Florida was not expected to beat South Carolina on Thursday, in the Gamecocks' first game since their first loss of the 2015-16 season came to UConn on Monday. And the Gators didn't, falling far behind South Carolina after allowing a 16-0 run to open the second quarter and never cutting the Gamecocks' lead to fewer than eight points from that juncture onward in an 86-71 loss.
Doing the unexpected, as has been de rigueur for these Gators in this magical season, wasn't to be on Thursday night. That's not necessarily a harmful thing.
There are tiers to women's college basketball, and UConn confirmed in Colonial Life Arena that it occupies its own plateau: The Huskies, No. 1 in both points per possession and points per possession allowed by more than 0.05 points per possession either way, are essentially as efficient on offense as all but two men's teams have been in 2015-16, and almost two tenths of a point per possession better on defense than any men's Division I team has been in the KenPom era.
It's hard to say which feat of those two is more impressive — scoring and efficiency are lower in women's college basketball, but UConn's holding foes to 0.67 points per possession, which is absurd; scoring 1.2 points per possession is insane for the women's game, yes, but it's more in line with the best men's Division I teams.
The yawning canyon between the Huskies' offensive and defensive efficiency, which shows that UConn outscores its competition by more than half a point per possession, is certainly most impressive: It's about two tenths of point per possession more than what 2014-15 Kentucky, the most dominant men's team of the KenPom era, managed, and it's more than three times the per-possession difference between the Golden State Warriors and their NBA foes.
South Carolina isn't No. 2 to the Huskies; per Women's Basketball State, that would actually be Maryland, second in offensive efficiency and tied for 19th in defensive efficiency. The Gamecocks are third, tied for ninth in offensive efficiency and for 30th in defensive efficiency: They outscore teams by a quarter of a point per possession.
UConn, it should be repeated, outscores teams by twice that margin. And while that's largely due to a sharp decline in conference strength, since the Big East's implosion sent the Huskies to the far weaker American Athletic Conference and deprived them of more games against stronger conference foes like Notre Dame, Louisville, and DePaul, even a gap half so large between the nation's unanimous No. 1 team and consensus No. 2 team is reflective of the Huskies being head and shoulders above anyone else in the sport at the moment.
The second tier is comprised of a bunch of teams that aren't as good as the magisterial Huskies, squads that vie to lose to (or stage stunning upsets of) UConn with something significant on the line. South Carolina may be at the head of that pack, still: The Gamecocks are undefeated against teams other than UConn this year, and have survived an SEC that will almost certainly yield nine NCAA Tournament teams, and could produce 10 if Vanderbilt can string a few wins together.
Maryland is in that tier, too, and Notre Dame joins the Terrapins and Gamecocks in the We Have Only Lost To UConn Club. Texas and Baylor are the nation's other two one-loss teams, and the Longhorns' only loss is to Baylor. Ohio State — with just two losses since falling to South Carolina and UConn in the season's first week, one to Notre Dame — is closer to the back of the second pack. Oregon State, Florida State, Arizona State, and Louisville, all vying to win their respective conferences, arguably bring up the rear of that tier, or begin a third one that is a half-step behind the game's titans.
It's instructive to think about women's basketball in these tiers because of how wide the game between UConn and the field is. UConn is at the top of the pyramid; the second tier is only slightly more than halfway up, and certainly not so close that the Huskies are looking back at it. The third tier, though, is close to the second tier.
And this year, Florida might be in that third tier.
The Gators didn't look particularly good in their loss to the Gamecocks, who simply have a lot more talent, especially in the interior, than Florida does. Carla Batchelor poured in a career-high 19 points off the bench for the Gators, but she was one of just three bright spots. (Cassie Peoples had three threes and 13 points off the bench as well, and Haley Lorenzen led Florida's starters with 12 points.)
Ronni Williams had just seven points (on 12 shots) and six rebounds in 17 minutes, though, and got three of those points off just her second made and fifth attempted three of the year. Freshman sensation Eleanna Christinaki had four points in 24 minutes, matched her five assists with five turnovers, and fouled out. Simone Westbrook had just five points on 11 shots. Carlie Needles went scoreless.
The Gamecocks, meanwhile, feasted inside and at the line. Alaina Coates had 14 and 11, A'ja Wilson had 13 and nine, and Tiffany Mitchell led all scorers with 22 points thanks largely to a 7-for-7 night at the line. South Carolina went 22-for-31 from the line, while Florida went just 9-for-15. The Gamecocks grabbed more than a third of their available offense boards, and held the Gators under a quarter of their offensive boards, and with Florida unable to generate consistent offense beyond live-ball turnovers, South Carolina was never truly threatened after that 16-0 run.
And so Florida missed out on a chance to earn what would have been the "best" win (i.e., a win over the highest-ranked opponent) in school history ... and fell to just 4-2 against the top 25 of the RPI.
See, the Gators, with little fanfare, have put together a really impressive résumé, one that has them slotted for a No. 5 seed in ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme's latest projection of the 2016 NCAA Tournament field. Florida has wins over projected No. 3 seed Florida State, projected No. 4 seed Texas A&M, projected No. 5 seed Kentucky, and projected No. 6 seed Tennessee.
The only teams with more top-25 RPI wins? South Carolina, Baylor, UConn, Texas, and Arizona State. And the top 10 of the national rankings is littered with teams who have had less success against other elite teams: FSU is 0-4 against RPI top-25 teams, Maryland is 1-3, and Ohio State and Oregon State are both 3-3.
Basically, Florida's done enough good work already that only a total collapse is going to keep the Gators from making the NCAA Tournament, and even that might not be enough to stop Amanda Butler's team from dancing, much less a top-eight seed. While the Gators won't really have a chance to get a "big" win until the SEC Tournament, which is fortuituously taking place in Jacksonville this March, a 5-0 finish to the regular season could make the No. 4 seed line a possibility, especially if carnage happens elsewhere in the conference or country.
That would be a boon, because top-four seeds host subregionals in the NCAA Tournament.
This is where the Gators stand, months removed from being tabbed to finish 12th in the SEC, and less than a year removed from a 13-17 season that ended with Butler in some fans' crosshairs. They stand tall.
An expected loss at South Carolina doesn't change that. And even a loss or two to close out the regular season wouldn't. Florida has hopped into the national conversation in women's hoops in a year.
Don't lose sight of how high the Gators have leapt while pining for them to be far higher.