The Differences is borrowed from Rob Mahoney's feature of nearly the same name at The Two-Man Game, and makes a number of points equivalent to the margin of victory about games the Gators recently played.
Florida 57, Vanderbilt 54
Gosh, I wish I could put the folks who are worried about Florida playing too many close games in a time machine to 2013. Or 2012. Or 2010. As long as it gets them away from me, and gets them some perspective, that would be great.
I find the narrative that we win too many close games funny in light of last season.— Chris (@cjdyal) February 26, 2014
Yes, Florida is playing a ton of close games. Tuesday night's win over Vanderbilt came in Florida's 15th game decided by single digits in 2013-14 — and its 13th win. Florida's been even better in the closest of close games.
Gators improve to 6-1 this season in games decided by 5 points or less. Were 0-4 in games decided by 5 or less last year.— Kevin Brockway (@gatorhoops) February 26, 2014
Yes, teams playing close games, especially repeatedly, is a recipe for fan dyspepsia. But Florida's also winning those games, and in a subjectively better style that may be objectively better, too. These Gators know better what to do late in games this year than they did last year, even if it's still very much possible for them to have cold stretches. There are go-tos that reliably work, like Scottie Wilbekin in isolation — I'm practically ready to deem him Florida's best isolation player ever right now — and there are so many proven possibilities for big shots and big plays that watching Florida play these close games makes me wonder, just like SID extraordinaire Denver Parler did, which Gator will step up — not how Florida was going to blow it.
Last year was different. Even though I still think Florida was tripped up by bad luck more than anything else in those close games, the Gators didn't do enough to compensate for that bad luck, especially late in games: They bricked free throws and let teams back into games, and let other teams hit big shots, and turned it over again and again, and timed the cold spells for maximum pain. It was excruciating to watch last year's Florida scorch the earth against some teams, and then wilt in five — well, four; I was at a wedding and missed almost all of the Kansas State game — big games against good teams.
And, yes, it felt a little like this year's team was going to suffer the same fate over and over again when Shabazz Napier hit that foul-line shot in December. But Florida's executional excellence, especially late in games, has all but erased these game-winning opportunities for other teams. Florida State nearly had an Ian Miller buzzer-beater fall and crush the Gators, in a game I apparently never recapped (whoops); Memphis couldn't get a bucket on its final possession; Vanderbilt's Kyle Fuller missed his three, and didn't get a kickout despite being wide open, on Vandy's final possession last night. Florida won those games, and has won 20 in a row, because it has done enough to win those games.
The best reason to be internalizing worries about Florida being in trouble because it plays too many close games, instead of enjoying Florida winning games, is to be that one jackass who yells "I TOLD YOU SO!" at the bar and/or on Twitter when Florida loses. Do you really want to be that person?
Those above-mentioned contests were Florida's only four games this season that came down to the last possession. And of the three other games decided by five points or fewer in that stretch, Arkansas and Mississippi both hit meaningless threes to draw within two and four, respectively, on their final possessions, to make those two games look slightly closer on a list of scores than they were in actuality, and Florida put together an 8-0 run — with Auburn's help, to be fair — in the final minute of last Wednesday's thriller. Furthermore, using any final margin of victory threshold for "close" is arbitrary; Florida playing and winning a "close" game against Mississippi and not playing and losing a "close" game against Wisconsin comes down to a meaningless made three and a meaningless made free throw.
"Close" is always in the eye of the beholder.
If you really want to worry about something, worry about Dorian Finney-Smith (19 points, nine rebounds) outscoring Casey Prather, Michael Frazier, and Wilbekin combined (18 points) against Vanderbilt. Of course, you could also not worry so much about that, because it's a sign that Doe-Doe ain't dead — a fantastic development for Florida, if it holds.
Finney-Smith is not a great shooter, obviously, and is arguably not even a very good one, but he can be a good one from time to time. His stroke is fine and his decisions are typically good if he's not hesitating, and he's the only Florida player who seems comfortable hitting face-up midrange jumpers. (Except, bizarrely, for Patric Young.) This matters, because Florida's going to see a lot of zone, especially the 2-3, and a lot of sagging man-to-man defense from here on out, as teams try to neutralize Prather and Young by limiting their good looks and dare the Gators to win with jumpers. Florida's not a particularly good jump-shooting team, so that makes sense.
But zones have holes, and the 2-3, in particular, has holes on the baseline and at the free throw line, places that Finney-Smith could hang out and wreak havoc like Duke's Rodney Hood did against Syracuse last Saturday. And if Finney-Smith can force teams to respect his jump shooting, that awkward-ass pump fake starts working more often, and he starts drawing closeouts that could produce easier shots for other players if he can pass away from them.
Florida can probably win a lot of games in March even if Finney-Smith isn't as great as he was last night; he hadn't scored more than eight points since February 1 before last night, and Florida won all those games, some of which may actually have been more difficult than games Florida will play in March. But I don't know if I would favor the Gators to win a national title without one or two superb games from Doe-Doe, and so I'm taking his first virtuoso night in a while as a very good sign.