Assessing Gators After Nine Games

Billy Donovan's 13th Gator basketball team has six games remaining before SEC play begins in January 10, and we've learned quite a bit about this year's squad. Florida has won seven of nine games with the losses coming to Syracuse and Florida State by a total of eight points. Neither loss should be all that damaging since those teams boast a combined record of 16-1 as of December 11.

The Gators have had to deal with one major change from last year; that being the absence of big man Marreese Speights. The 6-11 center took with him the majority of Florida's ability to score points in the paint with their half court offense and that hurts the Gators against teams with length (like FSU). Alex Tyus has been perhaps Florida's most improved player, but he can't score with his back to the basket like Speights could.

Another issue the Gators have had to deal with has been a short bench. That was not supposed to happen with Florida adding its second straight five-man recruiting class, but it has. Jai Lucas quit and decided to transfer and Adam Allen has been injured, removing two guys who got valuable experience last season. They played in every game last year, with Lucas averaging 30 minutes a night and Allen another 10 off the bench. Lucas scored 8.5 points a game and was Florida's most accurate (.435) three-point shooter. Allen added four a night and was the next best shot (.421) from long range.

Add to that the inability of 6-10 freshman Eloy Vargas to contribute and you have a 12-man rotation reduced to nine. The Gators expect to get Allen back on or near the first of the year, but when Vargas may be ready is less predictable.

On the positive side Tyus (13.2/6.0) has been outstanding while Dan Werner (11.6/5.0) has been steady. One thing that would really help this team would be getting consistency out of Walter Hodge (8.0). Florida's lone senior had averaged just 4.3 points in the previous six games before scoring a career-high matching 19 against Florida Gulf Coast. Another thing to watch will be the development of freshman Ray Shipman (4.3/2.9) who has been pretty productive for a guy playing just 13 minutes a game. He is probably Florida's best man-to-man defender.

Keys to Making the NCAA Tournament

Florida's nine-year run of NCAA Tournament appearances ended last year when a 21-11 record and 8-8 SEC mark was deemed just shy of what was needed for the big dance. Using that as a barometer here is what it will take for the Gators to be part of March Madness.

Win out before SEC ----- North Carolina State (Jan 3) is the best team left on Florida's pre-conference slate and looms as a hugely important game for Donovan's Gators. Florida needs to win the games between now and then and dispose of the Wolfpack. That would let the Gators enter the SEC schedule with a 13-2 record.

Post a winning SEC record ----- The Gators need to be on the plus side of the ledger when SEC play is finished. They were well on their way to doing that last year when they started out 5-1 in the league. The Gators will still in good shape after a win at Georgia left them at 8-5 with three games to go. However Florida ended the year with three straight losses followed by a first round exit in the SEC Tournament and had to settle for the NIT. Ideally the Gators could go 10-6, but nine wins should be enough.

Root for Rivals ----- This part may hurt, but the Gators need to have Florida State earn its first NCAA appearance in years. Syracuse staying ranked most of the year would also be a plus. Shoot, look at every team on Florida's pre-conference schedule. You now have a legit rooting interest in their success. Plus, you might as well pull for every SEC team between now and the start of conference play.

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