The SEC isn’t what it used to be. It’s a lot better.
The days of Kentucky single-handedly dominating the conference and teams like Florida applying some pressure every couple years are over, and college basketball is better for it.
But with Tennessee, Auburn and LSU (just to name a few) emerging as threats in the league, where does that leave the Gators? Well, right now it leaves them at a sub .500 SEC record and a long-shot of making it in the NCAA Tournament.
With a young team, Florida is trying to follow the Tennessee model and reestablish itself. Just two years ago, Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield were underclassmen, the Vols had a 16-16 overall record and ended their season in the first round of the SEC Tournament.
Now, Tennessee is one of the most experienced teams in the nation and could very well win a national championship.
As freshmen Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke and Keyontae Johnson grow and even more young talent comes in, the Gators could very well do the same thing in the coming years. But as for this year, they’re just going to have to hope not to get blown out of the water in Knoxville.
“It’s life in the SEC,” said head coach Mike White. “It’s a different league than it was a decade ago. Every night is very, very challenging. You’ve got more than just a couple high-level teams. You’ve got several. And now, with the emergence of the Vols, they’re just a different program. Great opportunity. Should be a great environment with the No. 1 team in the country on the road.”
The thing that’s held Florida back all season, including the first game against the Vols, is finishing. It’s going to take a full 40 minutes and maybe even some divine intervention to have a chance to steal one on Saturday.
“Down the stretch, it’s about staying in the moment and understanding it’s very important,” said senior center Kevarrius Hayes. “We’ve had situations where we didn’t stay in the moment and we didn’t finish those games. We’ve gotta understand how important it is to stay in the games the whole entire game.”
The grind of conference play has taken a toll on this team more than it has for White’s other teams in his time at Florida. Nearing mid-February, he’s still trying to figure out the right buttons to push and how to get the most out of his players.
“Your daily focus and approach and your accountability level has to be terrific when you don’t have a big margin for error, especially offensively,” White said. “When you’re talking about the same things in February that you were talking about in September, that’s a problem. Some teams can get away with that. We can’t get away with that … We’ve had some buy-in issues as well. Every team deals with it to a certain extent. We had some buy-in issues in the Elite Eight run, but not quite as much and we had a larger margin for error with that team.”
The good thing about being in a strong SEC for a team like Florida is there is still plenty of opportunity for resume-building wins with the season winding down. But it sounds like the Gators have some inner-demons to deal with before any of that even matters.