This article originally appeared here.
Written by James Brown, Gatorsfirst Co-Founder
The road to the NCAAs for the Florida Gators men’s basketball team will be tough. If they didn’t suffer the Georgia loss, I’d say they are in (barring an oh-for-the rest-of-the-season scenario). This weekend, they play Tennessee at home, then go to Starkville (hosted by the Jarvis Varnado man-beast), and home again for Kentucky. None of these are easy, and they need to win 2 out of 3. I don’t think single digit wins in ‘this SEC’, and ‘this economy’, get you into the Dance.
Strengths and Weaknesses
This Gator team has one standout strength: team passing. During the LSU game Tuesday night, ESPN’s announcers quoted a statistic: UF was #7 in the nation at team assist-to-turnover ratio coming into this week. It all starts with Nick "Wonderboy" Calathes, but does not end there. Billy Donovan always recruits big men who are skilled passers, and Dan Werner, Alex Tyus, and Chandler Parsons are all capable of picking up some assists. Another advantage is that basically everyone on the floor is capable of getting the ball quickly out to a guard and starting the break, or running the floor and finishing on the other end, usually from a great pass by way of Calathes. Our offense runs very well in the open court, and Billy Donovan is great at calling set plays to get his team some easy baskets. Our offense is a huge strength, until one of our weaknesses effects us on the offensive end.
This team has a couple easily definable weaknesses. I can trace them back to really one thing: personnel. Personnel because we are undersized. Personnel because we are either too small (Hodge, Walker) or not athletic enough (Calathes) to contain athletic, penetrating guards on the perimeter. Personnel because we are young (A-rod will tell you this means 'dumb', Weird Al would add 'ugly') and that’s the easy excuse for inconsistency. It certainly explains why we either get ahead and slack off, or get behind and quit taking advantage of our team passing (how many missed shots as we fell behind against LSU Tuesday were way too early in the shot clock?) Our lack of defense isn’t (well, isn’t always) because of a lack of effort. We really are limited by playing an undersized center and a couple of munchkins.
The combination of sub-par perimeter defense without an imposing front court presence forces Donovan to play more zone than he traditionally plays. Rebounding out of a zone defense makes box out assignments more complicated, but Billy D would rather make sure there is at least one body in the paint. We actually are pretty good at offensive rebounds, but those are considered to be more the result of effort and athleticism. Billy D’s reliance on the zone is also a product of our inability to stop athletic guards from driving. He is taking a gamble that it will take some abnormally hot shooting to bring us down. And it happened in Athens. And, less surprisingly (and on a smaller scale), it happened in Baton Rouge.
The final weakness I’ll discuss, which was exposed in our only blowout loss of the season, is that our entire offense depends on Nick Calathes. At Tennessee, foul trouble forced Calathes to the bench. Erving Walker is a very good player, and does a good job giving Calathes some rest and time at the 2, but this is still Nick’s team. We fell behind by a lot at the half. With Wonderboy, we won the second half! I think all of the players are capable of making great passes, but when they see Nick do it, it’s contagious. I also think that, with him on the bench for several possessions, we miss out on one or two extremely easy buckets he could have gotten us, and that allows for opposing teams (especially on the road) to steal the momentum.
This Florida team, because it is led by a player as talented as Nick Calathes, and because 'anything is possible' in March, could certainly pull some upsets, and make some sort of miracle run. But they have shown their youth in their inconsistent play all season, and at this point it would be folly to assume they could put together such a run. The SEC Tournament is in Tampa, and this team is a top-tier SEC team, so they have as good of a chance as any to be able to take home the SEC Tournament title (their 4 th in 5 years, when previously the program had won zero). But I expect the inconsistency this team has shown from game-to-game and even from half-to-half, or timeout-to-timeout, to prevail and prevent any type of run. Of course, a year ago they seemed to gain some perspective in March, and made the run to the NIT Final Four. But that would seem to be the exception, and not the rule.
This team's weaknesses: defending the perimeter, terrible free throw shooting, and lack of a low post presence, in my opinion, give the Gators a pretty definable ceiling. Some team will be able to take advantage of these things in March, and, if given a bid at all, Gator fans should expect an opening weekend exit of the NCAAs.