VETTEL: Jacksonville Is In Jeopardy

Florida's goals for this season certainly included winning 20 games, the SEC East and the SEC Championship, but I suspect the number one goal of all was to earn the right to play the first rounds of the NCAA Tournament close to home in Jacksonville. All of those goals took a hit with the loss to South Carolina Wednesday night.

The NCAA says the target for placing schools as close to home as they can is a top-three national seeding, but they really have looked all the way #6 seeds in that process. To be reasonably certain of staying home, the Gators probably need to be no less than a four-seed. They entered the South Carolina game with a #14 ranking in the RPI, which equates to a four-seed. Those numbers will go up after losing to an 11-10 Gamecocks squad. Florida can minimize the damage with a win over LSU on Saturday, but consecutive losses would do significant damage to the hopes of playing in Jax.

Strength of Schedule Hurting

The reason the Gators are in this position is a very weak strength of schedule ranking. Florida's best wins, beating Wake Forest and Syracuse, are diminished by both teams' struggles since. The wins over FSU and Miami look pretty good, but some of the hideous non-conference opponents are dragging the overall ranking down.

And there's not much that can be done about it. LSU and Tennessee will help the ranking a bit and the others won't hurt, but most of the remaining games will have the Gators playing a lower ranked team. Thus every loss from this point forward will be magnified in terms of the impact on Florida's NCAA opportunities.

No Gimmies Ahead

While there are no highly ranked opponents left on the schedule, there are no automatic wins either. After the LSU game --- which should be a great one --- the Gators travel to Vanderbilt and Arkansas. Tennessee at home follows and then it's off to Alabama, back home for Georgia and a season-ending trip to Rupp Arena.

Realistically a 5-2 record in that stretch is about as good as Florida could hope for. Sure, they could do better, but 3-4 or 4-3 is not out of the question. My guess is Florida needs at least four more wins to have a good shot at playing in Jacksonville. Anything above that should be a lock.

Gators Can't Go Small

Calling the South Carolina game I kept thinking Florida could really have used Derwin Kitchen in this one. The Gators lack length (aside from Corey Brewer) on the perimeter and that was exploited by the Gamecocks. The Gators also could have used some minutes with a "small" lineup to try and match up better, but Florida's backcourt depth consists of two freshmen and walk-ons. Because of that, Florida spent much of the game having one of their front court men chasing a swing man around in circles. The predictable end result was a lot of open "threes" for Tarence Kinsey, Tre Kelley and Bryce Sheldon.

Bryce Sheldon. A reserve guard averaging 3.5 points a game lights up the O'Dome for 14 including four of six from long range. What is it about South Carolina that some guy you never heard of shows up to make Florida's life miserable? Last year it was little-used Dwayne Day pumping in 14 in the second half to spearhead a Gamecocks rally. And don't forget the scrubeenie Travis Kraft who chose Florida for his first basket of the year to win a game at the buzzer 2001.

It All Starts With #11

As the Gators go forward one thing is clear; this team will go as far as Taurean Green takes it. When the sophomore point guard plays at a high level, this team can beat anyone (except maybe Connecticut). But when he struggles with his shooting and/or decision making, the Gators become very vulnerable. When Green isn't going well, Lee Humphrey doesn't get open looks. When he isn't on top of his game, the big guys don't get the ball in very good scoring position. That's a lot to put on a sophomore in his first year as a starter, but that's the way it is.

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