LARRY VETTEL: Has hoops program hit the wall?

It's a difficult question to ask of a program that is in the midst of the greatest extended success in school history. But it's also a very difficult question to answer. Pre-conference losses to both Miami and Florida State have the Gators in a unique position. Five years ago they were number two in the nation at the end of the year. Today they are arguably number three in the state and enter SEC play with perhaps less confidence than at any point in the last six years.

Remember all the hubbub over the football team's chance to beat Miami and Florida State in the same year for the first time in 20 years? Well the Gator basketball team had not lost to both state rivals in the same year since the 1964-65 basketball season.

Greed, For Lack of a Better Word, Is Good

That line from the character Gordon Gecko in the movie "Wall Street" pretty much some up the way Florida basketball fans (and us observers) are. The Gators are pursuing their seventh straight NCAA bid and 20-win season, and at 8-3 are in reasonably good shape to continue both runs. But, this team has raised serious questions about what it truly is capable of accomplishing. Simply put, with just one senior Florida again has a leadership vacuum. Add in the fact the Gators have lost four scholarship players in less than a year, continuity and camaraderie have to be affected at some point.

Last year's 9-7 SEC record was Florida's worst since the run of Tournament bids began. That record was actually enhanced by the departure of Christian Drejer since the Gators went 4-2 without the "Danish Pastry." It was a late-season run which salvaged both streaks and gave great cause for optimism for this campaign since the Gators would return every player from the late-season win the exception of Bonnell Colas.

But so far, this team has been hard to figure. The Gators dropped a home game to Miami due in large part of mediocre three point (6-21) and free throw (13-19) shooting. A week later another home game got away, this time against Louisville. The Cardinals are a fine team, but the difference was simply the visitors hitting 10 of 23 from long range while the Gators made just four of 22. The third loss, to FSU Sunday was the most stunning of all as the Gators were destroyed on the boards (44-20) by a team that had already lost to Florida International and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Certainly Florida was hurt by the absence of Matt Walsh, but it's not likely he would have made much of a dent in the rebound disparity.

Fast Start in SEC Cures All Ills

One great thing about getting into conference play, nothing that has already happened cannot be undone by excellence in SEC action. The Gators catch a break with no mid-week game this week, which dramatically increases the chances of Matt Walsh being ready for the conference opener. The early conference schedule has four of the first six league games in the O'Connell Center. The two road trips are to Auburn and Vanderbilt, neither of which is considered a contender this year. If Florida can grab four of those six, the Gators will be right where they need to be. But a slow start in the SEC would put a lot of pressure on Billy Donovan's squad when the toughest stretch of the league schedule hits in early February.

IT Starts With The Big Three

Florida's veterans David Lee, Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh each have scored over a thousand points in his college career. But those careers have seen just one NCAA Tournament win, two years ago over Sam Houston State in Tampa. All three are were highly recruited prep stars. All three are on the Naismith Award Watch List. All three were named to the SEC coaches' pre-season All Conference team. They have the ability to outplay anyone they go up against. No it is time for them to show a different kind of skill; the ability to bring along young players while still winning games.

Florida cannot afford to shorten its bench and go with veterans. This team must utilize the abilities of an very talented freshman call while minimizing the number of losses that must be absorbed during the process. This team is a tournament team personnel wise. We'll find out in the next game games whether or not they are character-wise.

Jim Bates Did The Dolphins Proud

While most interim coach situations tend to accomplish little, if anything, Jim Bates' seven-game tenure served the Miami Dolphins extremely well. The veteran NFL assistant, and one-time Gator defensive coordinator (1990) took over a 1-8 team seemingly headed for the junk heap and turned it into an enthusiastic, scrappy bunch that won three of its last seven games. And he did it basically with no quarterback (anyone else would want) or feature running back.

Nick Saban is almost certain to ask his former coaching partner --- same defensive staff in Cleveland --- to run Miami's defense next year. But here's hoping some NFL team, like the aforementioned Browns, realize that a career NFL assistant with personality, integrity and class might be a better fit in the long run. Maybe not a sexy hire, but a damn good choice.

Coaching Carousel Mixed For Gators

The coaching carousel generated some mixed results for former Gator assistants over the past year. Four former Gator assistants, Ron Zook, Buddy Teevins, John Thompson and Gary Darnell all got fired. But Zook and Bill Cubit got hired. Ironically Cubit was hired to replace Darnell at Western Michigan. What's ironic about that? They were on the same Gator staff in 1989 and Cubit served as Darnell's offensive coordinator at Western Michigan for three years before moving on. For the last two years, Cubit worked at Stanford for Teevins. And so it goes

Now will somebody wise up and give Dwayne Dixon a job coaching wide receivers? Please!?

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Have a great week.

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