Sending out an SOS

The NCAA tournament selection committee sent a very clear message with their at large picks this year - strength of schedule is a high priority for determining which teams get selected for the final spots in the event.

Arizona State had the 77th ranked schedule overall, and the 296th out of conference. They're on the outside looking in while an Arizona team with a worse record which the Sun Devils beat twice made the event. The reason why is Arizona's second ranked (and fifth out-of-conference) schedule. Now the question for Billy Donovan and his staff is whether they were paying attention.

The final numbers are in on Florida's schedule, and what looked to be a collection of crappy teams sprinkled with a couple of tournament caliber squads in non conference play actually turned out to be even less than that. Ohio State was certainly expected to be a tournament team, and FSU looked to have a good chance with an experienced group of talent returning. Both wound up in the NIT. Rutgers was supposed to be an improving team from the Big East - they turned out to have the worst record in the conference.

Florida's only opponent from outside the SEC to reach the NCAAs was Temple. Even with 21 wins the Atlantic 10 tournament champions are a 12 seed, meaning they likely would have missed the field without winning the event. For the entire year, Florida's strength of schedule is 87th - worse than everyone in the SEC except for Auburn. No one else in the SEC East's SOS was worse than Vanderbilt's at 41. Florida's non-conference schedule was an embarrassingly bad 271 out of 341 teams in Division I.

With a remarkably young team heading into this season, no one can reasonably argue Florida should have been playing the toughest possible non-conference competition. There's a difference between avoiding overburdening a team and not challenging them at all, though, and too often Florida's scheduling errs on the side of the latter. Last season, with a national championship team returning all five starters, Florida's non-conference strength of schedule was 159. If Billy Donovan's staff wasn't willing to put together a schedule to test that team a little more, when will they ever feel it's safe?

Some might look at the fact last year's Gators were the number one seed and won it all again despite the uninspiring schedule and conclude the approach taken must have been the correct one. Think about it, though. Would that team have really been beaten up with a few higher quality non conference games? Most of the country barely saw the defending champs the first two months of the season, because they weren't playing anyone appealing enough for national TV to show the game.

The atmosphere for the December 2006 home game against Ohio State was electric in part because it's so rare Florida fans ever get to see a high quality opponent outside the SEC. With booster and ticket prices the highest ever, home crowds deserve more of those moments and fewer Tennessee Techs and North Carolina Centrals. Even had Florida played some mid-level teams and lost this season, it might have helped develop the mental toughness this year's squad clearly lacked down the stretch. Kentucky suffered multiple home losses to teams that were NIT caliber squads like Houston and UAB, but they were able to eventually address their problems and make the tournament.

Florida will be playing in a much better preseason tournament than they did in 2007 next season, which is a good start. It's not enough by itself, though, and there's no reason UF can't do better if they choose to. Southern Cal basketball coach Tim Floyd mentioned at the Pac-10 tournament last week that he had called Florida to try and arrange a series for next year between the two schools. To avoid being in the position they put themselves in this year if they're on the edge of the 2009 tournament field, UF basketball needs to start returning those kind of phone calls.

The Heath Cline Show airs daily from 11-1 on Gainesville's Star 99.5 FM

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