The Florida Gators looked like a safe bet to return to the NCAA Tournament not so long ago.
Florida was a pleasant surprise in the SEC under upstart head coach Mike White, who was tasked with getting the program back into the big dance in his first season in Gainesville, Fla. The Gators sat at a comfortable 15-7 overall record and were 6-3 in SEC action on Feb. 3. They had swept a two-game homestand by drubbing then No. 9 West Virginia by 17 points and by slipping past a scrappy Arkansas team the following Wednesday. It appeared White and the Gators were poised to pick up where legendary coach Billy Donovan had left off.
Since then, Florida has quickly put itself in a daunting situation as the month of madness commences. A 2-6 rut since its win over Arkansas mired by offensive inconsistency will force Florida to fight for a tournament bid rather than effortlessly receive one.
Florida was not much of an offensive juggernaut this season, but its recent offensive ineptitude has played a major role throughout its decline.
The Gators have averaged 70.3 points per game over the past eight games and have put up fewer than 70 points in four of those contests. They’ve shot 40.7 percent from the floor and their 3-point shooting has been particularly ugly. The Gators have gone 51-of-180 (28.3 percent) from deep during the stretch. If the Gators hope to make the NCAA Tournament, they will need to find a way to convert with more frequency.
Florida’s most recent fruitless effort came in its final home game of the season Tuesday night. The Gators were outclassed all evening by No. 22 Kentucky and fell, 88-79, in their fourth consecutive defeat. This loss meant more than the previous three, however, as it completed Florida’s downfall from safely in the field to outside of it completely as Selection Sunday looms.
Florida OUT. Gonzaga IN. Vandy to "solid" status. No changes tonight on the top two lines. How unusual… https://t.co/7CTQzKGF0I
— Joe Lunardi (@ESPNLunardi) March 2, 2016
Lunardi listed Florida as the fourth team out of the field behind SEC foe Alabama. CBS Sports bracketologist Jerry Palm defined the Gators as “probably out” of the tournament field when Selection Sunday arrives. According to Palm, only six teams have earned an at-large bid with 14 losses. The Gators would have to run the table to avoid that 14th loss.
Of course, running the table will get Florida in the big dance automatically. But that seems improbable if not impossible. Florida’s chances of getting back into the tournament appear bleak, but there are a couple of important factors that could go in its favor.
The Gators rank 56th in RPI, which is better than four of the seven teams listed ahead of them on the bubble by Lunardi. Florida also boasts a difficult schedule that currently ranks 13th in the country and the toughest slate in the SEC. Only Oregon State has a tougher schedule among teams that are firmly on the bubble.
Florida deserves credit for playing good teams throughout the year. The problem is the Gators didn’t beat many of them. Florida is 2-9 against teams ranked inside the RPI top 50 with the wins coming against West Virginia and St. Joseph’s.
Florida still has an opportunity to play its way back into the field. It will start on Saturday when it tips off against conference bottom-feeder Missouri in the regular season finale. A win would peg Florida at 9-9 in conference play, and its best-case scenario would be the No. 6 seed and a bye in the SEC Tournament.
Two wins in the SEC Tournament may give Florida enough of a boost to get back into the field, but a run to the finals may be necessary.
The fluidity of this college basketball season almost ensures that some teams on the bubble may play their way out of the field, opening up an opportunity for others. Right now, Florida is one of the “others” that will need a strong finish to the season plus some much-needed help to force its way back into the field.