinch the #1 seed in the SEC Tournament since they will have swept Kentucky. Splitting is do-able.
So how do the Gators beat Kentucky Saturday? Here’s how:
1. Get in Malik Monk’s shorts and stay in them for 94 feet. As we discovered when the Gators blew Kentucky’s doors off by 22 at the O-Dome, Monk really doesn’t like it when someone picks him up and then has the audacity to hound up up and down the court from baseline to baseline.
2. Turn DeAaron Fox into a jump shooter. He’s lethal off the drive but if you can force him into shooting jumpers he could get a union card because he throws up so many bricks. He shoots 17.3% on his 3-balls.
3. Get physical with Derek Willis from the outset. He’s a streak shooter who can hit 5-6-7 shots in a row if he gets off to a good start. Like Monk, he’s not particularly effective when someone gets in his shorts.
4. Use Keith Stone extensively as the backup to Kevarrius Hayes. Stone had a couple of man-size rebounds, a monster dunk and a couple of brilliant passes for assists in limited minutes backing up Hayes against South Carolina. Schuyler Rimmer is good for 5-7 minutes a game but Hayes can’t be expected to play 33-35 minutes. Stone has to be good for 10-15 minutes. He’s got the physical strength and power to play inside against Kentucky’s bigs so he has to be used.
5. Devin Robinson has to play like he did against South Carolina. The Robinson who scored 14 points, grabbed 6 rebounds, handed out an assist, picked up 2 steals and 3 blocked shots has to show up. If Robinson fills out his line in the box score, the Gators are going to be in this one until the clock strikes zero at the end.
6. The Gators can’t have one of those streaks like they had against Mississippi State and again against South Carolina where they become lost balls in the tall grass on both ends of the court. This is a game that requires 40 minutes of non-stop intensity. It’s the only way to take the Rupp crowd – and the fragile egos of those Kentucky one-and-dones – is non-stop intensity. Florida plays well when it’s intense. Kentucky has shown a penchant for wilting.
GATORS THIS WEEKEND
Track and Field: The #1-ranked Gators and #2 Arkansas are expected to gut it out for the conference championship at the SEC Indoor Track and Field Championships in Nashville. The 11th-ranked women’s team will also be competing at the SEC meet in Nashville.
Baseball: The #2 Gators (3-1) play host to #17 Miami in a 3-game series at McKethan Stadium beginning at 6:30 tonight. Saturday’s game 2 is also set for 6:30 while the Sunday finale will be at 1 p.m. Alex Faedo will get the start tonight while Brady Singer (1-0, 1.80 ERA) will go Saturday and Jackson Kowar (1-0, 1.59 ERA) starts Sunday.
Gymnastics: The third-ranked Gators will be at home tonight to face #13 Missouri in a meet that could see at least a couple of perfect 10s. Alex McMurtry had a 10 on bars two weeks ago at the O-Dome and narrowly missed a second straight 10 at Arkansas last week. Kennedy Baker has nailed a 10 on floor and could do a repeat tonight.
Women’s Tennis: The #1 Gators (9-0) will be on the road this weekend at LSU today and at Texas A&M on Sunday.
Men’s Tennis: The 6th-ranked Gators (7-3) will be home this weekend to face #2 Ohio State Sunday at noon.
Lacrosse: The 4th-ranked Gators (0-1) take on 3rd-ranked Southern Cal (2-0) tonight (6:30) at Donald Dizney Stadium. Florida’s only loss was to #1-ranked North Carolina
Softball: The 3rd-ranked Gators (10-1) will be in Orlando to play five games in the Citrus Classic at the Disney Complex. The Gators will face Syracuse and Fordham today, Liberty and Elon Saturday and finish up with Lehigh on Sunday.
RE-THINKING SAMMY SOSA AND MARK MCGWIRE
I got into a discussion about Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire with a friend who is one of the few I know who continue to live, breathe, eat and sleep Major League Baseball. There used to be a lot of us but no longer. There are far too many of us who remain turned off by (a) the 1994 strike that cancelled the World Series; (b) lament the fact that you almost have to take out a second mortgage to afford decent tickets for a family of four to see a ball game; and (c) the revelations that so many of the game’s top stars abused steroids and other performance enhancing drugs.
My friend surprised me when it came to the steroid use and his defense of Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire.
“When baseball needed Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, they gave us our money’s worth and a summer to remember,” he said. “They saved baseball. If they hadn’t had that big summer that brought people back to the ball park, I hate to think where baseball would be today. There was that much bitterness over the strike costing the World Series.”
My friend dismisses all this competitive advantage argument, claiming that for every player who got caught juicing there were at least 10 who slipped through the cracks.
“Explain how Brady Anderson hit 50 home runs in a season,” he offers as just one of many examples.
That’s hard to argue.
His final argument is compelling.
“These guys still had to perform on the field,” he said. “Sosa and McGwire, for instance, still had to hit the baseball. Being stronger doesn’t change the fact you still have to hit a baseball coming at you 98 miles per hour. Not everybody who was juicing was good enough to do what they did. I’d argue that most of the juicers didn’t improve their game all that much. And take this into consideration too – they juiced to get better. This isn’t like abusing alcohol or cocaine or some other drugs.”
My friend argues that Sosa, McGwire and all the other juicers who put up the big numbers belong in the Hall of Fame, that the good they did for baseball – especially Sosa and McGwire – far outweighs the nonsense of the steroid era.
“There are guys in the Hall who juiced, so why aren’t these guys?” he asks.
Indeed. Why is that so?
DeMarcus Cousins played his first game with the New Orleans Pelicans Thursday night. The addition of Cousins to a team that already had Anthony Davis should be enough to lift the Pelicans into the playoffs. Right now, they’re two games behind Denver, which would secure the #8 and final spot in the Western Division playoffs if they were held today. Here’s an interesting stat for you: Cousins is the only player in NBA history to play 400 games and average more than 20 points and 10 rebounds yet never play in a playoff game.
If I had a vote for national college basketball player of the year, my vote would go to Frank Mason III of Kansas. He’s easily the best player in the country at crunch time. And since Kansas has been mentioned, shout out for Bill Self, who has won 13 consecutive Big 12 Conference championships.
Billy Donovan got a defensive stud in Taj Gibson and a shooter in Doug McDermott in a trade with the Chicago Bulls without giving up any player of value. Those two won’t make up for the loss of Kevin Durant but at least Billy has a better deck to shuffle the last third of the season.
If I am the San Francisco 49ers, rather than draft Mitch Trubisky (North Carolina) or Deshaun Watson (Cleveland) with the second pick in the NFL Draft, I would try to make a trade for Jimmy Garoppolo, who was Tom Brady’s backup in New England. I figure those three years Garoppolo served as Brady’s caddy and working for Bill Belichick have to account for something.
I used to like Sports Center on ESPN, but it’s become unbearable. Where do they come up with these people? I just want the highlights and the sports news. I don’t want their opinions about everything.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
There is no doubt there are members of the Baseball Hall of Fame who juiced but didn’t get caught. Should baseball take that into consideration and open the doors of the Hall of Fame to guys like Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Rafael Palmeiro?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
For 67 of his nearly 90 years on this earth, Riley B. King was the ultimate blues artist. We knew him as B.B. King, a name he picked up when he was known as the “Beale Street Blues Boy” in Memphis in the 1940s. That was shortened to B.B. and he became a legend. Today’s music is a 2003 live performance in which he took requests over the phone.