Florida's 80-76 setback in front of a mobbed Thompson-Boling arena crowd put an end to the longest winning streak in school history. It also must have set a record for the shortest time a team has enjoyed the status of being the nation's lone unbeaten. There are two pedestals in college sports, being #1 and being the only undefeated team. Florida has reached each, but their stay has been painfully short every time.
Back in 2003 when Florida received the #1 ranking in both polls on February 3rd, they got to enjoy it about 30 hours before falling at Kentucky by 15 points. That December, the Gators moved up to #1 on the 8th. It took two days before they lost to Maryland in the O'Dome.
As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, being #2 had served Florida rather well, but this marks the third time in four years the Gators reached a "pedestal" and each time they lost the next time out.
Nothing happened Saturday night that we hadn't seen coming. Florida lost in large part due to three key areas of weakness that had been evident in other games. The problem up in Rocky Top is that all three came about in the same contest and in the final minute Florida made one bad pass and missed one open shot. Still, lets examine the areas of concern with this team.
- Turnovers: Florida has not taken care of the ball as well as they've needed to in their toughest games this season. Florida's 19 turnovers Saturday night result in a minus-6 differential against Tennessee. Taurean Green "led" the way with six of them, matching the most he's had in any game. Corey Brewer's throwaway late in the game led to the Vols winning basket being as easy a score as they had all night. As Archie Bell and the Drells sang years ago, "it's time to tighten' up!"
- Rebounding: The Gators were out-rebounded by both Wake Forest and Syracuse while winning the "Coaches versus Cancer" tournament. Florida also came up short on the boards in their SEC wins against Mississippi St. and Auburn. The Gators just barely (+3) won rebounding battles with Georgia, FSU and Miami. A smaller Tennessee team grabbed 40 rebounds to the Gators' 35 Saturday night, and the Vols grabbed NINE offensive boards in the second half alone. Florida is a collective minus-13 on the glass in the eight biggest games they've played. A team with a front court like the Gators should not let that happen.
- Shot Distribution: Taurean Green took 15 shots against Tennessee, continuing a trend that sees the point guard shoot more frequently in the biggest games. Other than the FSU game, Green has been shooting a lot (13 FGA/g.) against Florida's top opponents. Green is averaging 19.8 pts. Against SEC teams, just 12.2 against others. While it is reasonable to expect him to do more when Florida faces better competition, the distribution has to be better. It's not selfishness. It's impatience.
Positives Still Overwhelming
Despite that assessment of Florida's shortcomings the Gators can take a lot of positives out of their trip to the Smokies. Corey Brewer showed tremendous character and toughness in coming back from rolling his ankle to play 15 minutes in the second half. Brewer finished with 20 points and eight rebounds and showed what non-verbal leadership is all about.
Florida handled a huge, raucous crowd and played a good Tennessee team right down to the wire. Remember the Vols were considered huge underachievers last year. This is a very talented, capable team that has responded positively to the energy of new coach Bruce Pearl. There aren't many backcourts better than C.J. Watson and Chris Lofton and Andre Patterson might be the best non-starter in the SEC. The Vols did not get to 12-3 by accident. They did not win at Texas in a fluke. This team will be an NCAA contender all year and will be tough to beat… especially for teams that try to play them from the perimeter.
Since when is 17-1, 3-1 a bad thing? This Gator team has still exceeded all expectations. They are still going to be very hard to beat game in and game out.
Now they have to bounce back. Chemistry is easy to see when you are winning, racing up the floor for dunk after dunk. But team chemistry is only truly tested through adversity. Next up, the Gators play at South Carolina. The Gamecocks are coming off a win at Vanderbilt last Wednesday and came within an incredible shot by Rajon Rondo of beating Kentucky in Rupp Arena three days later.
This game looked like it might be pretty easy a week ago. Now it looms as a major test of Florida's resolve and resiliency.
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