Note from Ray: As a reminder, our Thoughts of the Week go out more randomly (but at least monthly) in the off-season. Our weekly schedule and expanded format will resume when football season kicks in. Until then, enjoy!
I know what some of you are thinking right now. We finally made it! Like a sparsely-supplied crawl across Antarctica, we have survived the long winter misery that stretches from early January to early March. No, it is not the painful drudgery of winter, but the cruel football void between the end of bowl season and the beginning of spring practice.
Ah, but how much you’ve missed if you only have eyes for pigskins. Hey, I understand. When the basketball team is struggling, some fans have a hard time focusing in on the winter and spring sports. But even then, I would have to say that if you’ve had your head down over your pieces brother, you’ve missed a lot.
Right off the top, given that there was only a page and a half of posts in the mere 3-page meet thread after it went final, I take it many fans are not even aware that the Gators won the national title a week ago in men’s indoor track & field. There ya go, first national of the year on the board. No need to sweat out late-spring finishes to see if the Gators keep their streak alive. The University of Florida has won at least 1 national title in 11-straight academic years, but who’s counting. I am. That’s how I know it’s 11. Only one other school in the nation (Stanford) has also won natties in each of the last 11 years. The school has amassed 20 natties in those 9 years, which for any JUCO football transfer who has taken the required math class knows, is 2.2 national championships per year. Again, only one school has more in that span, and we all know it’s Stanford, because they include sports like Badminton, Jarts and Gnip-Gnop. Natties were also won by 8 different Gator sports over that span. The entire rest of the SEC combined won 34 national titles during the same time (and 1 of them was vacated by LSU). So…pretty good.
Every national title is special, but this one was a special kind of special. Florida’s dominance in indoor and outdoor track and field since 2010 has been ridiculous, but this year’s indoor meet left the rest behind. And at the lead was the coach’s son, turning in one of the greatest performances in the history of the sport (and not just the college version). He broke the American record (not collegiate record, mind you) in the 60 meter hurdles, and he was the 3rd-fastest man ever to run the event in world history. He became only the second man to win the 60 meter hurdles and the 60 m sprint in the same meet, broke his own school record in the 60 meters, and for the meet amassed the second-highest individual point total in the history of the NCAA meet. Oh, and by the way Yanis David won the national title in the triple jump, leading the women’s team to a 6th place finish, making the Gators the only school to place in the top-10 for both benders.
It’s Hard on the Hardwoods
Gator fans might get a pass if some of them have not been paying too close attention to the basketball team this year. Because they have been struggling to find an identity, a rhythm and a win on most nights. But if you haven’t been watching them lately, you’ve been missing out. For the last several weeks, Florida has rounded into a good basketball squad. Coach Mike White took a group on the outside looking in on the NCAA tournament invite list, to a 5-game winning streak and one leg in the Big Dance floor door. True they lost their last 3 of the regular season after that excellent run, but two were close, tough losses to ranked opponents that did them more good than bad. Despite one bad loss to a cruddy Georgia team in the middle, Florida entered the SEC tourney either as part of the last 4 in, or the last 4 bye group. That’s the group right ahead of the last 4 teams in, followed by the last 4 teams out, that everyone tracks like a hawk at this time of year. So in theory, 5 teams would have had to pass them up in the resume department to keep Florida out of the NCAA tourney. The first win in Nashville against Arkansas likely punched their ticket; taking down the SEC champion and NCAA 1-seed contender LSU did for sure. Then came the screw job at the end of the Auburn game, denying us probably overtime against the team that went on to plow #2-seed Tennessee under the ground in the tourney final. Along with the uniform sympathy from the entire media for the way the end of that game was stolen away from them, the effort and close finish, and Auburn’s romp in the final, should have warranted a better seed than a 10. But welcome to the Gators’ world.
The White Way
And to think throughout their 3-game skid to end the year, I actually saw a number of Gator posters announce they were jumping off the Mike White bandwagon and even calling for his firing. The rest of the SEC should be so lucky. This morning, outside the Gator fishbowl, I heard national pundits singing Mike White’s praises in superlative terms on radio and TV. Going on about how this team was in a swoon and looked like a beaten mule a number of weeks back, citing the rash of injuries to big men and the frequent disappearing acts of the upper classman leaders on the team, but White had them playing like a tourney team the last month-plus of the season, and that turned a lot of heads. Not in Gator Nation, mind you, but everywhere else.
I’ve heard the phrase more than once in reference to Coach White: “He’s no Billy Donovan”. Well if that’s the standard for a job well done, we may as well shut down the hoops program now. They’ve already made Billy’s Hall of Fame bust. Folks are concerned that White has not won as much or seeded as highly in the NCAA tournament as Billy D did when his UF career started, and the program left to him by Lon Kruger was weaker than the one White inherited. And if White does not make the Final Four in this his fourth year, you can bet fans will make comparisons to Lon Kruger, too, as he reached the Final 4 in his fourth year. But making the NCAA tournament and seeding higher is a function of record and conference record as much as anything else. And both are impacted significantly by the strength of the conference.
Kruger coached in a 1-team SEC. It was Kentucky and that’s it. Billy D faced more conference competition, but there was seldom more than one other team in addition to UK that could challenge UF on the court in any given year (upsets notwithstanding).
Contrast that to the SEC in which Mike White has competed, and this year especially. This may be the deepest, strongest and most competitive SEC in league history that White has had to combat. When has this league ever entered the conference tourney with 3 teams legitimately vying for a #1 NCAA seed? Not in my lifetime. And none of those 3 won the SEC tourney.
Regardless of how folks might feel about Coach White or how the season has panned out, if they win 2 games in the NCAA tourney, get this team that was left for dead as late as February to the Sweet 16, all will be quickly forgotten. I could absolutely see that happen. And next year, this team is going to be very good. Emphasis on the word *VERY*.
A Last Word on the Nick in Nashville
As in to nick an item off the store shelf, steal something in the British informal. What do you want? Not everything just writes itself like The Swindle in the Swamp. We was robbed, there is no doubt. But, as robberies go, even one of this magnitude did not bother me much.
I’m certainly not glad we lost, but I honestly didn’t want to play tomorrow. Our guys are out of gas. The only reason Auburn won is they went unconscious from 3 and we didn’t have the legs left to defend it.
Because if we’re going to get screwed by the refs, I’d prefer it be in a game that doesn’t matter than in the NEXT tourney, which does. We punched our ticket against Arkansas, and made it official with LSU, and we had a diminished chance of winning the final. If we were rested, I’d call it an even chance, but not as wiped out as we were, playing so darn hard for 3 games in 3 days. This game was for nothing but practice and pride. And we got both in full force with that performance.
Not to diminish the sports in this section; I just like that word.
— Softball continues to be highly ranked and extremely talented, but is struggling mightily at the plate again. This year worse than most. It will be unpopular with some, but popular with others: I think it’s time for coach Tim Walton to re-think the often mind-numbing team-wide approach of never taking the bat off the shoulder until there are 2 strikes on the board (and sometimes 3). There was a time when it was a smart strategy to get opposing pitchers deep into pitch counts and work the bases on balls, but opposing coaches have long since figured out to just have their pitchers throw 2 batting practice fastballs and put the Gator hitters on the ropes before they start to try to fool them. Because they can usually get away with it. But we just don’t have either the talent or experience at the plate up and down the lineup to be able to flirt with disaster and start every at-bat on a 2-strike count. Maybe he could get the team hitting again by the time they actually start broadcasting games on TV…
— The baseball team is top-5 in the nation again, but is not the elite bus full of super-stars we have become accustomed to in recent years. However, as we often see in this sport, and certainly in Gator history, it is quite often those unbeatable perfect rosters that falter, and the good and gritty team hanging around the top 5 or 10 rankings that has what it takes to win it all. With the team getting particularly hot of late, this is going to be another very fun season to watch unfold. As I type this section, Kendrick Calilao just launched a grand salami over the right field fence at McKethan Stadium as the Gators are finishing off a demolition of FSU, which will be their 9th-straight win over the Semis. Niiiine times, Mrs Bueller.
— And at long last, to football. The only thing some of you have been waiting for. In years to come, this is going to be the spring practice that will be remembered as the one that launched Florida to its third football dynasty. And this one will be longer than Steve Spurrier’s and collect more national titles than Urban Meyer’s. This is the spring when the future Great Wall of Florida is developed in earnest. When the future of the Gator defense comes into form. When Feleipe Franks sees a few more lights come on and grows into the player we hoped he would, going from a quarterback who manages games to one who wins them. When Gator fans finally start to release the tight clinch of their sphincter and get used to the fact that the Gators are back to their old winning ways.
Mark it down.