You’ve heard of being in The Zone. It’s when everything is going right, you find the sweet spot in every movement you make, everything slows down, every shot drops and the impossible comes easy. We’ve seen so many Gator teams of the past thrive in The Zone. Championship teams and not-so-championship teams. We’ve seen this year’s team play in The Zone for stretches this year. But it isn’t in The Zone right now. This team is somewhere much more important.
It’s in The Mode.
The Mode is perhaps a slightly less known term than The Zone. In that I just made it up. But it is not a new thing. It’s been around as long as the NCAA tournament has existed, and probably well before that. So, welcome Gators one and all to The Mode: the “survive and advance” mode.
Ever since Florida entered the Missouri game, they have been in The Mode. Conference season is a grind and a treacherous trail of pitfalls and pain. It doesn’t matter if it is the strongest conference in the nation or the weakest: conference play in basketball is a gauntlet. And very few over the years ever survive unscathed.
Take this year for example. Look around. The AAC? Louisville and Cincinnati sit atop the conference that is a relative pushover, but both have two losses. Nobody in the mighty ACC is undefeated, and the elite teams Syracuse, Duke and North Carolina – with tem conference losses between them – aren’t even in first place. The Big 12? Nope, Kansas leads with two losses (and one of their six overall losses was a thumping by Florida). The Big East has no teams with less than a deuce in the loss column, too. Michigan leads the Big 10 with three league losses. Arizona, third-ranked in the nation, leads the Pac 12 with two losses. And then there is Florida, the only team in a major conference that remains unbeaten on league play. It is a feat. It has only been done once by a Big Six conference team since 2003. It is not as rare as a Bigfoot sighting, but maybe akin to seeing a fresh set of Bigfoot tracks.
So getting 15 games into the SEC season without a blemish is nothing short of beating the grind. And to do that, even the best team has to abandon the idea that comfortable victory margins are the mark of a great team. They must adopt the survive-and-advance mindset. Those who don’t will not survive. When tournament play begins, that is a fatal drawback. And the experience this team is earning in The Mode is building a foundation for surviving game to game, weekend to weekend, after the regular season ends.
Consider Syracuse. They rolled through their first twenty games without a loss and without even a serious challenge. A trio of games were as close as five points, but were merely cosmetic finishes. Then came the first game against Duke. A two-point overtime squeaker for the Orange. That served as the pivot point for their season much like the Missouri game did for Florida. The teams start to feel the fatigue and dings of the season drag on them, they both have distinguished themselves as teams to beat, and survival mode is in effect. After a couple of breathers, ‘Cuse has played five-straight grinders, pure survive-and-advance contests. They were the benefactors of near miracles to sneak by Pitt and North Carolina State, and then they failed to answer the call and lost to Boston College and Duke, before hanging on for dear life to beat Maryland. Five teams all across the spectrum of the ACC standings. Not too different from Florida, except that Florida has won every round. They have not blinked. They have not faltered.
The Team That Will Not Be Beaten …
…cannot be beaten. That is the personality of this Gator team right now. The undefeated conference slate, the survive-and-advance complexion of the last seven games, can be summed up with a single aspect of their play: performance in the last five minutes of the game.
Going into the Vanderbilt game, Florida had played ten games in their last 18 in which the Gators found themselves in a single-digit game with five minutes left in the game. In those five games, the Gators averaged a lead of just three points at the five minute mark. By the end of those games, the Gators’ average lead doubled to six points. In only three of those ten games did their lead diminish in the last five minutes (Memphis -4, Alabama -1 and Mississippi State -2). In four of those games, they increased their point differential in the last five minutes by six to eight points. These are small numbers but staggering in their impact when you consider how difficult and how rarely any team maintains that sort of consistency for ten-straight single-digit games.
The Vanderbilt game went against this trend and was the biggest decrease in point differential for the Gators in the last 11 games that were single digit games at the five minute mark. But this too demonstrated additional aspects of the Gator indomitability this year. For the first time in months, the Gators bricked most of their free throws in the closing minutes in a close game. They had a few offensive possessions atypically fall apart. The opposition hit some wild but on-target shots in the clutch with Gators all over them. But still this team did not blink. And it did not stop suffocating the opposition with defense. And once again when the standard stuff is not working well enough, someone steps up and fills the gap. This time it was Dorian Finney-Smith, struggling mightily of late with his shot, found his stroke from beyond the arc, dropping in a desperately needed kill shot from downtown with 33 seconds to go, ball game. Except for the bricked free throw with ten seconds remaining, leaving the door cracked open for overtime with a buzzer-beating three. But the Gators held on defense. As they have done so often it has become expected.
Is it Too Much?
The question was bound to be asked. And it has been asked a number of times on the forums and around the water coolers: would it be beneficial for Florida to get a loss out of the way before the post-season? The logic being that no team is going to go undefeated from the second of December all the way through the title game. Nobody is going to win 32 in a row. Another aspect is that any team that wins that many in a row needs a loss to get re-focused and not allow them to get too full of themselves.
However I think the whole “benefit to losing” concept is misunderstood in this context. There is no prospective benefit to losing, ever. Only retrospective. I believe people are making the very natural mistake of confusing a benefit of losing with is a *silver lining* that can be found in losing. Such a silver lining could be that your team gets a weakness exposed that they can then correct before the tourney. Or, as mentioned, that they are forced to stop believing how good the media say they are, which may prevent them from slacking off in their preparation.
Teaching moments can be found in losing. But the truth is that losing is only needed as a teaching opportunity for teams that are distracted or immature or riding too high off their own hype and press clippings. The great coaches and great teams, the mature teams, can teach and absorb everything they need without having to lose to get their attention. And Billy Donovan is a great coach. And this is a great team, a mature team.
And truthfully, what hype have they been given upon which to become drunk with arrogance or complacency? They are the least talked-about top 10 team in the nation, despite now being ranked #1. Two-thirds of the GameDay crew picked them on the air to lose at Kentucky and the third pundit said they would win ONLY because of seniority. Not because they were better. This team has a great “lost game” benefit without ever having to lose a game: the “No Respect” card. They aren’t being ignored by the media by any stretch, but they are not being given any modicum of the respect and attention they’ve earned this year. Remember the daily whirlwind of hype that Kentucky received when they were on course to go undefeated in conference play two years ago? No hint of that exists for the Gators this year. True, the Wildcats were also gunning after an undefeated season while UF has lost twice. But Florida hasn’t lost since being 48 hours removed from the month of November. And they were making do with their best player on the bench and a barely able to put five bodies on the floor due to injuries, suspensions and NCAA feet-dragging.
This team has earned a lot more attention and hype. However they seem to be perfectly content to soldier on without it. They seem to even prefer it this way, being doubted, being slighted, being taken too lightly. It is no doubt one of the mental and emotional motivators that have driven them through the gauntlet.
And into The Mode.