Florida women's basketball: Amanda Butler's Gators are all right

USA TODAY Sports

Today in College Students Have Bad Opinions And Should Feel Bad...

Florida's women's basketball team lost a heartbreaker to Tennessee on Sunday, with a couple of Christin Mercer free throws in overtime helping the Vols escape Gainesville with a 78-75 victory. Naturally, this was the perfect time for The Independent Florida Alligator's Joe Morgan — serving as the paper's sports editor this semester — to complain about "apathy" that hampers the program.

Morgan's point is ... well, it's the kind of point you'd make when you need to write a column to fill space.

On a campus where the women’s basketball program struggles to gain relevance and attention, a win against Tennessee would have meant the world.

...

Folks enjoyed playing "what if" for a couple of hours. Once the final buzzer sounded, they stopped caring. It was fun while it lasted.

Sunday’s crowd of 2,609 was an anomaly.

Florida’s 10 home games this season have averaged 1,055 spectators, which ranks next to last in the Southeastern Conference.

By five fans.

The spotlight came and went.

So, basically, Joe, you're saying that people don't care about mediocre women's basketball? That's a really courageous and forward-thinking stance that no one else has ever made! Good thing you managed to support it with "But the administration doesn't care, either!" as cover for whatever point you're trying to make.

But in their current state, the Gators are stuck playing catch-up. It’s hard to lead the pack with lackluster support.

In 2011, Florida’s expenses for women’s basketball numbered $3,018,356, which ranked 29th nationally. Tennessee led the nation with expenses totaling $5,892,060.

...

Florida ranked ninth in women’s basketball expenses among SEC teams in 2011. Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, Auburn, Arkansas, LSU, Georgia and Kentucky all spend more than UF.

This is not a cry for the University Athletic Association to pour more money into women’s basketball, but what Florida puts into the team speaks volumes. How much does the administration care about the sport?

So what should Florida do? Morgan hints at firing coach Amanda Butler.

Given Florida’s resources and its all-around success in sports, the futility of the women’s basketball program should be embarrassing. However, despite whatever the administration’s attitude toward the women’s basketball program may be, UF should still be better.

Butler is the fastest coach to win 100 games in program history, but does reaching the NCAA Tournament twice in five seasons really warrant a contract extension?

Butler’s predecessor, Carolyn Peck, was fired after leading the Gators to The Big Dance twice in five seasons. Why was Butler rewarded for producing nearly the same resume?

Anything other than March Madness should be considered a failure at UF. And no, the WNIT does not count as March Madness, so don’t use that to champion Butler’s cause.

Other small sports are winning SEC and national championships, and Butler received an extension for sneaking into last season’s NCAA Tournament despite winning just four games against teams in the RPI Top 50.

This is an idiotic case for ... I dunno, Butler being fired, which would fix the apathy problem? That's it, right? I'm genuinely confused.

The column as a whole seems very much like someone who knows nothing about women's basketball writing about women's basketball and suggesting that Something Needs To Be Done to fix things at Florida. Unfortunately for Joe, I know something about women's basketball, and I know that Amanda Butler is succeeding in her mission to make Florida a formidable women's basketball program.

She's succeeding slowly, with just those two NCAA Tournament appearances in five years, but she's succeeding: Those two tournament appearances are two of Florida's 13 in program history, and the 2008-09 and 2011-12 teams' seasons came to an end against the teams (Connecticut in 2008-09, Baylor last year) that went on to go undefeated and win the national titles in those years.

Florida might have been able to reach the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1997-98 in either of those years under Butler had it only drawn a slightly easier round of 32 foe; ironically, being a No. 11 seed helped Kansas and Gonzaga get to the Sweet Sixteen last March, and Gonzaga nearly did the same thing as a No. 12 seed in 2009.

Butler's also returning Florida to the talent level it had in the '90s under Carol Ross, when the Gators made their only Elite Eight and second Sweet Sixteen in consecutive years and sent a number of players (Sophia Witherspoon, Bridget Pettis, Merlakia Jones, current Florida assistant Murriel Page, and DeLisha Milton-Jones, potential future WNBA Hall of Famer) to the WNBA.

Azania Stewart was good enough to play on the British Olympic team. Jennifer George was one of Butler's first big-time Florida recruits, and has become an all-SEC and potential All-America performer. Carlie Needles, Kayla Lewis, Sydney Moss, and Chandler Cooper were all four-star recruits; Jordan Jones was a big-time transfer, and Vicky McIntyre, who gives Florida the sort of potentially dominant shot-blocker it has never had before, is a big-time transfer, and Antoinette Bannister will be a big-time transfer, too.

And Ronni Williams, the centerpiece of Florida's 2013 recruiting class, is the highest-ranked player Florida has ever landed, and the sort of player who leads teams deep into March.

I'm not sure who Morgan would have Florida hire if Butler is let go, but it's important to note that she is succeeding in a lot of ways because she's the anti-Peck, and her accomplishments differ significantly from Peck's. After Ross' departure for Ole Miss, her alma mater, Peck came to Florida in 2002 as a national championship coach, having won a title with Purdue in 1999 in one of the strangest seasons ever in women's college basketball — Peck was already the WNBA's Orlando Miracle's coach-to-be, but spent one last year in Purdue; neither Tennessee or UConn made the Final Four; Purdue was and is the only Big Ten team to have won a national title — and washed out in three seasons in the WNBA, never posting a winning season (yet still making the playoffs once, because the WNBA is strange).

And she had a bad first season in 2002-03, going 9-19 and 1-13 in the SEC (amusingly, Peck's Gators beat Mississippi in Ross' return to Gainesville), and losing all those 13 conference games consecutively, before rebounding to go 21-9 in 2003-04 and make the NCAA Tournament behind Vanessa Hayden. But Florida went 14-15 in 2004-05, then 21-9 in 2005-06, then 9-22 in 2006-07, and Peck's teams' inconsistency and lack of sustained improvement made it a no-brainer to let her go after five years that produced two NCAA trips and a 72-76 record.

After five years, Butler had two NCAA trips and three other Women's NIT trips, a 98-67 record, and a better SEC winning percentage than any Florida coach other than Ross — who went 97-50 in her first five years, and 28-25 in SEC play. No, Joe, Butler didn't deserve an extension for matching Peck's teams' accomplishments; she deserved one for far outstripping them, and for nearly matching Ross'.

Butler certainly remembers Ross' time in Gainesville: She was an important part of those first four years, starting 99 games for Ross from 1990 to 1994, and played in Florida's first three NCAA Tournament games. Her Gainesville ties were probably the most important thing about Butler coming in, and she's was to Florida's women's basketball team what Will Muschamp would be to football: The "local product" returning home to restore glory and honor to a program that had fallen into disrepair under a more mercenary steward.

Butler has made those ties less important by winning and putting Florida on a climb to SEC and national contention, but Jeremy Foley's decision to hire her and make her the youngest coach in the SEC, women's college basketball's most withering conference, probably factored into his decision to hire Muschamp years later. For this we can be grateful.

With a robust understanding of Florida's women's basketball history, it's probably fair to point out that Butler's teams have faltered at times in SEC play. Florida began the 2007-08 season 22-2 and snuck into the top 10 of national polls before going 1-4 in their final five SEC games, and losing to an Arkansas team that wouldn't make the NCAA Tournament at home. Butler's a combined 2-16 against Tennessee and Kentucky, the gold standards in the SEC. Seven of Florida's 15 losses in 2010-11 came by six points or fewer, and a couple more going the Gators' way could have made the difference between the NCAA Tournament and NIT.

But Butler inherited a team that was much worse than the one Ross got with Witherspoon on it, and only improved it by 10 wins, the most in program history. Ross didn't get a win over Tennessee until her seventh year as Florida's coach; Butler got one in her second season. And though Ross got Florida to that Elite Eight and a Sweet Sixteen after it, she would win just one more NCAA Tournament game in her final four seasons in Gainesville.

Taken as a whole, Butler's tenure has been very impressive, and is likely to only get more impressive if she remains with Florida. It is worryingly short-sighted to assert otherwise, and Morgan's argument is weak because of that.

Morgan's greater point, that Florida's women's basketball program deserves more support, is fair. But there's actually an argument that the UAA is doing too much for its women's basketball program, given that Florida lagged behind most of the SEC in attendance in 2012, not to mention middling teams like Hawai'i, McNeese State, Central Arkansas, and Maine. Florida was 29th in spending on women's basketball in 2011, but outside the top 100 in attendance in 2011-12, when the Gators were NCAA Tournament-caliber. Why pour resources into a program if, even when it's good, people don't come out to see it?

I think that question gets answered by Butler's continued development of this Gators team, and I think the future is very bright. A team of underclassmen almost took out Tennessee on Sunday without much help from George, this squad's lone senior, who sat for most of the game with an injury, or Cooper, who has been sidelined with a foot injury. I saw Needles bomb a school-record nine threes in a game earlier in the season, and I love her shooting eye and touch; I've seen Florida play twice in person and watched all of Sunday's game online, and I'm struck by how fearless Jaterra Bonds is and how savvy Moss is every time. I really like Kayla Lewis' game, and I wouldn't be surprised if she, Moss, and Ronni Williams team to make a nightmarish frontcourt in the next few years.

I'm excited for Florida's women's basketball program, not apathetic about it, and I know more than a few people who think like me. I know non-football sports will always fight an uphill battle at Florida, and I know women's basketball will always have to fight an uphill battle in general, dismissed as "not a real sport" even by otherwise sane and good sports fans. And I think that the winning that will be done in the near future will help turn the tide.

But I also know that part of fighting those uphill battles is aerating dumbass columns about Florida's women's basketball. And I'm happy to argue that Florida's coming closer to being very good than anything else for as long as I have to.

Disclosure: I wrote for The Alligator in 2007-08 as a terrible recruiting and golf beat writer.

Previously in taking issue with really dumb Alligator columns: I took on Tyler Jett's incredibly dumb open letter to Will Muschamp suggesting Muschamp should get paid based on whether his players get arrested.

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