How would you feel if the single most important week of your professional life to date were looming, and you didn’t have all hands on deck? If some of your best co-workers were on vacation while you had to put together that sales pitch for the big client, or you didn’t have your best worker on site during the rush to make deadline on that renovation, or your teacher’s assistant was out sick as you prepped your students for the standardized test of the year?
Welcome to Florida Gators men’s basketball coach Mike White’s existence, as his Gators enter the single most important week of their 2016-17 season — and thus his professional life to date, arguably — without John Egbunu, and perhaps without Canyon Barry.
It’s really difficult to underrate the stakes of this week, which begins with Tuesday night’s rematch with the South Carolina Gamecocks in Gainesville and ends with a trip to Rupp Arena and a chance to take down the Kentucky Wildcats for the second time this year.
After all, if Florida sweeps both games, it will have all but won the SEC championship, and all but guaranteed itself the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament. The Gators’ 12-2 mark in conference play would be a 14-2 mark on Sunday with two wins, making it impossible for any team but Kentucky — which would be no better than 13-3 in SEC play — to catch it in the SEC standings.
The Wildcats would need Florida to biff its final two games and to win its own final two games to finish ahead of the Gators and win the SEC in that scenario — and Kentucky would have to finish ahead of Florida to win the SEC, as Florida would own the head-to-head tiebreaker between the two teams by virtue of just the third regular-season sweep any SEC team has managed against a John Calipari-coached band of Wildcats.
Barring an unlikely Kentucky loss at Missouri tonight, two Gators wins this week would also give Florida a chance to clinch the SEC title at home against Arkansas, rather than on the road against a Vanderbilt team that has already upset the Gators this year.
And if Florida wins the SEC title in White’s second year, it will be the swiftest ascent to the conference’s peak in program history: Billy Donovan took four years to claim (a share of) a conference crown, and did not win the league outright until 2006-07 — yes, Florida’s first national championship came before Donovan’s first outright conference championship — while Norm Sloan took nine years to get Florida to its only pre-Donovan SEC championship in his second stint in Gainesville.
Sweeping both of the likely NCAA Tournament teams left on their regular-season slate would also give the Gators a shot in the arm when it comes to NCAA Tournament standing. Florida was a middling No. 3 seed in the Selection Committee’s eyes two Saturdays ago, but is now No. 10 in RPI, No. 5 in KenPom, and on an eight-game winning streak, all slight improvements on its standing then.
I don’t think a No. 1 seed is remotely possible for Florida even if it wins out until Selection Sunday, thanks to its lack of a major non-conference victory. But a Gators team that beats Kentucky twice and goes deep at the SEC Tournament might make a solid case for the No. 2 line. And simply beating Kentucky alone probably forecloses the possibility of falling beyond the No. 4 line — and thus the possibility of the Selection Committee sending Florida anywhere other than the Orlando subregional, which would minimize travel and maximize fan support.
But, of course, that’s all of the good stuff. This week could also send things sideways for the Gators.
Losing to both South Carolina and Kentucky would likely make it nearly impossible for Florida to win the SEC, much as Kentucky losing at Missouri and then against Florida would clinch the league for the Gators if they can get past South Carolina. The Wildcats would not have the head-to-head tiebreaker Florida could claim, but Florida’s 0-2 record against probable No. 3 seed South Carolina would serve as a tiebreaker in Kentucky’s favor. And while Florida would not necessarily lose out on a top SEC Tournament seed and the benefits that those perches entail by losing this week, it would ratchet up the pressure to win next week to hold that ground.
An 0-2 week would also surely close off the NCAA Tournament’s No. 2 seed line to Florida, and might make a No. 3 seed unlikely. So much of Florida’s current stock is based on its win over Kentucky that a loss to the Wildcats alone would negate a fair bit of that win’s value, and losses to both teams would certainly complicate a case for Florida finding a much higher seed line than the Gamecocks that swept them. Given that South Carolina’s recent swoon has Frank Martin’s team looking like a No. 7 seed, that’s not a promising prospect.
White’s team would still be way ahead of schedule in terms of SEC placement and NCAA Tournament positioning relative to program history, to be fair. Only Tommy Bartlett, whose Gators finished second in the league in 1966-67, his first year at the helm, is the only Florida men’s basketball coach to pilot the Gators to a top-three finish within three years of taking over in Gainesville, and he inherited some guy named Neal Walk from Sloan’s first stint in orange and blue.
But this week probably decides whether this group of Gators wins a conference champions and contends for a national championship, or lives forever as a coulda-been also-ran.