Before you reach for the panic button; before you shake your head and think the Florida Gators are teetering on the verge of tanking at the end of the season; take a moment and put everything in proper perspective. Yes, the Gators have gone through a little bit of a slump in the last few games, but isn’t that what most teams do when they’re so far out in front of the pack?
Think about it for a second. The Gators clinched the Southeastern Conference championship last Wednesday with three games remaining on the regular season schedule. When they beat South Carolina at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center, they still had nearly 20 percent of the SEC season remaining which is phenomenal. Coach Billy Donovan admitted last Wednesday night that he had never been part of a team that won its league with three games remaining in the conference schedule.
Now let’s put it in perspective. If this is major league baseball where they play a 162-game regular schedule, this is like clinching the pennant with 30 games remaining to be played. Do you think for a second the Yankees or Red Sox clinched with 30 games to go that they would play the rest of the way with the same kind of intensity that got them such a big lead in the first place?
Well, that’s similar to what the Gators have done. Donovan’s team bulldozed its way to a 12-1 record in their first 13 games of the SEC schedule to earn their first outright SEC championship since 1989. Even with the loss they suffered to LSU in Baton Rouge Saturday, they still have a three-game lead on their closest competitor in the SEC. The Gators could drop tonight’s game with Tennessee in Knoxville and Sunday’s home game with Kentucky and still be the number one seed in the SEC Tournament. That is domination.
The Gators know where they’ll be a week from Friday. They’ll be playing their first game in the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Atlanta. They are the only team assured of a first round bye at this point. It is possible that as many as give teams could tie for second in the SEC with 9-7 records which means head to head matchups, intra-division play and coin flips could be involved on Sunday to decide which other three teams will get to take the first day of the SEC Tournament off next Thursday. What that equates to is a week of anxiety and chaos in the league. No chaos for the Gators, however. They’ve earned their top billing and they can watch while everyone else dukes it out.
It’s a testament of how focused and how intense the Gators have played that they are in this position, therefore it’s not a time to panic just because Florida lost its last two road games in conference play. The Gators are still 12-2 in the SEC and 25-4 overall. They are still the odds-on favorite to win the SEC Tournament and they are still on track to merit a number one seeding in the NCAA Tournament.
Consider also Saturday’s loss at LSU. The Gators by ten points Saturday yet Florida could have just as easily won the game. The Gators went a highly uncharacteristic 2-17 from the three-point line. If they go 5-17, which is still bad shooting, they’re down by one and playing for a win. They went 12-22 from the foul line so with the combination of three more threes and their normal 68 percent from the foul line, Florida wins the game.
Now, did Florida play poorly against LSU? Absolutely. But there is blowout poor and then there is what Florida played. The Gators were way off their game, but in spite of poor rebounding, poor defense and poor shooting, they were three three-pointers out of 17 launches behind the arc and a couple of free throws away from a win. Trade in miserable shooting for simply abysmal and Florida wins. Also, a bad team gets blown out when it’s on the road and the opponent comes out firing like LSU did. LSU hit 10 of its first 12 shots and still, the Gators were realistically in the game until there was a minute left. Only a very good team can play as badly as the Gators played and still have a chance to win.
But is there reason for concern? Absolutely.
Lee Humphrey has hit only nine of his last 32 three-pointers. Taurean Green has hit only three of his last 16 from three-ball land. Joakim Noah has had a dunk blocked in each of the last three games. In the two road losses, the Gators gave up better than 50 percent from the field. In each of the last three games the Gators have had more turnovers than assists.
Those are all reasons for concern but they aren’t necessarily an indicator that the Gators are on a downward slide.
Humphrey is a shooter. Shooters go on binges when they can’t miss and then they hit the skids. Humphrey went through a similar skid last year and then he righted himself in the SEC Tournament. Green slumped late last year and then turned it on well enough to win the MVP trophy in the SEC Tournament. Noah got cranked up with two games left in the regular season last year and went on to be the most dominating player in the NCAA Tournament. These guys are veterans. You have to expect they’ll turn it around.
The defense? That’s the greater cause for concern. When the Gators are playing great defense, they are as good as anybody in the country. When they play defense like they did against Vandy and LSU, they can be beaten by anybody in the country. The margin for error is minute when the defense doesn’t show.
“If you look at the last three or four games, teams are shooting 38-39 percent from us from the three-point line,” said Donovan at the Monday media function. “We were the team in the SEC that was holding teams to probably a 27-28 percent. I think last year in the post-season play, our shooting percentages were down from what they were in the year, but what also happened it we were able to get back and guard and defend very well and we’re not playing the type of defense we need to.”
There are games when teams don’t shoot well and there are entire stretches in a season when teams don’t shoot well. You expect that to happen over the course of a season, particularly one in which the conference is as tough top to bottom as the SEC. The one place there cannot be a letdown is on the defensive end and that’s where the Gators must right the ship.
The place to start is the last two regular season games. Playing at Tennessee is no picnic, especially with Chris Lofton healthy again and feeling it from the three-point stripe. Defending him will be no easy task because Chris Lofton hits more contested three-pointers than anybody in the country. Kentucky may have six SEC losses but Big Blue is still Big Blue and the Wildcats won’t be intimidated by the O’Connell Center Sunday.
The best way for the Gators to break out of this mini-slump they’re in is to do the exact same thing they did last year. After losing to Alabama on the road — a game in which the Tide shot over 50 percent — the Gators began playing defense with a renewed passion and effort. It was the defense that carried the Gators those last 11 games and that is precisely why they won the NCAA championship.
Starting tonight at Knoxville, if the Gators run the table they will play 11 more games. We’ve seen what they can do when they play 11 games as hard and tough as they can on the defensive end of the floor. If the Gators shut down the Vols in Knoxville tonight, it might be just the sign panicky fans are looking for that the mini-slump is about to end and the Gators are ready to take care of business again.