The Florida Gators looked like a tired team Saturday when they lost to Vanderbilt, 83-70, in Nashville, and perhaps some of that run down look had something to do with the weight of rising expectations. When you are the NCAA champions and ranked number one in the country, expectations are always going to be high, especially with tournament time approaching and the Gators on a roll.
Probably the toughest challenge for Coach Billy Donovan and his team this year has been handling the pressure of high expectations. Donovan has said it several times and it’s true: there is no way this team will ever approach the level of expectation from Florida fans and from the basketball media nationwide. Since the Gators won it all last year, anything short of winning it all this year will be a disappointment in the eyes of so many fans, and especially a national media that still hasn’t come to grips with Florida’s sparkling run to the title last year. That Florida won it while Duke, UConn, Villanova or UCLA did not has never settled well in the national perception.
Dealing with the expectations of Florida fans has probably been the easiest to handle even if it is the most constant grind. Gator fans see this team on the court. They see the hustle. They see the effort. They see the teamwork and all the things that make this bunch special to watch. Two early season losses were disappointing for sure, but Florida fans handled those well, particularly since the Gators were somewhat short-handed at the time with sickness and injury. Since Florida rebounded to win 17 in a row, those two early season losses were fairly forgettable.
The national perception is another story altogether, and while it’s easy to say that doesn’t matter, really, it does. The national perception matters because the lack of respect the Gators have gotten all year long could be problematic if there’s another loss on the resume between now and Selection Sunday. Going into that game with Vanderbilt, it was assumed the Gators were a lock for a number one seed and an NCAA path of New Orleans and San Antonio prior to the Final Four. Now that Florida has lost again, that lock might be considered shaky, especially among the doubters, and there are many of those.
For those of you that think this is conspiracy theory talk and there is no such thing as a national lack of respect, then simply check the television schedules. When the Gators faced Vandy in Nashville, it was Florida’s fourth time on national television this year. Unranked Duke, which is 19-7 and is the most over-rated and over-hyped team in the nation, will be on national television tomorrow at Georgia Tech. By the time the ACC Tournament gets here, Team Vitale (that’s Duke if you don’t watch ESPN) will have been on national television 25 times. The next time the Gators will be on national TV is March 4 when Kentucky comes to town for Senior Day in Gainesville.
As long as the Gators were winning — and it’s hard to argue with the 17-game winning streak Florida brought to Nashville Saturday — the Gators regaining a measure of respect with the national media. Saturday’s loss to an unranked team may not settle well with the people that do the rankings, however. Losing at Rupp Arena to Kentucky (Gators won there) might be a forgivable offense. Losing to unranked Vanderbilt is a different story, particularly since the national perception of the Southeastern Conference is that it’s an inferior basketball league to the Big 10, ACC and Pac-10. If second-ranked Ohio State (Big 10) wins at Minnesota Saturday (the Buckeyes are prohibitive favorites) it’s safe to assume the Buckeyes will occupy the top spot when the next rankings come out.
Don’t be surprised for a second if the Gators drop as far as fifth. Third-ranked Wisconsin has only two losses and a win over Ohio State. Fourth-ranked UCLA was the number one team for a few weeks after Florida lost to Florida State and the Bruins got a nice win on the road at nineteenth-ranked Arizona Saturday. Even though North Carolina lost at home to Virginia Tech earlier in the week, it wouldn’t be shocking if the Tar Heels grabbed the fourth spot because of the romance between the national media and UNC that has been going on all season long.
Considering the Gators had to fight back at home from 18 points down to beat Alabama earlier in the week and they followed that up with a 13-point loss to Vandy in which they never looked like a team that had it all together, a fall of sorts should be expected. That might not be such a bad thing for the Gators even though they might need to win their final four SEC games before the league tournament to assure a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Losing is never fun but perhaps in Florida’s case it will turn out to be one of those Billy Donovan grab the team by the lapels and shake them moments, sort of like the one after the loss to Alabama last year in late February. The loss on the road in Tuscaloosa mirrored the loss to Vandy in so many ways. Vandy shot 57.6 percent from the field and hit nearly 50 percent of its three-pointers while the Gators took too many ill-advised shots and turned the ball over 20 times.
Following the loss at Alabama last year the Gators played the rest of the season like a team that was refreshed in every way, especially on defense. They made every possession tough for every team they faced from that point on, particularly from the three-point stripe. On offense the Gators made all the right passes and forced opponents to defend them rather than throwing up shots too quick into the shot clock. That formula took Florida to the national championship.
If Donovan can get this team’s attention after this loss the way he did last year after the game in Tuscaloosa, then the Gators should get themselves back on track and earn that number one seed. Of course, just being the top seed is no assurance of making the Final Four. Just ask UConn and Duke, both of whom were ambushed along the way last year. But, getting the team’s attention and getting them re-focused on what’s important is a good beginning. What happens in the NCAA Tournament is a crapshoot at best but there’s no way the Gators run the table in March if they don’t re-establish themselves in the next couple of weeks.
Considering how the Gators played in that first half against Alabama, this Vandy loss could be a sign that they’ve hit the wall and the weight of expectations has finally caught up with them. They certainly looked out of synch for a half against Alabama and they certainly didn’t look like they had the kind of energy you need to go against a team on a mission Saturday.
Vanderbilt was on a mission. Every team the Gators face is going to be on a mission, whether that’s in the remaining SEC games, the SEC Tournament or the NCAA Tournament. Until the NCAA Tournament gets here, knocking off the mighty Gators might salvage a season and catch the eye of the people that select for the big dance. Once the NCAA Tournament gets here, the only achievement that exceeds knocking off last year’s champ is to win it all.
On the other hand, the loss could serve as a much-needed late season wakeup call, forcing the Gators to re-energize and get back that competitive edge. It was a lot easier last year when they were the hunters, but now they are the hunted and more than ever before they have to understand that every opponent they face needs a signature win. With that kind of target on their backs the Gators have to ratchet up their own energy level from here on out and they have to be certain that they’ve got it for 40 minutes every time out. It is too close to tournament time and that number one seeding is too important to give it a lackluster effort the rest of the way.
If the Gators re-discover the energy and the focus, we’ll see that edge on the defensive end starting Wednesday night when they host South Carolina at the O-Dome. Watch the three-point stripe and how the Gators go about defending it. If they’re scrambling and in the face of South Carolina’s spot-up shooters, then you can bet Donovan has their attention again. If not, then we might be holding our breaths come Selection Sunday.