Florida Gators Basketball: From Chasing Their Tails To Chasing Greatness

“There’s opportunity for them to chase things that hopefully keeps them motivated, focused, and excited during this stretch here because we’ve got seven days left.”

Florida Gator head basketball coach Billy Donovan

Florida Gator basketball is chasing history as the season winds down. (Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports)

Florida Gator basketball is chasing history as the season winds down. (Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s been quite a season for the Florida Gators men’s basketball team. A historic season full of plot twists, struggles, adversity, criticism, and doubt. The season started with more unknowns than a grab bag with starting point guard Scottie Wilbekin on the bench due to suspension that could have derailed his career at Florida, transfer Damontre Harris booted off the team entirely, incoming freshman McDonald’s All American Chris Walker unable to enroll as he finished online classes needed to graduate and then eligibility issues once he enrolled, and four returning seniors all of whom were previously solid role players but none of which anyone would have thought might lead this team to a number one ranking and possible number one NCAA tournament seed.

Through much of the preconference schedule the Gators struggled to field enough bodies to have adequate practice scrimmages. Throw in injuries to leading scorer Casey Prather, center Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, and freshman point guard Kasey Hill and the Gators struggled to maintain consistency in the starting lineup.

The Gators four senior leaders have persevered and now stand on the edge of greatness. (gatorzone)

The Gators four senior leaders have persevered and now stand on the edge of greatness. (gatorzone)

These Gators have been through so much adversity not only throughout this season but throughout their careers that this senior class has realistically gone from chasing their tails to chasing greatness. That’s been a common theme for Billy Donovan all season when pushing his senior laden squad to fight through, press on, and be always striving for greatness.

 “Hopefully, the greatest thing hasn’t come yet,” Patric Young said. “But as of now, this class has gone through a lot, from guys thinking about transferring to staying in school, to not playing games with injuries, all those things, this team, this senior class, has persevered, stuck together and won.”

It didn’t quite start out so rosy, however.

After losing to Connecticut on a buzzer beater with just enough healthy and available players to finish the game, the Gators were seemingly at a crossroads. At 6-2, the Gators were a very unknown quantity. Short on depth, and perhaps even shorter on leadership, the Gators had no identity. The usually tough defense, a hallmark of Billy Donovan teams, was very inconsistent. The assist to turnover ratio, another important barometer for Donovan teams, was negative. Their three point defense was worse than their two point defense. They looked like anything but the team that had earned three straight Elite Eight berths.

It’s not that they were playing terribly bad, it’s just that they lacked cohesiveness. They were somewhat discombobulated offensively and defensively. Effort was there but timing was not. They were a work in progress. Unfortunately that progress had been retarded due to Scottie Wilbekin’s suspension which kept him from practicing with his teammates for the entirety of the summer. Throw in Will Yeguete’s slow recovery in the offseason from knee surgery and backups Kasey Hill and Dorian Finney-Smith being new to the lineup and having to feel their way somewhat in the dark and it becomes all too clear why the Gators struggled with their cohesiveness and consistency.

“One of the areas we were behind on I felt,” Billy Donovan said earlier in the season. “We were behind in terms of these guys playing together because of suspensions, injuries, and a lack of cohesiveness.”

Despite all the turmoil, hardship, and adversity the Gators recovered from the two early season losses to take off on a current 21 game winning streak opening 16-0 in conference play for the first time in school history and nearing the SEC record for conference wins in a season (17).

Now with two games remaining in the regular season, the Gators have already clinched their 2nd consecutive SEC title and their third in four years. What’s next? Well for one thing the rise in the polls and the winning streak create a lot of unwanted issues for the Gators.

“With what we’re dealing with right now, I’ve seen players and teams lose their way and lose their identity,” head coach Billy Donovan said. “I think it’s very, very easy to have that happen.”

The media attention, the fan expectations, excitement over winning streaks and breaking records is all heady stuff. It can disrupt even the most focused of teams. It can totally derail a season of hope and promise. It can lay ruin to some of the hardest working teams and destroy everything they’ve built.

“We’ve been a team that has gone through this process since the season started,” Donovan said. “We’ve worked hard, we’ve been the same each and every day in practice, we’ve strived to get better, we’ve strived to be the best we can be, they give a great effort. But the minute you start losing sight of your identity of who you are because of all this other stuff, sometimes it’s hard to regain your identity. And that’s the challenge right now.”

Often when a team reaches a pinnacle during a season, the external influences, sometimes referred to as “noise”, can be more challenging than the opponents on the schedule. Billy Donovan has been very guarding of that with this team as the season has progressed much like a mother with her child.

“The one thing I’ve talked to them about protecting is protecting their identity and who they are,” said Donovan. “In order to protect your identity you’ve got to come every single day with the understanding that you got to stick to the process of what goes in to getting prepared for each game.”

Protect their identity. The identity they struggled for much of the season to create. Slowly, the team has come together and gelled on both sides of the ball. Scottie Wilbekin stepped into the leadership void marvelously after working too hard to be a scorer early in the season and he’s taken on the role of facilitator more of late.

“I think one of the things that happened (was) when he first came back (from his five game suspension) he was getting a lot of assists,” Donovan said of Wilbekin. “Then I thought after a few games it went the other way. He was scoring more points and he wasn’t getting as many assists. I thought he got too offensive-minded in terms of trying to create and maybe do a little bit too much. I think now he’s back to playing a little bit more balanced. I think he’s done better.

And, oddly, with him focusing more on running the offense and getting others involved and not pressing his offensive game, he has become a better offensive player overall. He’s taking more natural shots within the framework of the offense rather than pressing and it has led to him shooting at a higher percentage and has allowed him to become Mr. Clutch for the Gators. Game after game during this winning streak particularly once they got into conference play, Scottie has hit big shots when they’ve needed them down the stretch, both field goals and free throws. When the Gators were staring defeat in the face on the road at Arkansas, Wilbekin stepped up and hit a huge jump shot to tie the game and allow them to get into overtime where his clutch free throw shooting helped seal the victory.

His leadership has been more than scoring and assists, however. He’s been the guy to maintain control of the team’s in-game emotions and temperament. When adversity hits, shots aren’t falling, the other team is making unreal shots, referee calls are very inconsistent, you name it-Scottie’s calm “we’ve been down this road before” temperament and attitude helps keep his teammates calm and focused. The past three seasons, the Gators have had huge average scoring margins but their play in close games was atrocious. They turned that around to go 12-2 in games decided in single digits this season and Scottie’s calm leadership is directly responsible for that.

“I think when you’re a point guard, that’s the kind of position you’re put into,” Wilbekin said. “I think I’ve done a better job, a good job, of being more vocal on the court and trying to relay what coach wants as a position on the court. So, just talking to my teammates, encouraging them and trying to get them on the right track.”

Casey Prather came out of nowhere to lead the Gators in scoring this season and for much of the season he was in the top ten in the SEC before injuries sidelined him somewhat. Still he is playing much better than any of his other seasons in Gainesville by focusing on his specific skillset and working within that framework.

“Prather’s another clear understanding,” Donovan said on Monday. “A guy that wanted to be a jump shooter when he first got here and never played to his strengths. And it was a part of him that had stubbornness, which makes him a good player. He wanted to prove that he could shoot jump shots. But when he got to a place that he says this is not who I am, I’ve got to do other things, his game started to take off.”

Defensively, they’ve been somewhat tighter and more communicative as the season has progressed. They still have their lapses and breakdowns but, for the most part, they’ve done really well of late forcing teams to fight the entire game to get the ball up court, of pushing them to take tough shots late in the shot clock, and of just being plain disruptive both in the half and full court games. Even in games where stat-wise they didn’t look so great defensively, they still do an amazing job of limiting possessions and number of shots.

Still it’s been a huge battle for the Gators to maintain their intensity and focus with the grind of the conference season adding to the external factors.

“The hardest part for our guys I think has been over the last two weeks is emotionally getting to a level-physically we’re fine- but it is an emotional grind every day and getting themselves ready to that level I think is the challenging piece for our team,” Donovan said.

“I think going into this last week or so…we hadn’t really put two halves together,” Donovan added after the LSU game. “And I think our guys, at least our older guys, are mature enough that when you make those points to them and bring those things up to them they’re pretty good at listening to what you’re saying.”

“They have good buy-in-ability to say ok these are things we need to get better at.  With everything that was going on the last week, with where we got ranked, the SEC at Vanderbilt at least clinching a share to Thursday winning it outright to all the stuff with wins and everything else. I told our guys ‘what does that have to do with us? We need to look at how we’re playing right now’. If we’re going to get wrapped up in all this other stuff that’s going on, where everything looks rosy on the outside, it’s not rosy right now, it’s just not.”

The last few games heading into LSU, in particular, the Gators looked very beatable almost playing down to the level of their opponents and almost getting beat. Again, it came down to a lack of focus and intensity for the Gators.

“Coming out of that two game road stand at Kentucky and at Tennessee, we did not play well here at home against Auburn, I didn’t feel like we played great at Ole Miss, and I didn’t feel like we played great at Vanderbilt,” Donovan said. “And I told our guys-sometimes when everything looks rosy on the outside of all these different things and people look at the bottom line result, I’m still looking at-how is our team playing? I didn’t feel like we played up to our ability and our potential. I think if you look at our defensive numbers from the last few games, from the three point line, from two point field goal percentage, it wasn’t great. I told our guys, a lot of these things that are out there that are swirling around our team that have nothing to do with how we’re playing. And right now we need to be playing better basketball. We’re not playing well enough. I thought offensively, we wasted a lot of possessions over the last week or so. We didn’t get enough out of particular possessions.”

But that’s the difference in having a young team and an older, mature team like Donovan’s Gators. They worked very hard to regain their focus and intensity and to correct the mistakes they had been making.

“I think the last two days our guys have come back and have really been committed to trying to shore up some of those things, get better in those areas,”  according to Donovan.

“I told our guys that this [LSU game] was going to be a game that we were going to really find out a little bit more about ourselves in terms of how we were going to respond, what kind of commitment we were going to make to make improvements in areas that we needed to improve on.”

So Donovan has stressed very strongly to the team that it’s identity is the only thing it should be playing to protect.

“I think the biggest thing I’ve tried to get across is that when you get to this point in time of the season, you don’t want to play like you’re trying to protect something,” Donovan said. “Where you’re back on your heels, and we don’t want to lose being number one, and we don’t want to lose again at home, we want to keep the streak going.”

“Once you get into trying to avoid things and trying to prevent things from happening, I think inevitably you get tight, you get frozen, you don’t play. And the biggest things for us I’ve tried to explain to our guys is there are things out there for us to chase. What are we going to chase right now, what are we going to go after.”

What are these guys chasing now that the league title has been won? Greatness. Plain and simple. Not winning streaks or tournament seeds, but greatness.

“Our guys are pretty grounded,” Donovan said. “If you look at it, what are we actually playing for when the league championship part of it is over with? What are we playing for? I’ve never been a big believer in playing for seeding. Our guys don’t even know what that means. They don’t even know how that works.”

“Tonight these guys broke the single season number of wins during a regular season of any team in the history of this program. That to me is a significant milestone. So they’re chasing something right now. There’s two games remaining right now, it’s an 18 game league schedule, there’s an opportunity for them to come back and continue on with what they’re doing. So there’s opportunity for them to chase things that hopefully keeps them motivated, focused, and excited during this stretch here because we’ve got seven days left.”

Patric Young summed it up.

 “That was definitely his (Donovan’s) idea. I think as he saw the results at the beginning of the season, winning so many games in a row, breaking records and all that, he just sees the ceiling of this team is really high and he wants to motivate us to keep striving for greatness. We can do that every game; we can do that every practice. We just need to focus in on that each opportunity we get.”

And the pursuit of greatness means focusing day to day and game to game on the task at hand and not getting caught up in the externals such as the number one ranking or tournament seeding possibilities.

“We know that having the number one ranking doesn’t really mean anything when you have the season still going on,” Casey Prather said. “We just try to pursue greatness and that’s what we trying to do every day.”

And that pursuit has made them a better, stronger team as the season has progressed.

“I think we’re a lot different,” Prather added. “Our defense is completely better. We’ve got a lot of guys that’s healthy right now so that helps a lot. I feel like we just continue to try to get better, strive for greatness.”

With two games left in the regular season, there is light at the end of the tunnel which should give them some extra added motivation in their pursuit of greatness.

“We try to come out with the same motivation every game,” Wilbekin said. “But I guess if there’s anything we could just see the light at the end of the tunnel. We only have two games left now, we want to finish out strong.”

And for sure the head man in charge will do what is necessary to feed that motivation amongst his players.

“Well, he’s always on edge himself,” Young said of coach Donovan. “And I’m sure he even gets tired of the process sometimes, and he fights human nature. Running baseline runners 45 times in one practice for like 20 minutes was not fun. But he just keeps us motivated so that when it comes down to it these little things, it needs to be like we don’t even think about it. We need to get it done and make plays. He always has some type of speech to help keep us motivated and doing those things.”

So after all the hardship and adversity and with two games left in the regular season, a 16-0 record in the SEC, a 21 game winning streak, a 31 game home winning streak, and a number one NCAA tournament seed hanging in the balance, what’s left for this team to chase?

Only the pursuit of greatness.

Advertisements

One and Done: Ton of Fun or Should Be Undone?

Bradley Beal spent one season under the tutelage of Billy Donovan before going to the Washington Wizards in the NBA draft and helped the Gators to an Elite Eight berth. (sportschump)

Bradley Beal spent one season under the tutelage of Billy Donovan before going to the Washington Wizards in the NBA draft and helped the Gators to an Elite Eight berth. (sportschump)

The “one and done” rule or as I like to call it the “park and ride” rule because it simply forces top high school basketball talent to park their butts on a college campus for six months before riding off into the NBA sunset, is the likely the most inefficient solution to what is even more likely a ridiculously small problem.

For the basketball illiterate the ‘one and done’ rule is the NBA draft eligibility rule which requires a draft entrant to be at least one full year removed from high school graduation before he is eligible to enter. It’s a very recent rule, included in the 2005 NBA-Players Union collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and extended after the NBA lockout in 2011. Prior to that, one only had to be 18 years of age to be eligible. Despite this prior rule it was almost unheard of for a player to enter the NBA draft without going to college first. That is, until 1995 when Kevin Garnett was drafted as a lottery pick right out of high school. Following Garnett there was a seeming flood of high school players seeking to enter the draft.

This created a paradox for NBA executives who, for many decades, had enjoyed the free farm system that college basketball provided and became increasingly concerned about the number of players seeking to join the draft immediately upon high school graduation. Of course, for clubs who were able to get top level players like Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Jermaine O’Neal, and Lebron James, the ability to draft recent high school grads was a blessing from heaven. But for every Garnett, Koby, or Lebron there were two or three who never panned out or were less than stellar (for Gator fans the name Kwame Brown should come to mind). Beyond wasted draft picks and blown money, these players and the increase in players declaring out of high school was beginning to become a public relations nightmare for the NBA who faced scorn and criticism that the lure of riches was pushing easily influenced young men to make bad decisions about their futures.

So in response to this perceived problem, NBA executives pushed to have a minimum age limit established which would prevent players from going straight from high school to the NBA draft. Prior to a 1971 supreme court ruling in an anti-trust case against the NBA which they lost, they had a minimum age limit for decades-back then a player had to be four years removed from his high school graduating class before they could enter the draft.

So the ‘one and done’ rule was a compromise in the 2005 CBA between the NBA which wanted a higher threshold and the player’s union which opposed any minimum age limit beyond 18. The problem I see is twofold. First, was there sufficient reason for the NBA to be concerned about drafting kids right out of high school? The way I see it, no. At least not from the official reason stated by the NBA for supporting an age requirement.

Their story: They were looking out for impressionable young men who were easily influenced into making poor decisions about their future by the allure of quick riches provided by the NBA draft.

Reality: They were looking out for themselves by protecting impressionable adult men (GM’s) who were easily influenced into making poor draft decisions by the allure of drafting the next Kobe Bryant despite having never seen them play against anything other than high school competition.

The fact remains that whether they cared about young men’s futures or not, it is not their business to decide that for them. In a free society adults are expected to take responsibility for their own decisions and their own actions and face up to the consequences of those decisions. Were there kids making poor decisions based solely upon bad information or bad reasoning? Absolutely! But the reality is having a minimum age requirement regardless of how high the threshold isn’t going to stop people from making bad decisions. No rule the NBA can come up with can help kids make better decisions. There are many influences in a young man’s life which shape his decision making one of the least of which are a professional sports’ leagues entry rules.

From that vantage point a problem was made up where, realistically, none existed.

Let’s face it, major league baseball has allowed players to be drafted right out of high school forever and the world has not fallen apart. Do players make poor decisions about the draft versus college issue? Absolutely! Unfortunately, that’s part of life. But nobody blames major league baseball. And they shouldn’t blame the NBA either.

Secondly, assuming a problem does exist, this is most likely the most inefficient method for dealing with it. What am I talking about? One year does not change anything in terms of either better preparing a player for the rigors of the NBA (which is realistically what instituting a minimum age requirement is all about) or in helping a player make a better decision about his future. A kid hankering for money and impatient about his future isn’t any more likely to make a good decision about staying or going one year later than he would have coming out of high school.

While it’s true a kid who falters as a freshman in college who might have been drafted out of high school is likely going to have the luxury (wow that’s an oxymoron) of a more realistic draft evaluation but is he more likely to heed it? I think not. Guys leave school early every year from every class with low evals. Every season there are players who obviously would benefit from staying in school for one, two, or even three more years yet ignore everything around them because they are spellbound by blind optimism in their abilities and draft prospects. A one year removed from high school rule does not change that.

Let’s at least be honest about the real reason the NBA supports the higher age threshold. They want to enjoy the benefit that a free farm system provides. They get a better quality draftee the longer he plays against better competition and receives better coaching prior to being drafted into the NBA. Without a doubt. But not after one year. One lonely season in college basketball does not make a considerable difference in a potential draft entrants skills. In fact, it can be argued that player would benefit more from spending that year on an NBA roster than on a college roster.

Certainly there are some good coaches in the college ranks but very little about the college game translates to the NBA from the 30 game season compared to an 82 game NBA schedule to the three point line which is shorter in college than in the NBA to offensive and defensive schemes to the speed of the game. Going to college only makes sense if doing so is going to increase and hone the player’s skill set. One season of college ball isn’t likely to affect that significantly.

Realistically, the rule benefits the college game as well, at least to a small degree. It allows fans the opportunity to get some top quality talent on their campus for a short time, seemingly giving them a leg up on other programs who are unable to reel in this talent. For schools like Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, and Arizona, their teams are arguably much better this season than they would be in the absence of these ‘one and done’ers’. The argument can also be made that long term the presence of these types are harmful to the program’s overall health. Schools like Kentucky, while riding a class of ‘one and done’s’ to a national title a couple of years ago, have to seemingly overturn their roster yearly. This allows for little teaching and no stability long term. Players are not there long enough for fans to build any kind of relationship with them. It’s a yearly roller coaster ride for fans and coaches become more caretakers and handlers than teachers. Is this what fans of college basketball want?

So what are the potential alternatives? First, they could simply admit that there is no problem or if there is it isn’t their problem to solve and remove the minimum age requirement past the age of 18. Will it hurt the college game like many say it did before they instituted the rule? Not significantly and effectually only in the short term. All it really does is remove the very top tier of NBA ready or close to NBA ready talent, those who would be leaving early at any rate and do not significantly impact the programs of long term oriented college coaches, such as Florida’s Billy Donovan for instance. Likely, it would impact a few top programs like Kentucky and Duke who tend to recruit a lot of those players. But realistically it will simply put more of a premium on good coaching which is a good thing for college basketball.

Will it hurt the pro game? Again, minimally and mostly in the short term. In the pros, allowing high school age draft entries will simply put a premium on good draft analysis as well as good coaching. Isn’t that what they’re paying them big bucks to do in the first place? The tired old excuse that the NBA wants to keep it’s talent evaluators out of the high school gyms is simply a smoke screen. First, in the information age, much evaluation can be done remotely. Secondly, the NBA could simply ban their employees from attending high school games and practices. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should or have to. Setting up rules to prevent people from shooting themselves in the foot is simply… Unamerican.

In my mind the best and smartest solution is simply to return to a minimum age requirement of 18.

Once again, assuming they wish not to scrap the age requirement necessarily, the next best thing would be to adopt the baseball rule. Allow them to enter the draft at 18 or immediately following high school graduation, but if they choose to attend college then they wouldn’t be eligible to enter the draft until after their third year following initial college attendance. This gives players options. For the top guys who are can’t miss prospects they don’t have to live out the hypocrisy of showing up for college classes for a semester and a half before bolting for predraft workouts. For all others, it gives them the opportunity to attend college and still be able to turn pro without having to wait the entire four years. This would at least get them in line with the other two major American pro sports leagues, baseball obviously, and also football which, while not allowing direct drafting after high school, does require a three year wait before being eligible.

Adopting the baseball rule or some variation thereof, allowing draft entry after two years for instance, would require some tweaking by the NCAA as well concerning their eligibility rules. Perhaps, they could, like baseball, allow players to enter the draft and then give them the option of taking the college scholarship if they are not drafted or if they are drafted allowing them the option to go ahead and attend college if they don’t sign a professional contract.

Either way the current ‘one and done’ system is a horrible idea which benefits neither the pro game nor the college game, doesn’t serve the needs of the player, and definitely needs to either be scrapped entirely or tweaked to be more effective to achieve stated goals. 

Florida vs Kentucky: A Study in Contrast

Billy Donovan has built one of college basketball's top programs. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Billy Donovan has built one of college basketball’s top programs. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Destiny arrives on Saturday in Lexington, KY. The SEC battle of the heavy weights. The under card fights are all done, now it’s time for the main event. Ali vs Frazier for SEC supremacy. [insert cliches here]. This may not be just a one versus two battle in the SEC, it may be a changing of the guard ceremony.

Kentucky, long one of college basketball blue blood programs going back to the days of legendary coach Adolph Rupp for whom the arena they’ll play in on Saturday is named, is now more of a TEAM that is simply a repository of young talent on their way to the NBA draft. Florida, once an afterthought on the college basketball landscape which wasn’t even a decent diversion between recruiting and football season, is now one of the top PROGRAMS in college basketball. Notice the emphasis on team versus program. It is not accidental.

On Saturday what you’ll see isn’t just a battle of top teams, you’ll see the difference in what the two programs have become. Kentucky is a team full of “one and done’s”. Because of an NBA draft rule which requires draft entrants to be at least one full year removed from high school, top draft choices head to college for a year before entering the draft. Kentucky, under head coach John Calipari, has become the main destination for those players. As such, they feature a lineup of top individual talent which changes from year to year.

Florida's (4) senior laden team is a rarity these days in college basketball. (Gatorzone)

Florida’s (4) senior laden team is a rarity these days in college basketball. (Gatorzone)

Conversely, Florida is a throwback program. Having only two “one and done’s” in their history, Bradly Beal and Donnell Harvey, the Gators under head coach Billy Donovan have recruited a more stable rotation of players. His players, absent transfers, tend to stick around for the duration of their careers. Gator fans are able to learn their player’s names, connect with them, watch them grow up. This year’s team with four senior starters is a rarity these days in college basketball. For Gator fans, it’s a courtship. For Wildcat fans it’s speed dating.

To contrast, the guys that Kentucky recruited in 2010, the same class as these Gator seniors. are a distant memory to Wildcat fans. If they remember them at all. They’ve been through four different lineups in the time that these Gator seniors have played out their careers. If you blink, you miss them. Wildcat players are barely in Lexington long enough for paint to dry.

While Calipari is a coddling caretaker of NBA caliber talent, Billy Donovan is a prodding, poking mentor and sensei who coaches his players up to become NBA talent. Donovan doesn’t cater to personality, while Calipari has to stroke egos. When players come to Gainesville to play for Billy Donovan it’s like going to boot camp. Your identity is stripped and it’s no longer about “you” it’s about team. At Kentucky, it’s like backstage on a Disney channel set.

At Florida, players learn quickly they will sit until they learn the advanced offensive and defensive concepts that the Gators employ and fit within the system. Talent alone won’t help you get on the court for Billy Donovan, hard work and good listening skills are more important. At Kentucky, you’re expected to start and perform right from the start. You’re not going to be there long enough to do it any other way.

The Gators are a team forged in iron, built on a solid foundation, which has taken years to build by a master craftsman. Kentucky? Prefab, thrown up in days, loosely held together. The Gators are like skilled rifleman who’ve spent years perfecting their craft, while Kentucky are drive by shooters.

Billy Donovan is a father figure molding raw young men into skilled basketball players and even more importantly solid adult citizens ready to take on the challenges of life beyond the basketball court. Calipari? He’s a babysitter. Watching the kids for a short time, but never long enough to build more than a fleeting relationship. Billy Donovan’s doghouse is notorious. Ask Scottie Wilbekin or Mike Rosario. The doghouse is Billy’s way of training his players about working hard and living right. He’s teaching them as much about life lessons as he is about being better basketball players. At Kentucky there’s no time for a doghouse. These players are here today, gone tomorrow. If you sit them, they quit on you. And then they’re gone. What would be the point?

Tonight the #3 Gators take on the #14 Wildcats. The Wildcats have all the big names and likely the largest collection of future NBA talent in the NCAA, while the Gators have a well oiled machine that has taken four years to perfect. Neither team will look anywhere near next year what it looks like this year but for entirely different reasons. And both have taken entirely different routes to get where they are now. The contrast is striking. Age and experience versus youth and enthusiasm. Long term versus short term.

The Gators have built one of the top programs in college basketball. Kentucky has built the top NBA farm system.

Florida Gators’ Scottie Wilbekin: His Team, His Time

Scottie Wilbekin has been the unquestioned leader of the #3 Florida Gator mens' basketball team. (staugustine.com)

Scottie Wilbekin has been the unquestioned leader of the #3 Florida Gator mens’ basketball team. (staugustine.com)

After losing strong senior leadership and almost two thirds of their scoring from last season, the Florida Gators came into this season with some huge question marks. With four seniors returning certainly there was some experience, but where would the leadership come from? Point guard Scottie Wilbekin continued to have off court issues that threatened to end his career early and center Patric Young never seemed to quite live up to the expectations that come with being a massive physical specimen and McDonald’s All American. Casey Prather despite being the most athletic player on the team was never more than a bench player for the Gators and Will Yeguete has always been a role player.

When the season opened with a true freshman at point guard due to Wilbekin’s season opening suspension, the Gators could barely field a starting lineup. Injuries, suspensions, dismissals, and the eligibility issues surrounding freshman Chris Walker threatened to derail this team before they ever really got out of the station. In spite of all these issues, the Gators have opened strong posting their best 24 game mark in school history (22-2) tied with the 2006-07 team.

How have they done it? While the reasons are many and varied, one of the biggest has to do with the maturation of point guard Scottie Wilbekin. Wilbekin arrived at Florida as a young (only 16) talented guard who was used mostly as a defensive specialist. His penchant for crossing the line off the court has left him in Billy Donovan’s doghouse on more than one occasion leading to multiple suspensions including a five game suspension to start this season.

Coming into his senior year it was apparent that he would need to step up in a way he had never really been utilized before- as a leader. Gone was four year shooting guard and part time point guard Kenny Boynton, as well as Mike Rosario, and Erik Murphy. Not only did they lose scoring prowess but with them went leadership. Those were the guys the Gators could count on in crunch time to make a big shot. When the Gators faced adversity, those were the guys they could count on to steady the ship and keep the team on an even keel. Now it would Scottie Wilbekin’s turn. This was his team. This was his time. But when the season started he was nowhere to be found. Benched for undisclosed violations of team rules. Not the way you want the incumbent team leader to start the season.

But this isn’t about that. It’s not about what he did or didn’t do to end up in Billy D’s doghouse. It’s not about why he wasn’t on the court when the season started. It’s about what he did do once he was able to return to the court. Whatever message Billy Donovan was trying to send to Scottie by sitting him and banning him from the gym over the summer, it has appeared to work effectively.

Since his return, Scottie Wilbekin has been anything but a bad boy. On the contrary, he’s been a poster boy for hard work, determination, and leadership. He’s the glue that holds this team together. He’s the guy the Gators fortunes rest their hopes and dreams upon. For a team that is quickly gaining momentum as a possible number one seed in the NCAA tourney and a legitimate title hopeful, they will go only as far as Scottie Wilbekin takes them.

Perhaps we should set the stage a little bit. While this team may look like a potential Final Four team now, early in the season they looked anything but. When the season began they had a true freshman at point guard, Kasey Hill, a McDonald’s All American and supreme talent who may very well lead this team to a championship one day but not this season. No, Kasey Hill is definitely not THE guy to lead them to an NCAA championship this season.

At the beginning of the season the only national attention this team was garnering was the suspension of Wilbekin, the dismissal of transfer Damontre Harris, and the drama surrounding Chris Walker. Sure the Gators had four talented seniors returning in Wilbekin, Patric Young, Will Yeguete, and Casey Prather. Sure they had a talented transfer Dorian Finney-Smith and true freshman Hill. Still the questions abounded.

Where would their scoring come from? Would the Gators be able to develop some cohesion on offense with Wilbekin out all summer and early fall? Would the lack of depth hurt their ability to continue their up tempo style of offense and full court pressing defense? Would they be able to survive a very tough non-conference schedule with a limited lineup and no Chris Walker or Damontre Harris?

Scottie Wilbekin shoots over Jordan McRae. (florida today)

Scottie Wilbekin shoots over Jordan McRae. (florida today)

After two quick early season losses, a tough short-handed road loss to Wisconsin and a buzzer beater on the road at UConn where Scottie was injured and had more turnovers than assists, the question marks became glaringly obvious. A season that had began with some promise with the return of four talented seniors had quickly turned into one in which the fans hopes had plummeted as quickly as the Gators ranking in the polls.

Then came Kansas. It was as if a light bulb had been turned on in Scottie’s head. The Kansas Jayhawks came to town one week after that tough loss at UConn with a diaper dandy lineup featuring the Gerber twins Andrew Wiggins and Gainesville’s The Rock school alum Joel Embiid. The two lineups couldn’t have been more contrasting. Youth versus age. Swag versus experience. Hollywood versus main street. And the Gators punched them in the mouth. Jumping out to a 21 point lead it looked as if experience would dominate in this one. The Gators playing at home in front of the jubilant Rowdy Reptiles and a national ESPN audience were having their way with the inexperienced Jayhawks in the first half and it appeared as if they would run away with it. And it was Scottie Wilbekin leading the way.

He had some fantastic shots from the floor and his athleticism helped the Gators to force 24 Jayhawk turnovers a season high for them. Scottie, however, may have saved his best for last. In the second half as the Jayhawks began to chip away at the lead, Wilbekin would be the steadying force for the Gators. He drained some tough, clutch shots in the second half that kept Florida ahead and helped close out the victory.

“We were teetering there a little bit,”Gators coach Billy Donovan said of the second half Jayhawk run. “He (Wilbekin) made some plays that really helped our team.”

It’s a role that would continue to play itself out continuously as the season progressed. Game after game this season, as the Gators faced extended offensive lulls and defensive lapses, Scottie has come through with clutch shots, mostly great individual plays, great defensive efforts, and free throws.

As recently as their last game against Tennessee, Scottie has continued making clutch plays. As the Gators clung to a one point lead and Tennessee with momentum after a huge three point play on a running hook shot by Jarnell Stokes which got Patric Y9ung his fourth foul, Wilbekin found Michael Frazier in transition following a Tennessee turnover for an open three that gave the Gators a four point lead. On the very next possession after a missed Tennessee shot, Wilbekin manufactured a three point shot of his own as the shot clock was expiring which took the life out of the home crowd, gave the Gators a seven point cushion, and all but put the game away.

The Tennessee game was perhaps the best game of his career finishing with a career high 21 points, 3 rebounds, 6 assists, and 4 steals. Even bigger perhaps was the fact that he had zero turnovers. Last week Tennessee guard Jordan McRae was asked what he thought was the biggest difference in Florida from last season and he responded rather tersely,

“Wilbekin”.

After the game on Tuesday, McRae said that Wilbekin

“is the leader of the number three team in the country and played like it tonight.”

ESPN’s Seth Greenberg called him

The best on-ball defender in all of college basketball.”

Dick Vitale said,

“I love [Scottie] Wilbekin – his toughness and his ability to create problems on the defensive end.”

Some analysts have called him one of the best point guards in America and he’s certainly garnering attention as SEC Player of the Year. Known as a defensive specialist all the way back to his days at the Rock school in Gainesville, Wilbekin is quickly making a name for himself as a clutch shooter and offensive leader. As a byline to Tuesday nights game read,

“Wilbekin started the game with steals and ended it with a three.”

The same might be said of his career. When Donovan had announced the 2010 Gator basketball signing class he took time to mention how young Scottie was (he graduated at 16) and said that he would need time to develop as a person as well as a player. What he meant was Scottie would need to mature on and off the court. Over the last four years, Gator fans have watched that maturation process from the strictly defensive specialist who was given a red light to shoot to the unquestioned leader of this Gator team. He is exactly what the Gators have been missing since the graduation of Taurean Green. A true point guard who can run the offense to perfection, set up his teammates, and hit clutch shots when they need them.

Erving Walker for all his offensive skills and leadership abilities was limited by his height both on the defensive end and when driving into the lane. Wilbekin is a tall point guard who is a fierce defender and can match up with larger guards. Kenny Boynton was a shooting guard who lacked the passing skills and leadership skills needed at the point guard position. Wilbekin has all of the above. He’s a fantastic ball handler with quickness to get into the lane and excellent passing skills, and he can make shots. All of them. From runners in the lane, to free throw line jumpers, to three point shots and he’s almost money from the line, particularly late in the game when teams are fouling to try to stay alive.

Asked to reflect on his time at Florida, Wilbekin responded,

“Like I’ve been saying … just how much of an opportunity it is to be playing at this level, here at Florida, with a great coaching staff and great teammates. I just learned to value that a little bit more. I’m just trying to make sure that I do the right things and put myself in the position to keep doing what I love doing.”

On being a leader, he said,

“I think when you’re a point guard, that’s the kind of position you’re put into. I think I’ve done a better job, a good job, of being more vocal on the court and trying to relay what coach wants as a position on the court. So, just talking to my teammates, encouraging them and trying to get them on the right track.”

Adding, “I’m comfortable with it. That’s been my position ever since high school, so this is really, last year and this year, is really the first opportunity for me to step into more of that role – more so this year. I’d say I’m pretty comfortable with it.”

He also reflected on this group of seniors who came in together in 2010 with much promise and now go out with Florida’s best chance at an NCAA tournament championship since the 2005-06 and 2006-07 teams went back to back.

“That’s something we talked about as freshmen, saying that one day it would be our team and one day our time will come. It’s just funny that it’s here now. Sometimes, we think back to when we were freshmen and kind of laugh to ourselves. We’re definitely cherishing every moment we have this season.”

It certainly is their time but it’s also Scottie Wilbekin’s time and his team. And they will go as far as he leads them.

Will Muschamp, The Closer?

Will Muschamp reeled in a top ten recruiting class in spite of perceptions he can't "close". (gatorzone)

Will Muschamp reeled in a top ten recruiting class in spite of perceptions he can’t “close”. (gatorzone)

The long arduous journey known as recruiting has come to an end for the Florida Gators’ class of 2014. What began as a talent search involving as many as 200+ recruits well over a year ago was narrowed down into a signing class of just 24.

That big sigh you heard? Well that was Gator fans letting out a collective gasp as they watched once again as the Gators went 0-fer on big splash signing day announcements on ESPN. Not to worry, however, as the staff still reeled in a top ten class one year after signing a consensus top five class and only two months removed from a 4-8 season, the worst in Gainesville since they went 0-10-1 in 1979. In spite of it there are still critics who like to complain about this staff’s ability to “close”.

First, not enough can be said or written about the job the staff did in holding this class together and reeling in some huge targets in spite of the season they had. It generally takes three to four good recruiting classes to bring a program back from a low point similar to where this program was a couple of seasons ago. Will Muschamp’s first two recruiting classes were a wash so last season’s was where the foundation finally began to be laid. Recruiting is a process that is more about relationships than about football and with it beginning earlier and earlier, it usually takes two classes before a coach can start to put a solid stamp on the program and it was obvious in last season’s top rated class what coach Muschamp and company can do as far as bringing in the right combination of athletic talent, academic prowess, and leadership skills on and off the field. It’s called bringing in the right recruits not just talented football players. There’s a huge difference.

Urban Meyer brought in some great football talent that did some great things on the field for the University of Florida. However, by focusing more on talent on the field alone rather than the entire package of talent, academics, and character he brought a lot of criticism and disrepute to the program and ultimately left it in a dire state in terms of the overall long term health.

Muschamp has changed the direction of the program. He and his staff have done a fantastic job of weeding through the maze of high level talent and pinpointing highly talented, high character football players. The type of players he is bringing in have the mindset of putting in the necessary hard work not only on the football field but in the classroom as well in order to reach their full potential. That’s important. Those types of players tend to stick around, tend to graduate, and generally stay out of trouble.

In an age when so many critics decry collegiate athletics as a breeding ground for insolence and entitlement and a ‘win at all costs’ mentality, Will Muschamp is doing it the right way. He’s proving you can recruit high level athletes who are good students and exemplary citizens and still win football games in a football first league. I’ve said it before and I will repeat it again, Muschamp is building a program not a team. The best football played under his direction has yet to be played. For the critics of last season’s painful to watch 4-8 team, I say ‘hide and watch, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Secondly, we need to define the term ‘close’. For the critics who say Muschamp cannot close I say ‘poo poo’. Most people using that term really have no understanding of what it means. They use it to mean that he cannot reel in big targets on signing day, namely the aforementioned big signing day splash announcements on ESPN. That’s a disingenuous use of the term ‘close’. Close in the sense of recruiting is a sales term used to denote finalizing a deal. A good closer is one who can get people off the fence and get them to enter into an agreement. In recruiting it’s simply getting the guys you want to sign with you. At no point is there ever a time element involved in the proper use of the term. What difference does it make if a coach gets a commitment from a top recruit a year before signing day or on signing day? Does getting a commitment on signing day make a coach a good closer but getting it a year earlier somehow doesn’t? Nonsense.

There’s two elements that are being overlooked by critics of Muschamp’s signing day prowess. First, all the signing day announcements that had a Gator hat on the table were what are called plus one guys. Guys that will not make or break a class but you will take regardless of the numbers in the class because they are that talented. You sign them and then make the numbers work. Secondly, it is the policy of the University of Florida, which incidentally is a Florida policy, not a Will Muschamp policy even though he has expressed complete agreement with it, to not “oversign” recruits. What I mean by oversign is that NCAA rules limit the number of scholarship football players to 85 maximum. What that means is if a team through graduation or other forms of attrition have 65 players left on scholarship come signing day then they can theoretically only sign 20 players. And that is what coach Muschamp is limited to do by university policy.

There is a loophole in the rule that many teams including most SEC teams use that allow them to sign more than what get them to 85 or “oversign”. The rule says teams have to be down to the 85 limit by shortly before the start of fall camp meaning realistically they can get away with carrying more than that through spring. Alabama has been notorious for doing this. They sign more than allotted then talk some into grey shirting, holding off on enrollment until the following spring, put some on medical hardship scholarship meaning they can still continue to go to school but they don’t count against the 85, or find some alternative method such as academic scholarship and walk on status. Either way it allows a university to sift through more players over time than other schools who don’t oversign, theoretically giving them an advantage.

What it means for Will Muschamp in terms of signing day announcements is the deck is stacked against him. He doesn’t want to be left in the situation he was a couple of seasons ago where he was relying on 8 guys on signing day to make or break a class and he got shafted with no opportunity to find suitable replacements. So now he presses recruits ahead of time to inform him one way or another in time for him to make alternate plans if they are not planning on signing with Florida.  So while the recruit may have a Florida hat on the table, realistically he has already informed the staff he’s not coming and they have already moved on. The hat on the table makes for good drama and gives fans unrealistic hope but it really means nothing in terms of a coach’s closing prowess. They weren’t coming anyway. Such was the case with Damien Prince this cycle where they were told on Monday he wasn’t coming to UF and they were able to contact their plan b Andrew Mike and convinced him to flip his commitment from Vanderbilt to Florida. So while to casual fans watching it looks like Florida lost a big fish on signing day, realistically they weren’t even in it and had already signed another in his stead.

Additionally, teams who practice oversigning have an advantage on those signing day announcements because they can lock down their class and still take a plus one where Florida has it’s class locked down and won’t wait on it. To give you an idea of how this works in practice for Florida, the staff knew Cody Riggs was transferring meaning they had a maximum of 26 scholarships. They had 21 commitments as of Monday. They knew at that point Treon Harris and C.J. Worton were coming leaving three slots remaining. They wanted two more offensive lineman Damien Prince and Derrick Kelley. Prince wasn’t coming so they offered Andrew Mike who accepted on Tuesday meaning there were now two slots left. Going into Wednesday morning they thought they had Kelley in the fold and would only be waiting on Adoree Jackson. They knew both Lorenzo Carter and Rocel McWilliams were going elsewhere. On Wednesday morning, Kelley actually reneged on signing with Florida and signed with FSU who had offered him late Tuesday evening. So Kelley and Jackson didn’t sign leaving them at 24 signees in this class. So out of the three recruits who announced on ESPN with a Gator hat on the table, only one was actually in play for the Gators.

In closing, all pun intended, recruiting is fun for those who follow it correctly, mindful that it is a game of impetuous young men who have a myriad of reasons for why they go where they go often lacking in reason or what would appear to be good common sense. It’s not for the feint of heart nor those who are easily offended. Regardless of what fans think about Will Muschamp the fact remains he signed a second consecutive top ten recruiting class and has laid a good foundation to clean up in 2015, which looks to be one of the deepest and most talented recruiting classes in the state of Florida in quite some time. It’s obvious to the trained eye that Will Muschamp is, indeed, a great recruiter and a great closer and the talent he has amassed between last year and this year is unbelievable.

The “Sky’s” the Limit for the Florida Gators Tonight

image

It’s finally here. The much anticipated day is here. For Gator fans, I must be referring to national signing day and the Gators’ top ten recruiting class right?

Wrong.

I’m referring to the day fans have been salivating over even more than football signing day: the much anticipated debut of Chris “Sky” Walker. The McDonald’s All American forward who has had more delays starting his college basketball career than Atlanta-Hartsfield during a winter storm. The trendy Twitter hash tag #FreeChrisWalker can finally be replaced with #FreedChrisWalker.

And Gator fans can finally get a glimpse of the most talked about and anticipated athletic debut since Tim Tebow. Yes, tonight at home against Missouri, Chris Walker will finally be freed.

What will it mean for Gator fans? It means a raucous sold out O’Connell Center. It means the Rowdy Reptiles might be more boisterous than ever before a national ESPN audience with the inimitable Dick “Dickie V”  Vitale handling analysis for the broadcast. It means tremendous media spotlight on the Gators’ basketball program which is #3 in the country.

What does it mean for the Gator basketball team? Brace yourself. Probably not much. Bradley Beal is the only Gator freshman in recent memory that played significant minutes and provided a major contribution his first season. And he had the benefit of preseason camp and a preconference schedule to find a comfort zone within Billy Donovan’s offensive and defensive schemes. Walker has had none of the above and with the Gators in the midst of a tough conference schedule, fan expectations need to be tempered.

“All those things that he does in getting into the game is going to be predicated on him knowing what he is doing and what he can do in terms of coverage on the defensive end of the floor,” head coach Billy Donovan said on Monday. “What we’re running on offense, post defense and those types of things. He can be the best runner in the world, the best jumper in the world or the best rebounder in the world, but if he can’t do the things inside a game plan of what we need to get done, then it becomes very difficult to play him.”

And that’s the key here. Donovan’s offensive and defensive schemes are very complex and are predicated on teamwork and communication. Regardless of how talented Walker may be, if he becomes a liability to the overall effectiveness of the schemes he becomes practically useless to the team.  The Gators have worked hard all season to create cohesion and timing amongst themselves where players can count on each other and the last thing Donovan wants to do is disrupt that.

Donovan himself has tried to temper fan expectation as well. Up to now Walker has been part of a circus act as fan and media speculation concerning his suspension has risen to great heights. This creates undue expectations for fans who watch his high flying circus routine highlight videos from high school and think that it will automatically translate onto the college hardwood. They would be only partly right. He’s talented without a doubt and can do things with a basketball most players can’t. Right now though he has to compartmentalize his skills within the framework of the schemes.

“I think that the thing with Chris is that he plays with good energy,” Donovan said. “He plays with a good motor and he is athletic. He can run. He’s a good rebounder. All those things that he does in getting into the game is going to be predicated on him knowing what he is doing and what he can do in terms of coverage on the defensive end of the floor, what we’re running on offense, post defense and those types of things.”

And fans need to understand that. He’s no longer Chris Walker: “Superman”, he’s now Chris Walker: “Gator basketball player”.

“I think that there was a lot of attention on Chris [Walker] because he was not a part of our team,” Donovan said. “He was separated from our team and there was a lot of attention given to the fact of when he was going to be cleared to play. Right now, there should be no attention to Chris because it‘s about our team. He is now a part of our team. He needs to be in a role with our team that, however he can contribute and help our team, that is the most important thing.”

How much court time and “airtime” he receives starting tonight depends upon how well he fits in to the overall scheme. How well he grasps his role within that scheme and how well he responds to that.

“He understands that coming in he needs to do whatever he can do to help – whether it’s two minutes, three minutes or 20 minutes,” added Donovan. “It’s all going to be predicated on how he is doing and what he is doing to help our team – foul trouble, fatigue and those types of things. For me, Chris is no different than any member of our team right now. He’s been here for over a month. He is caught up somewhat, but is not fully caught up.”

So enjoy the debut of Chris “Sky” Walker tonight. Enjoy the festivities of another Gator home game in the O’Dome with the Rocking Rowdy Reptiles, a national ESPN audience, and Dickie V. Just don’t expect too much from Sky Walker tonight. There will be plenty more opportunities to see his high flying circus show.

#3 Gators Win Big, #1 Arizona Loses, What Does It Mean for Gators?

Will the Gators move to #2 in the polls after #1 Arizona lost? photo credit to ESPN

Will the Gators move to #2 in the polls after #1 Arizona lost? photo credit to ESPN

March Madness has arrived and it’s only February 1. On a huge day for college hoop fans, #1 Arizona falls on the road to Cal on a buzzer beater, while #2 Syracuse withstands a buzzer beater against Duke to tie it in regulation, winning by two in OT to remain undefeated. Meanwhile back at the ranch #3 Florida wins big over another overmatched SEC foe, this time Texas A&M. Additionally, numbers 6-8 all lost as well.

What does it all mean for the Gators, who this past week rose to #3 their highest ranking in years? Logically, and for the casual fan it should mean the Gators should move to #2 right? Maybe. Maybe not. What are you talking about? Do you hate the Gators? No I don’t hate the Gators, in fact, I love the Gators. My love for the Gators has nothing to do with the reality of the situation however.

In reality, while nobody is completely unbiased, the people who vote in the college basketball poll are expected to be somewhat objective. They’re expected to consider the body of work of a host of teams without regard to personal biases. On that note, let’s examine the task ahead for the poll voters and see where Florida is likely to end up on Sunday.

Before we jump into some numbers to try to foster an objective comparison, let’s lay out the naked ugly realities that we all must face. First, there is bias. No matter what, no matter how hard they try, and no matter how much they scream they’re objective, there is bias involved. Not specifically against the Gators, but against the SEC in general. In basketball, the perception of the SEC is similar to the perception of the WAC in football. That’s the cold, hard, naked truth. Like it or not that’s the way it is and what Florida faces perception-wise on a national basis. Two NCAA tournament championships, three championship game appearances, and three consecutive Elite Eight appearances notwithstanding, the Gators still have to face the stigma of being a football school in a football conference that is perceived as being weak in basketball. It’s not necessarily fair, but it is real.

And it’s not entirely unfounded. Compared to the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, the SEC tends to be top heavy. A couple of good teams and everyone else. This year is no different. It’s basically Florida, Kentucky, and that’s about it. Oh I know about Marshall Henderson and Ole Miss, about Missouri, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt. But realistically for a conference that has a weak perception nationally this is a particularly down year in terms of depth of strength. That hurts Florida… in the polls and come tournament selection seeding time. Maybe it’s fair, maybe it’s not but regardless that’s what Florida faces.

Numbers-wise, it would have been better for the Gators had Syracuse lost rather than Arizona. First of all, the Wildcats have a huge lead on the Gators in RPI measure coming into Saturday at .6975 to the Gators .6680. In terms of strength of schedule Arizona was at #10 while the Gators were farther back at #41. Considering the Gators tough out of conference schedule, which really got them to 41, it’s very obvious that the SEC is not a power conference, particularly not this season. In games against teams in the top 25 of the RPI, the Wildcats were 5-0, the Gators 2-1 and against teams in the top 50 of the RPI, Arizona is 7-0 while Florida is 5-2. By almost every statistical measure, the Wildcats should be ranked ahead of the Gators.

Syracuse, on the other hand is another story. The Orangeman is ranked 91 in terms of strength of schedule, head scratching considering they play in everybody’s favorite power conference the ACC. A weak non-conference schedule combined with an unusually down ACC this year is to blame. This, of course, is where bias comes in. To voters who likely don’t get to watch all the games and don’t seek out statistical comparison measures, the assumption naturally would be that Syracuse would be the stronger team with all things being equal. Statistically, they might be wrong. They are 3-0 versus the RPI top 25 and 4-0 against the RPI top 50 but their RPI ranking coming into Saturday was slightly behind Florida at .6625. So statistically speaking the Gators would have been better off with a one loss Syracuse team than a one loss Arizona team.

What lies in Florida’s favor, assuming voters are paying attention, is Florida survived a strong non-conference schedule with a highly depleted roster which saw the Gators barely able to field a starting lineup and practicing with scrubs and assistants just to scrimmage. They survived an early season loss of senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin to suspension, injuries to Wilbekin, freshman Kasey Hill, and leading scorer Casey Prather. And they’ve done it without superstar freshman and former McDonald’s All American Chris Walker who was finally cleared to play by the NCAA. Their two losses were a tough road loss to a top ten Wisconsin team and a buzzer beater road loss to a tough UConn team. Either loss would be a better loss in terms of RPI than Cal.

Beyond that, the Gators are playing very well right now. In spite, of their usual slow starts and lulls and lapses that have allowed some outmatched teams to hang around, the Gators have been largely able to assert their dominance in the second half of games and win going away, particularly at home. Their win streak is at 13 and their 19-2 start ties the school record with the two title winning teams. They are playing as well as anybody in the country and they certainly have a strong argument for being the #2 team in the nation. Whether or not poll voters agree we’ll know Sunday afternoon when the polls come out. What’s certain is they should remain ahead of unbeaten Wichita State.

My gut feeling is the polls will split with the Gators moving to #2 in the AP and remain at #3 in the coaches poll behind Arizona.