Solid Season Overall

This is not the campaign most of you wanted to see out of the Gator basketball team, nor is it what Billy Donovan and his players were hoping for. Still, Florida ended up a good regular season with a chance to make this year a much more successful one than last.

The Gators posted a 22-9 record on the regular season, one game better than what they managed a year ago. The Gators also had one more win in the SEC (9) than last season and can claim that all but one of its losses came at the hands of teams that are headed to post-season play. They did that despite fielding one of the youngest teams in the country with just one senior and one junior among the 11 guys eligible to play.

Florida has overcome losing Marreese Speights to the NBA and Jai Lucas to the whims of his father to take another step in the transition from NCAA Champ to returning to contending status. The fact that they were tied for the SEC East lead with four games to go shows how close they are to earning another trophy of some sort in the near future.

Tampa Will Tell

A year ago the Gators headed to the SEC Tournament with a 21-10 record needing at least one win and maybe two to earn a spot in the NCAA field of 65. Instead of making a run at the Big Dance the Gators made their fans run to the exits with a hideous first half performance that took them out of the tournament in a flash.

Now they head to a friendlier venue, Tampa, needing at least one win and maybe two again. This time at least Florida has the momentum of a solid, gritty "must" win over Kentucky. This time they appear to understand that the name on the uniform will not overcome the mistakes and shortcomings of the people wearing said jersey.

Florida gets Arkansas in the late night (9:45pm) game Thursday night in the St. Pete Times Forum. There's no question that they must win that game or it's back to the NIT. It gets interesting and debatable after that, and we'll examine the case for and against each SEC team in a day or two.

Three Games Still Haunt

While the Gators finished up the regular season with a big win, there's no question that they should already have punched their ticket for the NCAA. The Gators still control their own destiny, but they could have made life a lot easier for themselves in these key outings.

January 21 @ South Carolina ----- The Gamecocks are a notch ahead of Florida in the SEC pecking order and this game is the reason why. The Gators let a seven point lead disappear in the final 100 seconds and lost 70-69. Florida had two turnovers down the stretch, twice missed the front end of one-and-one free throw opportunities and fell asleep at the switch allowing Carolina to score a run out basket at the buzzer to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. Walking out of the arena that night you just knew that was a loss which could cost the Gators dearly at the end of the year.

February 10 @ Kentucky ----- An eerily similar scenario played out in Rupp Arena three weeks later, though it was not as painful. The Gators led Kentucky by six points (62-56) with 3:19 to play, but the Wildcats outscored the Gators 12-3 the rest of the way. Once again Florida failed at the free throw line clanging six of their last seven freebies. Jodie Meeks' acrobatic "3" with five seconds to play capped the comeback.

February 14 @ Georgia ----- This wasn't a game that got away in the final minutes. Instead it was one that got away from the very first minute. Georgia was winless in the SEC and playing under an interim coach. Florida was 6-3 and very much in the SEC race. Yet it was the Bulldogs racing out to a 21-8 advantage after just four-and-a-half minutes when Terrence Woodbury made all seven of his first half shots, five of them from behind the arc and the Gators were playing uphill the entire afternoon. To its credit, Florida rallied to take the lead and was up 84-82 with 5:56 to play but scored only two points the rest of the way.

I suppose you could add the loss at FSU to the list, seeing how the Gators did lead that one 49-43 with six minutes to play, but the Seminoles are the best team in this category and thus perhaps the least painful to look back on. If the Gators take care of business in Tampa none of this will matter. But if they end up being one of the last teams eliminated from the NCAA field, any of these three games would have made the difference.

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