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Why Florida will and will not sweat out Selection Sunday

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There are reasons for concern, but more reasons for optimism than you might know.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Tournament-Florida vs Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The state of the Florida Gators fan base after the men’s basketball team’s third loss to the Vanderbilt Commodores this season — and fifth loss to Vandy under Mike White, and sixth consecutive loss to the ‘Dores overall — on Saturday is, to put it mildly, revolt burgeoning on uproar.

A cursory check of the comments of our recap, or the replies to Florida’s official pages on Twitter or Facebook, finds many Gators fans thoroughly pissed about how Vanderbilt has solved Florida, and/or how Mike White’s been unable to solve Vanderbilt, and/or how Florida now “sucks” or something like that. I’m getting similar feedback from my friends when I talk to them about Florida basketball, too — this is not a frustration limited only to the rabid vocal minority of fans that emerges after losses to verbally tear targets limb from limb.

And I get it. Vanderbilt has lost a lot of games to teams worse than Florida this year, and is the worst team that Florida has lost to this year. One team losing three times to another — even if those three games were tilted toward the winning team by two, two, and zero points in regulation — is enough to drive a fan to madness in search of reasoning or causes or actors to blame. Florida’s NCAA Tournament hopes seem to have been rocked by this skid, and by the loss of John Egbunu that preceded and may have precipitated that, and fans are — as always — powerless to do anything but scream.

But it also bears mentioning that Florida’s far from a doomsday scenario — and actually looks a lot better for the smoothest available road to the Sweet Sixteen than a few prominent voices think.

First, it’s important to note that Florida has not been in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament essentially since January, if not earlier. The Gators took care of every team they should have over the unique barnstorming non-conference schedule they played before reopening the O’Connell Center, losing only to likely top-three seeds Gonzaga, Duke, and Florida State away from home, and threw a heck of a bullet point atop their résumé by drilling likely No. 2 seed Kentucky.

Being in the discussion for a No. 4 or No. 5 seed is a massive leap from being outside the NCAA Tournament entirely, as Florida was over the last two years, and it’s an achievement that has been largely lost in the recent furor over losses in three of Florida’s last four games. White’s done very impressive things over the course of his two years in Gainesville and this season as a whole, and even though his team’s inability to beat Vanderbilt and Kentucky away from home over this last two-week span is vexing, recency bias should not color a holistic evaluation.

Further, Florida is still very much in the running for a No. 4 seed — even though two prominent bracketologists have the Gators on the No. 5 line. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBS Sports’s Jerry Palm, the two best-known bracketologists in the world based on their work for college basketball’s biggest television partners, both have Florida on the No. 5 line, with Lunardi exiling the Gators to Milwaukee and Palm keeping them in Orlando.

Those calls by Lunardi and Palm are important in that they color public perception, but they also aren’t necessarily consensus calls. Bracket Matrix tracks dozens of bracketologists, both well-known and largely unknown, and shows that Lunardi and Palm are closer to outliers when it comes to Florida. The Gators were a No. 5 seed on just eight of the 65 projected brackets published on Sunday and tracked by the site as of 2:50 p.m. Eastern — but as three of those seven projections were from ESPN, CBS Sports, and Fox Sports, one could very easily understand “Florida is a No. 5 seed” as conventional wisdom.

Instead, the Bracket Matrix consensus has held that Florida is the most solid No. 4 seed since Friday, with the Gators’ average seed falling from 3.39 entering Friday to 3.68 entering Saturday — after Florida’s Friday loss to Vandy — to 3.79 late Saturday night and, finally, 3.89 as of 2:50 p.m. on Sunday. Florida has remained ahead of West Virginia, Butler, Purdue, and Notre Dame, in that order, the other candidates for the No. 4 line that have been projected as No. 4 seeds by the Bracket Matrix consensus, which also suggests the only No. 5 seed that might have the juice to jump and bump Florida is Cincinnati.

The Gators’ staying power may puzzle some who can’t reconcile a No. 4 seed with a 1-3 record over Florida’s last four games. But Florida’s credentials were not made entirely in those four games, and an array of statistics used by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee support the Gators getting a high seed.

Florida was No. 4 in the NCAA’s official RPI entering Friday, and only fell to No. 10 in the ratings system after losing to Vandy. The nine teams ahead of the Gators are likely to be the eight teams on the No. 1 and No. 2 seed lines and a No. 3 seed — indeed, Bracket Matrix suggests they are the top nine teams in average seed. The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee’s reliance on RPIa long-lamented and flawed metric that is thankfully being de-emphasized in future years — and Florida’s relatively lofty standing in the ratings system will likely help the Gators.

Teams ranked behind Florida in RPI — Baylor, Florida State, and UCLA are consensus No. 3 seeds per Bracket Matrix, and none is ahead of Florida in RPI — will likely populate the No. 3 line, of course. But Florida not being at least No. 4 seed despite a top-10 RPI would be surprising: Historically, about 70 percent of teams have been seeded within one line of their implied line by RPI — and Florida would be a No. 3 seed by RPI’s estimation if it finishes at No. 10, which is likely.

A No. 3 seed seems unlikely for Florida given its uneven results since losing Egbunu — the oft-repeated line about the Selection Committee taking injuries into account does not, though, mean that they are objectively factored in — and its struggles with Vanderbilt, even though the Commodores have seemingly played themselves well off the bubble and into March Madness in recent weeks. (Vandy leapt from the top of the No. 11 line to the middle of the No. 10 line from Friday to Sunday at Bracket Matrix.)

But a No. 5 seed seems almost as unlikely, thanks to carnage elsewhere.

Michigan, Seton Hall, and Xavier — teams that have given fellow No. 4 seed candidates Purdue and Butler losses of late — have something to do with that, but so does Notre Dame, the hardest-charging No. 4/5 candidate. The Irish knocking off Virginia and Florida State in the ACC Tournament probably kept the former off the No. 4 line, but subsequently losing to Duke in the ACC Tournament final may have helped prevent Notre Dame vaulting all the way to the No. 4 line.

Cincinnati and SMU are among the other likely No. 5 seeds, but neither has a win anywhere near as good as Florida’s over Kentucky, and the two AAC heavyweights split their regular-season series, making Sunday’s AAC Tournament final a rubber match instead of a chance to one team to sweep the other and affirmatively step up a seed line.

And TCU’s win over Kansas might actually be one of the best results that happened for Florida this week. The Horned Frogs rode a seven-game losing streak into the Big 12 Tournament that killed their own chances to make the NCAA Tournament, and replaced Iowa State’s chance to down Kansas — No. 2 in RPI entering the weekend, No. 3 now — with a chance to beat a non-Tournament team. That matters, because Iowa State made itself much more attractive by ripping through the Big 12 Tournament, and would have had a legitimate case for a No. 4 seed by taking a win over Kansas as an exclamation mark. That didn’t happen, fortunately for Florida.

Maybe the biggest worry for Florida fans, the Gators’ ballyhooed struggles down the stretch, also doesn’t appear singularly bad when compared to their competition. Purdue is 2-2 in its last four games, Butler is 0-2 in its last two, Notre Dame is 2-2 in its last four (albeit against great competition), West Virginia is 3-2 in its last five, and Cincinnati lost to non-Tournament team UCF in the last week of February, suggesting that almost every team at or just below the No. 4 line is unimpeachably hot. The exception is SMU, which hasn’t lost since mid-January — but SMU’s non-conference schedule was a bad one, and the Mustangs still managed to lose to bubble-riding USC and Boise State during it, counting a home win over TCU as their best non-conference triumph.

Florida, you may recall, played just a single non-conference game at home, yet still racked up three wins over NCAA Tournament teams — Florida Gulf Coast, Miami, and Seton Hall — and helped itself with wins over decent non-Tournament teams like Belmont and St. Bonaventure.

The Gators’ unique non-conference slate also makes them a very interesting case for the Selection Committee, which has historically rewarded rigorous non-conference scheduling. Florida is one of just two teams in the RPI top 50 to get there without notching at least 10 wins at home — the other is Princeton, which has not lost since a 4-6 start in which the Tigers played just two home games in Jadwin Gym, and just barely makes the top 50 — and embraced the adversity of playing away from home not by larding its schedule with the worst foes possible in an effort to stay above water, but by scheduling teams that could be tricky opponents, including in-state teams that would have loved to take down the mighty Gators away from home.

Teams that do that sort of scheduling tend to be rewarded even when they don’t win as many games away from home as the Gators — who have 15 non-home wins, more than any RPI top-10 team other than No. 1 seed locks Villanova and Gonzaga — have won this year. And while that adversity has been largely forgotten by some Florida fans — many of whom do not follow the Gators of the hardwood until February, at the earliest — it strikes me as the sort of thing Florida might be rewarded for in a few hours.

We don’t know how the Selection Committee will assess Florida, or the rest of the field; like everyone else, I’m making my best guesses. But I do think Florida might end up sitting pretty on the No. 4 line, even if it frets until that is officially announced.