I took a fair bit of flak for mentioning this spring that Dayton's status as an upstart, combined with my knowledge of the difficulty of being an upstart in college sports, made me a little conflicted about rooting for Florida in the Elite Eight.
Tonight, against Texas Southern (7 p.m., SEC Network / WatchESPN), the Gators are Goliath again — but, this time, even though the Tigers are part of the dirt-poor Southwestern Athletic Conference (which is made up largely of underfunded historically black colleges and universities, and makes every game between schools with nine-figure revenues and those teams a damn good metaphor for what have-nots look like), their fit for that role bit is about their height as much as their budget.
Or, rather, Texas Southern's lack thereof.
One of the many interesting stats KenPom keeps is Effective Height, which is best explained in detail here, but functions as a shorthand for how tall a team's players are relative to the averages at their positions. Texas Southern is 315th nationally in Effective Height, because both of its starting guards are 6'1", its starting forwards are 6'5", and its starting center is 6'8". No player on the TSU roster stands taller than 6'9"; Florida has two, in Chris Walker and Jon Horford, both listed at 6'10" (though I believe Walker is taller than that), and two more 6'8" combo forwards in Dorian Finney-Smith and Devin Robinson.
This acute lack of altitude manifests in problems you might expect: Texas Southern is 333rd in offensive Rebounding Rate allowed, permitting opponents to rebound exactly 40 percent of their misses, 346th in offensive block percentage (percentage of a team's own shots blocked by opponents), and a horrific 349th in three-point field goal percentage allowed. There are only 351 Division I teams.
I could note here that some of those drawbacks of being Davids are the drawbacks of being David: Mike Davis, whose obituary (like every other thing written about him since 2002) will someday include the phrase "once coached Indiana to the national championship game," can't recruit a player even two stratums removed from the stratum his Hoosiers were in because of prestige (I chatted briefly about this game with my mom, who worked in college placement for nearly a decade, and neither she nor I knew that Texas Southern was in Houston) and other reasons.
And even if one of those sorts of players was interested in TSU, it's not like Davis would have the funds to perform even a legitimate recruitment — travel isn't free, and neither is a support staff.
To his credit, though, Davis has these Tigers ranked in the top 300 of KenPom, rather than outside it (pesky guards who are decent at turning other teams over have helped, as have other teams making bizarrely few free throws), and the only true losses by more than 20 points in their 1-6 start were a season-opening defeat at faraway Eastern Washington and a thumping by Baylor on December 1 — in the only home game the Tigers will play this season before their home SWAC opener on January 17.
Yes, that's life in the SWAC: Sometimes, teams will spend almost all of their non-conference schedule on the road, traveling to bigger, better-funded programs for guarantee checks that keep the lights on and salaries paid.
But this, too, is life in the SWAC: Texas Southern, which will almost certainly be 1-12 when conference play begins (after tonight's guillotining in Gainesville, the Tigers go to Gonzaga, Michigan State, Auburn, Kansas State, and New Mexico State to finish non-conference play), might just win the league. With Southern sharpshooter Malcolm Miller gone, the Jaguars are no longer on top of the league, and Alabama State, where 2 Chainz played a year of college ball as Tauheed Epps in the 1990s, is the only team ranked ahead of Texas Southern in the KenPom ratings — which project a 13-5 SWAC record for the Hornets, and a 12-6 record for the Tigers.
David's not beating Goliath tonight, not unless the Gators sleepwalk, and though we're smack in the middle of a fortnight of Florida finals, I doubt that happens after their evisceration of Yale on Monday. This David, though will keep getting cracks — and might get a big one in March.
It's better, in the real world and not in legend, to be Goliath. And if we're fine with rewriting the legend, I think we can be sympathetic to David(s), too.