Florida was installed as the nation's No. 3 team in Monday's new AP Top 25, and as the No. 4 team in the country by the USA TODAY Coaches Poll. Those who remember our Assess the S-Curve series from last year — which I'll probably begin anew as of Wednesday or Thursday — will also remember that poll positioning really doesn't matter in college basketball.
Despite being among the nation's top four teams in the rankings, Florida's right on that dividing line between being a No. 1 seed and a No. 2 seed. The Gators have the No. 5 RPI going for them, as well as a 1-1 record against the top four teams in the rankings — Florida beat No. 1 Kansas and lost to No. 3 Wisconsin — and that RPI should be fairly stable as long as the Jayhawks and Badgers keep winning, especially given that Wisconsin losing three straight games didn't tank its RPI. In fact, Florida might creep even closer to No. 1 if it keeps winning, thanks to its superb non-conference scheduling: Five Florida non-con foes (Kansas, Wisconsin, Florida State, Memphis, and UConn) are among the RPI top 40.
Florida's going to have to deal with getting boosts from very few SEC teams once again, too, but the Gators are well-positioned to ride toward the top lines come NCAA Tournament selection time.
Still, though, it feels like Florida is going to have to deal with being under the radar for the rest of the year. It's flabbergasting that a top-five team from a near-blue blood school with a championship pedigree that is coached by a future Hall of Famer and has made the Elite Eight in each of the last three years with a lot of the same players in tow should be as overlooked as Florida is, but it's undeniable that Florida's been overlooked.
There are reasons for it, of course.
Neither Florida nor Wisconsin was at full strength — the Gators were missing Scottie Wilbekin and Dorian Finney-Smith; Wisconsin just hadn't gotten fully into the swing of this season — when the two teams met in November, and both were underrated by preseason polls. UConn beating Florida at the buzzer became a story about UConn, and Shabazz Napier, not Florida. And Florida lost both games, which costs attention; winners always get more of it.
The wins haven't been huge, either. When Kansas came to Gainesville, it was in the middle of the national referendum on whether Andrew Wiggins was living up to his hype — and though Florida dominated for much of that game, Wiggins stole the show late in a desperate and doomed comeback attempt. Kansas also hadn't become the very good team it is now, and hasn't become the scary team it will be come March, so Florida didn't get a giant-killer's bump. Florida's wins over Memphis and Florida State were close wins over very good teams, but you don't get bonus points for beating those teams, or for beating teams like Tennessee and Arkansas — even if winning at Arkansas is very, very rare. And though Florida's played potential NCAA Tournament teams like Richmond and Middle Tennessee State and won those games, no one gives Big Bank any credit for taking Little Bank.
And, maybe most notably, the Chris Walker saga has overshadowed the players on this team who have done a lot more than Walker will likely do in his Florida career, only to be misunderstood as bit players waiting for a star to arrive.
But the national attention will come if Florida keeps winning, and it's not going to do anything to change what we know about this team: It's very, very good, and still improving, hasn't needed the spotlight on it to bring out its best so far. It's hard to be ignored when you're cutting down nets.
Also, in regards to Walker, this is the most promising news we've seen since his enrollment:
Gators coach Billy Donovan on F Chris "Sky" Walker, who is expected to be cleared this week: "I'm going to play him."— Mark Long (@APMarkLong) January 27, 2014
Anything can happen when the NCAA is involved, but yes, all indications are Gators F Chris Walker will be cleared this week— Mark Long (@APMarkLong) January 27, 2014
Long's not one to report something without being very sure of it, and his sources have been exceptionally good this academic year. I believe Walker's clearance is coming soon, though I think it's more likely for Saturday's game against Texas A&M than Thursday's against Mississippi State.
The cynicism that Walker's ordeal has inculcated with the Florida fan base probably won't diminish any time soon, however. I don't think that #FreeSkyWalker hashtags or erroneous tweets from Walker himself are actually going to change anything, but they are definitely the products of a frustrated fan base.
One thing I noticed while watching highlights and prepping the very long state of the recruiting class piece published last week is that, while the names remaining on Florida's board don't necessarily have the profile of Dalvin Cook or Ermon Lane, there's definitely talent in this class and on the target list.
Take Ryan Sousa, for example. He's the wide receiver who flipped from Florida State in December and made one of my favorite pun promotional headlines ("Strike up the band: Sousa flips to UF from FSU") happen, but he doesn't have as many stars on his various recruiting service pages, was seen as a complement to Lane then, and feels like an afterthought given Florida's continued pursuits of C.J. Worton, Isaiah McKenzie, and (maybe) Travis Rudolph now. But he's got chops: Go to his Hudl highlight page and you'll find three long tapes of him making catch after catch and pulling away from defenders in traffic, including highlights you can see in this one.
Florida was hoping to pull arguably the nation's best running back and best wide receiver in this class; that's obviously not happening, with Cook and Lane now enrolled at FSU and in the wind, respectively, and it's a disappointment for the program as well as its fans. But recruiting isn't a binary game with "win" and "lose" as its only outcomes, and the idea that getting Sousa instead of Lane or Brandon Powell (who also has some dazzling highlights) instead of Cook is Florida "losing" is just wrong: Florida has Sousa and Powell instead of nothing and nothing. Having nothing and nothing — which is what it feels like Vanderbilt has in the wake of mass decommits tied to James Franklin's departure — is more like "losing."
Finally, class rankings matter a lot less in recruiting than fitting needs. In 247Sports's recruiting class rankings, Tennessee's class is ranked No. 6, just a bit behind No. 5 Florida State and significantly ahead of No. 7 Auburn. But Tennessee's class is rated highly because 247Sports' formula — like the formulae that other sites use — rewards the Vols points per player, and they're bringing in 34 players in this recruiting class. None of those players is a five-star recruit in 247Sports' estimation, and Tennessee is the highest-ranked team without one.
But Florida State has fewer needs and fewer spots, so FSU is focused on quality over quantity, and though the drawback of being loaded is a slightly harder sell to players who want immediate playing time, FSU doesn't need a lot of early-impact players. The same goes for Auburn, to a degree, and for most other teams near the top 15 — even Florida, coming off a 4-8 season, doesn't need to bring in the raw tonnage Tennessee will bring in. Having a fully-stocked cabinet is a good thing, and it permits recruiting of talented players as wants instead of needs, but that puts most of the teams that are in those enviable positions at a disadvantage when it comes to pulling massive classes that inflate rankings positioning.
Evaluating a recruiting class ought to be done by evaluating a team's needs and its success or failure in meet them. Comparing Team X and Team Y when Team X needed only A and Team Y needed B, C, D, E, F, G, and H is silly, and not particularly valuable.
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