USA TODAY Sports
Florida faltered again down the stretch at Kentucky, and will enter the postseason without a signature road win. Florida is one of the nation's best teams on a per-possession basis. Reconciling these facts with each other is hard.
Florida got punched in the mouth at the beginning of its game against Kentucky on Saturday, yielding an 11-2 run in the game's first four minutes. They battled back to take a 29-24 lead before heading to halftime tied at 31.
Florida got punched in the mouth again in the second half, as Kentucky built a 42-34, but the Gators scrapped back to take a 57-50 lead.
When Florida got punched in the mouth for the third time, the Gators didn't get up. And a silent offense down the stretch doomed Florida to a 61-57 loss, their sixth straight at Rupp Arena.
Florida's old endgame woes got a new twist in this loss: The Gators didn't settle for jumpers or threes, instead pounding it inside and dribbling past flat-footed Kentucky defenders for floaters, but nothing would fall, with Florida missing its last 10 shots. And Florida locked down on defense, allowing no made field goals in the final 4:50 and just two in the final 9:03.
So Kentucky was left to earn its way to the line — Florida was whistled for six fouls in the final 5:34, Kentucky for three in the last 13:39 after two in quick succession at 13:42 and 13:39 — and the Wildcats made enough of their free throws in the final stretch to make up for their lack of makes.
Florida wasn't able to do that, making its final two free throws of the day on that final Kentucky foul. And those came from Mike Rosario, Florida's finest player in dribble penetration, who spent plenty of time on the bench after being yanked repeatedly for his four turnovers.
When Florida doesn't have Rosario, logic and history suggest it will take more threes and get more static, but that wasn't the case: Of those last 11 shots, just two were threes, and only one other was a two-point jumper — Kenny Boynton's final shot to tie, which was a decent look.
That change in approach has been what naysayers frustrated with a Florida team reliant on its perimeter prowess have wanted for years, and yet the hue and cry on message boards, blogs, and Twitter and newspapers and bars seems to be about getting the ball to Erik Murphy (17 points on 11 shots and 11 rebounds on the day, and 0-2 with a turnover in Florida's scoreless drought), with the expectation that Murphy ... is the guy Gators fans actually want to actually take those jumpers that they hate when they come off the fingers of Boynton (nine points on 10 shots) or Rosario (six points on six shots) or Scottie Wilbekin (seven points on eight shots)?
That's the crux of the doubts about Florida, which have always been rooted in a catch-22: Billy Donovan's ball-screen offense is good enough to reliably win 20-plus games a year, and has for the last 15 years, but it's a high-variance offense dependent on making those shots. It works best when there's a very good post player inside to balance it out, and Patric Young (10 points on 11 shots) could still be that player, but he missed two shots inside during Florida's drought. And it's infinitely frustrating when the threes aren't being taken or made in bunches, which is arguably what a 5-for-14 day like Saturday suggests.
(And the doubters virtually never talk about what Florida's opponents do in those games, so forget talking about the spine and hustle Alex Poythress showed in grabbing 12 boards, or the superb play of Archie Goodwin, who scored 16 points despite missing six free throws: Florida lost this game, obviously, and Kentucky had nothing to do with Florida's collapse.)
I hear these doubts, and the worries about this specific Florida team being able to scratch out a tough win in a close game, and I know that Florida's lost close games four times this season. I also know that they won games by double digits 24 times, and have had almost all of the same warts in those wins as the losses: The only two times I've seen Florida deviate from its ball-screening perimeter-heavy approach this year have come in the last seven days, and while it didn't serve the Gators well today, it paid off against Alabama.
The definition of insanity, the axiom holds, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But while that works for Florida's offense, it's also got applications for the state of constant skepticism and near-panic that surrounds the Gators.
Florida's lost only on the road, and only to good teams and Home Arkansas. Florida won't play another true road game this season. Florida probably won't go scoreless for another seven-minute stretch or miss 11 straight shots. Florida almost certainly won't be subject to suspect SEC refereeing in the NCAA Tournament.
Am I insane for believing in the good that I've seen more often than the bad, and the numbers that have been very good in both the good and bad moments?
Or am I just the only Florida fan who isn't?