It’s not likely that many of you have seen the new prequel to the Wizard of Oz, since it just opened this past weekend, but surely almost everyone has seen the original. Or at least understands the basic working concepts. Why would the Gator basketball team be seeking out the services of the diminutive man behind the curtain? He has something they want. With the NCAA tournament tipping off in just two weeks, and the SEC tournament coming to the Gators’ door this Friday, he has something they need.
The Gator hoopsters certainly do not approach the gates of Oz seeking a brain. Their basketball I.Q. is as high as anyone’s in the country. Billy Donovan is not considered one of the elite teachers in the game for nothing. So the scarecrow is straight out. Neither do they journey through the narcoleptic poppy field looking for courage. The Gator men fight it out every game and though they have lapses in intensity, they suffer no lack of effort. They throw themselves on the hardwoods after every loose ball and stand in to take the body-slamming charge every time they can. They are no cowardly lions. Dorothy went to Oz hoping the Wizard could send her home, which is the last thing the Gators want to happen in March Madness.
That leaves only one. The Gators are the Tin Man. They are solid and strong and swing a deadly axe, but they are also rigid and unchanging. The same issues have caused every one of their losses. But the one over-riding element that either facilitates or trumps them all is that this team plays the last 10 minutes of close games, specifically on the road (since there haven’t really been any close games at home), as if they have a hollow place in their chest that echoes when knocked upon. They are standing at the gates of Oz, stammering through stories of their Auntie Em because they desperately need a heart.
I Think He said “Oil Can”
There have been many attempts to diagnose the problems that have led to the Gators’ six losses this year, but most of them only tell part of the story. Never mind that the 2006 national championship-winning Gators also lost six games and the 2007 national championship-winning Gators lost five. Six losses against one of the toughest schedules in the nation must be explained. Never mind that this year’s squad finished the regular season winning three of their last five, which was better than the national title winners in 2006 and 2007 (both losing three of their last five). Never mind that both teams that brought the March Madness championship to Gainesville lost consecutive games once, while the ’06 team also had a 3-game losing streak. This year’s group has never suffered consecutive losses. Never mind that the 2013 Gators won the outright SEC title, which was not accomplished by the 2006 national title squad (they finished third), nor by the 1994 Final four Gator team (they finished tied for second) or even the 2000 Gator edition that went to the national championship game (they shared the title with Kentucky, LSU and Tennessee). Forget it all. Games were lost and there must be an explanation.
The real troubles began when Will Yeguete was lost for seven games, of which Florida lost three. In the entire rest of the season – 23 games – the Gators also lost three. And one of those losses was the first game in which Yeguete came close to playing his average minutes per game, and he and the team were still in process of adjusting to his return. And the schedule in those 23 games was significantly tougher than the seven opponents they faced in Yeguete’s absence. The Gators also missed Mike Frazier for an entire game and two other Gators played gimpy during the stretch. This is certainly a huge part of the problem. But it’s not what drives one down the Yellow Brick Road.
Kenny Boynton is struggling to get his shot back. Scottie Wilbekin’s offense has dropped off the table. Patric Young has a hard time scoring. Eric Murphy plays soft at times. Mike Rosario’s focus takes leaves of absence. The Mike Frazier three-point machine does not have enough complementary game. Nobody else on the bench contributes. Billy does not have answers for the last possession. All the complaints that have been filed have merit to varying degrees, but none differ much from the routine issues every team in the nation has every year.
The problem is that when this team is on the road, when they have a second half lead or tie (and with one exception, this describes all their losses) and they need someone – anyone – to step up and make a play, when they need to bring their game to the next level as a team, when they need to get tough and play tough, they don’t. The bottom line is this: every time the Gators are in a one- or two-possession game at the end, they have lost. Their 24 wins have carried an average winning margin of 25 points. The closest of those was 12 points – a four-possession game. The reason this team never lost at home is that they never had a close game at home. The average margin of victory in the O’Dome was 26 points and the closest finish was a margin of a dozen points. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.
Conversely, their six losses have come by margins of 1, 3, 4, 6, 6 and 11 points. They led or were tied in the second half of five of them. They led Arizona by eleven in both halves; led Kansas State by 3 and tied in the second half; led Missouri by 11 in the first half and 13 in the second; led Tennessee by 8 in the first and 2 in the second; and led the Wildcats by 5 in the first and 7 in the second. But it goes beyond simply being in position to win and blowing it. They continuously blew their cool. They reached for their heart and came up with air.
So Many Flying Monkeys
The melting down in the clutch in close road games has been glaring. After letting most an 11-point lead evaporate at Arizona, the Gators still clung to a 6-point lead with 5:27 left on the clock. Time to dig deep in the chest and find that beating orb. Over those final five minutes and change, the Gators committed five turnovers among four players (two of them failing to complete an in-bounds pass), committed four fouls, missed two 3-pointers, a 2-pointer and a free throw, and made one 3-point basket. Somehow they still had the lead with seven seconds left, but surrendered a winning layup.
Against Missouri, after Florida let most of a 13-point second half lead melt away (What a world! What a world!), they still held a 4-point edge with 3:15 remaining. They proceeded to commit two fouls and a turnover while bricking 1 two-pointer and four 3-point attempts and making just one 3-point basket.
After taking the lead against Tennessee three minutes into the second half, the Gators only committed one turnover, but they missed 17 of 28 shots and committed twelve fouls. And finally, against Kentucky in the season finale, the Gators took a 7-point lead with 7:12 to go. With a young and fragile Wildcat team clinging to their season’s last lifeline, when just one more Gator bucket would cause them to fold up their tents and go home, Florida managed five turnovers, seven fouls and eleven missed shots (six of them at virtually point-blank range), but could not muster a single made basket.
And of course none of those comeback losses could have occurred if the defensive side of the ball did not also recede like the feet of the Wicked Witch of the East curling up under Dorothy’s newly dropped house. At some point in all of those games, in every loss except the Arkansas loss (which was just one of those games every team has every year where they just never got off the bus) the team merely needed someone, anyone, to make a play. Make a basket. Make a defensive stop or turnover. Keep from making a bunch of mental mistakes with errant passes or careless fouls. They just needed the team to play with heart in the clutch.
Does it Tick?
So the Gators find themselves in the halls of the great Oz, Billy Donovan has no doubt pulled back the curtain and let them all see what is missing, and they are putting in their order.
One heart please.
And as the Wizard said to the Tin Man, there are plenty of teams out there who win big games, road games even, in the clutch with the game on the line in the final seconds. And they don’t have any more heart than the Gators have. But what they have – and what this team is lacking – is a testimonial. Something to serve as evidence of the blood-pumping, clutch-thumping organ inside this team. That documentation could very well come in the form of winning the SEC tournament. Far better would be to win the tourney final in a close game that is decided in the final seconds in a one-possession game. That would offer proof to this team, and maybe even the fans, that it is still warm blood that flows through this squad. That could be just the kick this team needs to get that missing gear of intensity when the game is on the line and heroes are made. That could propel the Gators to be the team that can win the close games necessary to deliver the red slippers to Gainesville. The great and powerful Oz reminded the Tin Man that a heart is not judged by how much you love, but how much you are loved by others. Find the heart to win the last six games of the season and bring the crystal ball back to the farm, and this team will be loved forever by all in Gator Nation. And we will always remember that Kenny Boynton was there, and Patric Young was there, and Erik Murphy and Mike Rosario and Scottie Wilbekin…and Casey Prather and Will Yeguete and Mike Frazier were there too. And winning it all wasn’t just an early-season dream.
And they might just find that they had that heart all along.