Florida's women's basketball team had an above-average 2012-13 season, but the way the Gators ended the year — using substantial contributions from underclassmen to get to the Final Four of the Women's NIT — left many who care about the program really optimistic about the future.
With Sydney Moss, Vicky McIntyre, and Chandler Cooper all announcing transfers in the past month, and the rumblings about those transfers pointing to dissent among teammates as part of the players' reasonings, that optimism is evaporating.
The Alligator's Phillip Heilman has been all over this story of late — he broke the Cooper transfer earlier in June, and the McIntyre and Moss transfers Tuesday night — and his read on the program is that "severe internal issues" might be at the root of these transfers.
Those issues are more anyone's guess than blindingly obvious, but a few things are more likely than not, and Amanda Butler's coaching style being at the center of the departures of talented players seems like the most reasonable explanation. Butler is a fiery, demanding coach, as befits a hard-nosed former guard, and she grinds on her players. The three players transferring, McIntyre especially, never struck me as players who would be impervious to withering coaching, but while Butler got almost nothing out of an injured Cooper and not much out of a largely ineffective McIntyre (4.8 points and 3.8 rebounds per game), Moss was arguably Florida's best player in 2012-13, scoring 11.8 points and grabbing 6.8 rebounds per game while also leading the Gators with 3.9 assists per contest.
Moss was so good, in fact, that she made the SEC's All-Freshman team, and the Postseason WNIT's All-Tournament team — she averaged 19.6 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game in the tournament — and earned a tryout for the United States' U19 World Championship team, one of just 34 players nationally to do so. She was very, very good as a freshman, and appeared to have the brightest future of any player on the team; for her, leaving cannot be chalked up to playing time issues (plausible for McIntyre) or interest in a fresh start (very plausible for Cooper). And so the focus swings back around to Butler: Is she at the root of her players leaving?
I think Butler's a good coach, and has probably done no worse than the second-best job of any Florida women's basketball coach in history; I wrote a long piece about Butler's arc in January, before Florida made its game charge at an NCAA Tournament berth and its deep WNIT run. And had I revisited that piece at the beginning of June, or even after the transfer of Cooper, I would probably have found my optimism to be a bit of an undersell of my feeling that this program is still destined for big successes under Butler. But the transfers of Moss and McIntyre mean that Florida loses three likely rotation players on top of losing Jennifer George entering 2013-14, and makes these paragraphs look a lot different:
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.
Williams is still on her way, and Bannister is still with the team, and recruit Haley Lorenzen may end up being more effective down low than McIntyre was. But losing Moss and Cooper means slicing that four-pack of four-stars in half, and losing McIntyre, whose transfer to Florida after tragedy struck her Oklahoma State team produced glowing writeups, means that those writeups will get re-examined.
And that's not the only one worth looking at again: Matt Watts' 2011 declaration of "The Gator Substandard" could have been tweaked just a bit and published a couple of months ago, and this isn't the first time three players have exited Florida's program of their own volition in a single year under Butler: Trumae Lucas, Tessah Holt, and Christal Caldwell all departed after 2010. Caldwell became an All-Big 12 performer at West Virginia, Lucas found a niche as a disruptive bench player at Delaware, and Holt has become a steady distributor at Boston College.
With that cycle seemingly repeating, it's definitely fair to wonder how long Florida will stick with Butler, even if she has gone past merely having Gators roots to earn defenders with her successes as a coach. The barometer for success at Florida has been being in range of a conference championship in every other sport, and, since the 2007-08 season, just three of the 20 Florida programs haven't won a conference title: Men's tennis, men's cross country, and women's basketball.
In 2012-13, Florida men's tennis was coached by first-year head coach Bryan Shelton, and Florida's men's cross country was coached by first-year coach Paul Spangler — and Mike Holloway, whose men's track team won another outdoor track national title, the fifth of his career. And Florida women's basketball was coached by Amanda Butler, whose Gators finished tied for eighth in the SEC with a 6-10 conference record, and whose best career finish in the SEC is a tie for fourth.
In fairness, Florida is in a difficult spot in the SEC, one of the strongest conferences in women's college basketball. But Butler's talk from the beginning of her tenure has been about winning titles with her Gators. And that hasn't happened yet.
If that talk doesn't get backed up, and soon, the whispers about Butler's future are going to get louder.