Thanks to the gutsy, exciting comeback win over the Crimson Tide on Saturday, part of the Gators’ yearend puzzle has been solved: Florida is the 2013 SEC champion. The next game and possibly the next two games will decide whether or not they share that title with Kentucky. Saturday morning, winning the SEC outright – or even tying for it – seemed very much in doubt. Just a week before that, failing to win the title outright and easily was equally in doubt.
But thus are the fleeting perceptions and ever-shifting outlook of a college basketball team. Especially in crunch time. However, the fortunes of this Gator basketball team are not nearly as fragile as the psyche of a college basketball fan when the score or the standings start to get uncomfortably close. And in this year of perpetually capsizing streaks and confidence of all the top teams in the nation, the Gators are in excellent shape heading into the post-season.
Rankings and Seeds
Call me crazy, but I do not care one lick about falling in the polls the last few weeks and failing to get any of the respect afforded to the other top ten teams who also keep losing but do not fall as far. If the Gators are not number 1, then I don’t care where they end up when the regular season closes.
The primary reason is that the selection committee does not really consider poll ranking when they seed the tournament. In fact, I am much less concerned about seeding than I am about being sent to the Lexington bracket in the East. Kentucky is a bubble team so if they get in, they cannot be rewarded for barely making the field by being sent to play in their home gym. The reason is that there is a seeding rule against sending any team to play in their home gym. Despite my relatively disinterested disposition toward the seeding, it is important that Florida land at least a 3-seed to be sent to a good opening round location in the East (Washington, DC) bracket or the South (Arlington). In the South, there is only one somewhat desirable opening round location, and that is Austin, Texas for a 3-seed. The reason seeding is important in this matrix lies in the minutia of the seeding and bracketing process.
The Committee employs an S-curve methodology in seeding the tournament, which attempts to make sure everyone is properly matched up according to their deemed relative strength. However, there is a complicated hierarchy of rules that the Committee must also apply to the process, and it is impossible to conform to the S-curve exactly without breaking a number of the rules. These rules dictate for instance that the first three teams from each conference cannot be seeded in the same regions. The rule that interests me most is the one that states that the higher a team is seeded, the more priority they have in remaining close to home.
So, if UF is made a Number 1 seed at this point, they will unequivocally be the lowest Number 1 seed in the field. They would then be sent to play in the West bracket (Salt Lake City, then Los Angeles) if Gonzaga loses another game, or the Midwest (Dayton, then Indianapolis) if Indiana loses another game. If Florida slips into the 1-seed 4-spot, Gator fans must hope for the Hoosiers and the Zags to win out. Florida would be much better off going in as a high-side 2- or 3-seed, so they would get preference over the other teams on their seed level. As the highest 2-seed, the Gators would likely be seeded for Philadelphia/Arlington in the South. Even better would be the highest 3-seed being sent to Austin/Arlington in the South. Had Florida earned the Number 1 seed in the tourney – as it looked like they might a month ago – they would have been routed through the East via Lexington/Washington DC, but that ship sailed long ago.
If Will Yugette, Mike Frazier and Casey Prather are all full strength the rest of the way and Florida does not lose anyone else to injury, the Gators will be one of the toughest outs in the country again, possibly the toughest. At full strength, being as close to home as possible and sparing the team the excessive travel time and altered body clocks is one of the most important elements to this team making a deep tournament run. Hence, a lower seed would be preferable, provided it is the highest on its seed line.
Impact on Seeding
With the SEC regular season title in hand and very likely sole owner of the hardware by mid-week, the question arises how important is winning the SEC tourney. There are two schools of thought governing this answer, the first being that every team wants to enter the tournament with as much momentum as possible. The second is that if a bid and seeding range are secure, it is more important to be well-rested and avoiding potential injury heading into the tournament. The former theory carries with it the confidence and battle-tested success that comes with winning a conference tournament. The latter theory includes the fact that it is easier to win six games in a row to end the season than it is to win nine- or ten-straight.
As for what impact it will have on Florida in the seeding process, frankly the value of winning the SEC tourney is probably bigger now than that of winning the regular season title. Reason being that it was pretty clear that Missouri was the only team that could compete with Florida this year (not in one game, but over the course of the season). But Missouri, then ranked Number 10 in the nation, lost their leading scorer to injury for five games, of which they lost two – one of them a blowout loss to Florida – and had issues recapturing their stride following his return, losing two of the next three. Since then, however they have won 5 of 7, with their only losses coming on the road against Arkansas and Kentucky teams that were playing very good basketball. Forget shooting itself in the foot – Florida would have had to have Kathy Bates go “Misery” on their ankles with a sledge hammer to miss winning the regular season title this year.
But the tournament is a different animal. Especially now that the SEC has a number of teams playing very solid basketball, if very inconsistently. Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and Alabama join season-long front-runners Florida, Ole Miss and Missouri as teams very capable of winning the playoff in Nashville. Heck even Georgia could string three good games together right now. Winning the tourney may not give Florida an appreciable boost in its seeding, but any other team that wins the tournament certainly will. Of course only a few SEC teams are already guaranteed a spot in the dance, so if Florida does not win it, it is very likely the winner will have played itself into the NCAA field via the automatic bid.
Closing the Regular Season
No team in the SEC worries me. Not that Florida cannot get beat, because obviously they can. But the only way the Gators lose another SEC game this season is if their shots are not falling. However, even if the team has a bad shooting night in Nashville, they can still win and probably will. This was not the case last week, of course. When Florida was short-handed, it had a hard time working around poor shooting. The opposition is not dumb, and the other teams did what you have to do to beat a superior team that is working with a truncated bench: they bent every rule in the book to physically beat, batter and at times literally throw to the ground anyone who entered the paint. This visibly wore the Gators down in individual games and across the span of weeks that saw three key players miss multiple games. But when the Gators are at full strength, they have a much better inside game with Will Yugette and Casey Prather giving Patric Young and Erik Murphy ample rest as well as absorbing some of the punishment. What’s more with the strategy of fatiguing the Gators into ineffectiveness far less likely with a deep bench, opponents do not do nearly as much blatant hacking and elbow-throwing under the net, lest they risk serious foul trouble. In addition, a healthy Mike Frazier dropping in a few 3s when needed goes a long way toward keeping the pressure off Florida’s guards – as well as Murphy – who no longer have to make every shot to stay in the game.
With all of that being said, I expect the Gators to bury Vanderbilt – but deep – in the O-Dome Wednesday night to clinch the outright SEC title. There will be a pretty healthy celebration in the dome and down University Avenue after the game, because being the sole victor in the SEC race is something that the Gators have only accomplished three times. It is difficult to believe that with all of Billy Donovan’s national success at UF, that he has only won as many outright SEC titles as he has won national titles: 2. This year will make it three, and it will be up to the team to see to it that when next season begins, it can still be said that Billy has as many outright SEC crowns as he does NCAA Tournament titles.
With all the pressure off to win the outright title, I expect Florida to go to Rupp Arena on Saturday and beat Kentucky handily. The Wildcats will be clawing for a last signature win to get them into the Big Dance but Florida will be playing as loose as it has all season – and as healthy as it has all year as well (new injuries notwithstanding). It will be Florida’s first road win against a quality opponent since beating Texas A&M on January 17. It will be a much-needed confidence boost heading into the post-season when they will not play another game at home or even remotely close to the Sunshine State.
Closing the SEC Tournament
Florida will not be caught looking ahead to the March Madness. The team will have the convenient focus points of adjusting back to the full team dynamic and finding that early season rhythm and confidence that led to so many big blowout wins. They will also have strong incentive to win the trophy. Like the regular season title, the Gators have only won the SEC tournament three times. Two of those times it led to winning the national title. This will no doubt have been drilled into their heads before they take the court in Nashville.
When Florida came back from an 8-point second half deficit to beat Alabama, they righted a number of bad habits the Gators had developed during their stint with a short bench. They had quickly earned the rap that they were soft and not mentally tough at the end of games, that they could not win a close contest against a good opponent and that they did not play with any emotion anymore. The win against Alabama – with first place in the conference standings and likely the ultimate SEC title hanging in the balance – took every one of those bad raps out behind the wood shed and beat the truth out of them. Winning the SEC tournament would be the next step in forging the power back into this squad that has wandered the desert a bit since Will Yugette went down early in the first minute of the second Arkansas game. It will be a strong leaping off point for the Gators into the NCAA tournament. And it is the expectation here that Florida wins the Nashville preliminaries somewhat handily.
Closing the NCAA Tournament
It is easy to do. It’s just too easy to forget. Easy to forget how good this team was before Will Yugette got hurt. In the seven games he was out, the team struggled to go 4-3 and only resembled their former selves in all-too-brief flashes. But cast your mind back. It really was not that long ago. A mere month to the day before the huge comeback win against Alabama.
Heading into the second Arkansas game when Yugette exited after a single minute had run off the clock, Florida was riding a 10-game winning streak, 8 consecutive of which were against conference opponents. They had only lost two games in 21. And both of those were close games on the road to teams that have spent much of the season in the Top 10. Both games were clearly Florida’s to lose, and they did so by getting a little sloppy, as often happens in December.
Along the way, they beat Middle Tennessee by 21, which is 27-4 overall and 19-1 atop the Sun Belt Conference. They demolished 20-win Wisconsin by 18 in a game that was not that close; Wisky sits tied for second in the big, bad Big 10, with wins over Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State. They eviscerated 21-win Marquette by 33, which sits third in the might Big East. They thumped 21-win Missouri by 31 and blitzed 21-win Mississippi by 14. They also beat 19-win UCF by 13 and crushed Florida State on the road by 25, and were easily handling another opponent at halftime of the game that had to be cancelled due to weather on the deck of the battleship, and that Georgetown team is one of the teams currently battling for a Number 1 NCAA tournament seed. Many national pundits were calling Florida the best team in the country and not one of them discussed the topic without giving Florida a mention.
That all started to go askew when Yugette was knocked out of the lineup. The Gators still racked up some blowout wins (17 points over Kentucky and Arkansas, 25 points over MSU and 31 points over Auburn). But in the close games, the Gators got winded and wilted in the clutch. Until Alabama. That’s when Yugette was back in the lineup. It was not because of his contributions to the stats sheet, as he barely dented it. It was a function of his energy and most of all his time on the court giving his teammates enough rest to have fresh legs in the last five minutes of the game. The last game that Will missed was against Tennessee, when the gators were also without guard Mike Frazier. He returned against Alabama as well and likewise did little to directly impact the win (matching Yugette’s zero points, one turnover tally), but he worked his minutes on the court, allowing not only extra rest for the starters, but also allowing them to return to the rhythm at which this team plays at its highest level.
The team had clearly not snapped its fingers and returned to the same early season form in one game at full strength, but when March madness begins, the team will have had at least three and more likely five more games to get their full groove back. By the time the Gators report for duty in the NCAA tournament, it is no stretch to imagine that a healthy, clicking Florida team winning 6-straight games against the best teams in the country. It all depends on whether they can recapture the pre-Yugette-injury rhythm and synchronicity in the games they have remaining, and of course what draw they are given by the selection committee. However it works out, this is such an exciting team that it will all be fun to watch unfold and develop. Until then, remember that every day is a gift, that’s why they call it the present.