At the 16:05 mark of Florida’s SEC Tournament semifinals game, Tide guard Trevor Releford dropped in two free throws to swell Alabama’s lead to ten points, the largest of the game for either team. Someone asked if I thought the Gators could make up a ten point difference in 16 minutes. My response was that at that point, the Gators had played so poorly that I was not convinced the Gators would score ten more points the entire game. After all, they had not scored a field goal in over five and a half minutes dating back to the first half.
But I had forgotten one of the fundamental truisms of college basketball: nothing you have seen can predict what you are about to see. Because there is no other sport, I know, that has more point swings, more momentum shifts and more ups and downs in fan outlooks and emotions than college basketball. I also forgot one of the fundamental strengths of this years’ Gator team.
Not only did Florida score more than ten points the rest of the game, they scored the next 15 points of the game. And they went from a ten point deficit to a five point advantage in just 4:35 of clock time. While Gator Nation was waiting for Erik Murphy to break out like he did a day earlier against LSU, Kenny Boynton did it instead. The guy who to that point had only taken three shots – and missed them all badly – went off, dropping in 11-straight points on 4-of-4 shooting, 2-for-2 from the charity stripe, and 1-of-1 from beyond the arc. He even added a defensive rebound.
What I Forgot
Slapping my head as if realizing my poor choice in vegetable-based beverages, I remembered that fundamental strength of the 2012-13 Gators: versatility. There is virtually no end of combinations they can use to win ball games. Not only can every player lead the team, they can find success with a number of different approaches. Last year, Kenny Boynton took over a number of games, but it was usually by draining a flurry of three-balls. Saturday he did it by taking charge of the floor and attacking the basket. Similarly against LSU the day before, Murphy was the man but he was multi-dimensional, doing his damage outside, inside and in between with his mid-range jumper.
Throughout the season, the team has also won games on the strength of Patric Young’s inside game, Scottie Wilbekin’s turnover-machine defense, offensive streaks, Mike Rosario scoring in bunches and playing hot team defense as well. When a team concentrates its defense on shutting down one guy like Alabama did to Murphy, the next guy steps in and takes the baton. When one offensive attack doesn’t work, Billy can shift to another and this team makes it work.
And the Gators showed in the semifinals that they not only can go to a new star and new attack when one of them is not working well, they can do it when nothing is working. Before Boynton’s 11-point explosion, the Gators missed eight point-blank shots (eeeeight point-blank shots, Mrs. Bueller), missed 8-of-9 three point attempts and had two made 3-pointers erased on a very debatable 3-second call and a step out of bounds, that the replay seemed to dispute. Those were 22 points that should have been in the bank regardless of what else occurred. All of that amounted to a would-be 32 point victory margin being reduced to a 10-point win. But even with all those points left on the court, the Gators still had the confidence and heart to forge a 20-point turnaround in 16 minutes of the second half.
Impact on the NCAA Tourney
The versatility that has shined brightly in the SEC tournament was very evident in the first half of the year but had faded from Gator Nation’s memory over the stretch of games when Will Yeguete’s extended absence and others’ lesser injuries forced the team out of their normal flow. But the Gators’ now seem to have rediscovered it. And it could not have come at a better time.
This season the Gators’ Achilles’ Heel, even before the injury bug threw a hitch into their giddy-up, was the inability to hold up under the pressure of late game situations with the outcome in doubt. This team has won 25 games by double-digit margins – the first team to do that in the history of the game – but they have lost every single-digit outcome of the season. My last column talked about this season-long search for a crunch time heart, and it looks like that may have been found in two games against Alabama over a five-game stretch. Exactly two weeks ago, the Gators trailed the Tide by eight points at the 12:23 mark and not only did not fold, but roared back for a 12-point win. Yesterday, Florida trailed Bama by ten at the 16:05 mark and trailed as late as the 13:08 mark but again, not only refused to fold, but stretched it to a 10-point victory.
Sure, in between they suffered a late-game collapse against Kentucky – a team they had blasted by 17 points a few weeks earlier – but it cannot be ignored that the Gators were coming off an outright SEC title-clinching victory and Kentucky was playing for its NCAA tournament life, at home, on Senior Night. And even so, as Meatloaf musically informs us, two out of three ain’t bad. The Gators have come through in the clutch in close second half games just twice all year, and both were in the last five games. That has to give them confidence going into the NCAA tournament that they can get it done with the game on the line.
Of course it would be much easier to just win every game by a landslide as they did against Vanderbilt to clinch the outright conference championship last week, when the Gators never trailed, and against LSU in their post-season opener Friday, when they never trailed after the first 1:56 of the game, but that is hardly a realistic expectation in the NCAA tournament. Not only will it be imperative that they pump their ticker hard to close out close games, they will also be forced to call upon the versatility of the whole team to make a deep tourney run. When you are one of the elite teams in the nation with a high seed assured, that is what the conference tournaments are all about: finding, rediscovering or refining those truly critical elements that can carry the team to the championship. Well, that and cutting down the conference tourney nets.
Planting the Seeds
There is an overriding benefit to having a higher seed as far as attaining a generally easier path to the finals, all other things being equal. Florida’s seeding has been the source of much debate and much more mystery. Most bracket projections show Florida sitting on or near the bubble between a two and three seed. With all of the “experts” using their own approximating criteria to guess the selection committee’s choices, it is difficult to glean much concrete conclusion as to Florida’s seeding fate. One thing is certain: the RPI (Rating Percentage Index) and BPI (Basketball Power Index) factor heavily into the process. Those two indicators rank Florida sixth and second, respectively, which would equate to a 2-seed and a 1-seed, respectively. But we know from all the professional chatter that Florida is not sitting on the 1-seed/2-seed bubble. To try to figure out where they are sitting, I put together an aggregate mixture of the RPI and BPI rankings with the leading bracketology prognosticators. Keeping in mind this may or may not have any bearing on the ultimate seeding, here is what I found.
When all the collected metrics are combined and aggregated, four teams shake out as 1-seeds: Louisville, Duke, Indiana and Gonzaga, in that order. The 2-seeds bubble up as follows: Kansas, Florida, Miami and New Mexico. The 3-seeds fall into place with Ohio State, Georgetown, Michigan State and Syracuse. Now, with most prognosticators entering the weekend slotting Florida a solid 3 and not a 2, we must assume they are closer to the 3-line than the second 2-seed – perhaps even below the 2/3 divider.
Despite two of the four 1-seeds losing unceremoniously this weekend, Duke and Indiana seem to be locks for the 1-line. The three teams sharing the 2-seed cohort with Florida – Kansas, Miami and New Mexico – are all still alive and headed to the championship games in their tournaments. Florida has to hope to stay on the 2-line or advance to it by virtue of the next teams in the group. Of those four, three of them have been bounced from their tournaments (Georgetown, Michigan State and Syracuse). If winning the regular season SEC title and the SEC tournament title means anything this year, and Florida’s season-long resume is weighted evenly and the games they lost during Yeguete’s injury are not considered the norm for this team, the team the Gators must worry about keeping them from a 2-seed may be the Buckeyes.
Ohio State plays Wisconsin in the Big 10 title game. The Badgers demolished the assumed #1 tournament seed Hoosier Saturday, and themselves were eviscerated by the Gators earlier in the season, so if Wisky were to beat back the Buckeyes while the Gators take care of business against Ole Miss, it might be just enough to slip Florida into a 2-seed. That is if any of the input into my calculations has any merit.
But to reiterate my personal priorities, I would rather be a 3-seed in the South, slotted to play four games in Texas with a probable 1-seed of Duke, the second-most overrated team in the country in my opinion behind Miami, than a 2-seed in the West or Midwest brackets where they would be lined up to play either Indiana in Indianapolis or Gonzaga in Los Angeles. Both games being de facto home games for the 1 seed. The higher ranked a team is in its seed cohort, the higher priority it gets for playing as close to home as possible, so it could possibly benefit Florida more to be the highest 3-seed than the lowest 2-seed. But that will also depend on who is ranked where in the 1-seed and 2-seed groups.
And that’s why Selection Sunday is always so exciting.