Gators' Backs to the Wall

All along we've been saying the Gator basketball team needs to take 23 wins to the SEC Tournament to feel assured of an NCAA Tournament bid. After losses to LSU and Tennessee, the Gators have used up their margin for error. Unless they sweep this week, the Gators will need a big showing in Tampa or suffer a return to the NIT.

This season has almost mirrored last season all along the way, and unfortunately for the Gators that continued this past week. Last year the Gators were 21-7, 8-5 SEC with three games to go and proceeded to lose three in a row. This Gator team entered the Tennessee game with exactly the same mark and produced the same outcome.

As a result Florida faces a road trip to Starkville and home season finale against Kentucky and has to view each game as a "must" win.

Weaknesses Won't Go Away

The reason this team has dropped four of its last six games is not a mystery. Florida simply has not been able to improve/eliminate its weaknesses. Looking at SEC games only, the Gators are 11th in FG defense and ninth in three-point FG defense. They are also ninth in rebounding margin and 10th in blocked shots. Those are devastating numbers and are proving to be too difficult for Florida's excellent offensive talent to overcome.

Florida's entire bench is freshmen and with that comes the unpredictability that can drive people to drink. Case in point, the last four games for Kenny Kadji, a 6-10 rookie who I think will be a major factor next season. In Florida's wins over Alabama and Vanderbilt, Kadji scored 15 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked six shots in 30 minutes. That's tremendous play from any backup big man, especially a freshman. However in the losses to Tennessee and LSU, Kadji totaled three points and seven boards in 27 minutes of action.

I'm not saying Kadji is the problem, but his play over the last four games underscores the inconsistency that has plagued this team all year long. Florida's veterans are just as inconsistent. In those same four games Dan Werner has scored 6, 11, 3 and 10 points. Walter Hodge in those same games scored 9, 12, 16 and 4.

Key to the Stretch Run

Some have called for Florida to bench their most experienced players and start preparing for 2010. That makes no sense at all. This team can win in Starkville. They can beat Kentucky. They can capitalize on the home crowd advantage to post a win or more in the SEC Tournament. They have to go for it.

To me the guy who makes the biggest impact on whether or not the Gators play well is Hodge. Florida is much more difficult to defend when the senior guard is active, plus he is a more capable defender than diminutive freshman Erving Walker.

A second key has to be a commitment to compete on defense not matter what. If that means extending the zone further out and forcing teams to score inside, then that's a price that has to be paid. If it means playing more man-to-man and risking foul trouble then try that. Florida simply has to make it tougher for teams to score than it was for LSU and Tennessee last week.

Get angry. Florida's players seemed sad after the Tennessee loss in the O'Dome, but it's time for someone on this team to stand up and scream the line made famous by actor Peter Finch in the 1976 movie "Network":

"I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any more."

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