I’ve ranted and raved about what Jim McElwain has done in playing the expectations game over his three years in Gainesville. While his predecessor (accurately) assessed the talent on hand and told the world “Don’t let the new guy tell he’s got no talent” of a program likely to yield five first-round draft picks in McElwain’s first two years, Jimmy Mac downplayed all of that, and made his talk about his own personal aspirations for his team more subtle than stentorian — “15 opportunities” was what McElwain talked about in 2015, before vague talk about “restor(ing) the order,” and he hasn’t talked up his program as a national championship contender despite multiple appearances in the SEC Championship Game that has repeatedly yielded at least one such contending team.
And so when McElwain declared that Florida will “kick the door down” in Atlanta in 2017, he made the sort of bold and brash assertion that struck me as a departure from his more moderate talk, and one that could get him wrung over if his team fails to meet expectations — but, as was made clear in the comments of that post, many Florida fans are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, and saw his statement as a garden-variety rah-rah message rather than a potentially damaging overreach.
I think that’s largely because McElwain has played the expectations game beautifully to this point, not least by at least superficially improving his program. He’s going to enjoy the fruits of that labor until the moment when his gameplay is deemed substandard.
Playing that game is much harder for the Florida Gators of the hardwood.
Mike White’s Gators, at this moment in 2016-17, are better than McElwain’s Gators have been at any moment since losing Will Grier. Their annihilation of the Kentucky Wildcats in early February is their best win of the year (and White’s career), and was, like Florida’s destruction of Ole Miss on the field in 2015, a seismic surprise — but it came over a rival, and gave Florida a chance to truly ascend. Florida is No. 5 in RPI — down from No. 3 entering the weekend — and No. 7 in KenPom, both better marks than the final ones notched by the Gators of the gridiron, and Florida will probably stay there barring a truly epic collapse over the next two weeks.
Mike White’s Gators have dealt with more adversity this year than McElwain’s Gators have in both of their years combined. Playing almost an entire non-conference schedule away from home by choice is so unfathomable for a major college football program — even one that never plays both of its two most hated annual rivals at home, and plays neither at home every other year — that I’m not sure whether the decision-makers involved would die of laughter or Scanners-style head explosion first. (Imagine having the Florida-LSU recriminations times three or four ... only with Florida having to move games against, say Florida State, Miami, and Clemson from The Swamp to neutral sites.) And while losing John Egbunu is not as damaging as losing Grier, Egbunu’s injury amounts to bad luck, rather than an arguable failure by McElwain and his program to properly monitor a rogue player who made his own trouble.
And Mike White’s Gators were building on a far shakier foundation than McElwain had poured for him. Florida rebounded from its worst season in 30 years and made a bowl in 2014, even though Will Muschamp got fired; it did not make the NCAA Tournament in 2015, and became one of the few programs ever to nose-dive from a Final Four appearance to no postseason play. White didn’t do as much in 2015-16 as McElwain did two falls ago, admittedly, but he’s also responsible for most of the same players — minus the lone NBA-ready contributor Billy Donovan bequeathed — forming a better team in 2016-17 than in his first year in Gainesville, something I don’t think I can argue persuasively for regarding McElwain’s sophomore season.
Yet Mike White is already being lamented for limited-roster losses that very good teams sometimes take at full strength, and I have a sneaking suspicion he is going to get roasted if Florida cannot live up to its lofty national rankings and make at least the Sweet Sixteen.
Never mind that Florida was essentially star-studded Kentucky’s equal in conference play. (Florida outscored SEC opponents by 0.153 points per possession; Kentucky finished at 0.155.) Never mind that Florida emerged from its witheringly difficult non-conference schedule with all its goals intact. Never mind that this team is about as good as any over Donovan’s late-career run of four straight Elite Eight squads, with a fraction of the hype or belief behind it, and a stranger hodgepodge of talent than Donovan ever had.
Mike White can’t play the expectations game because Donovan’s teams broke the meter, because very, very few Florida fans care wholeheartedly about basketball until January — if even then — and because football and basketball are evaluated by different criteria. He also hasn’t played the expectations game, not really, largely because he’s simply not a salesman in the same sense that McElwain is.
So when his team will make its first march into madness in 10 days’ time, it will do so with fans expecting the best and ready to rage at any sign of the worst. There is no safety net for White and these Gators, no sense that this year can be more than a failure if it is not a success.
That’s the expectations game, though.
It is fun if you win. It is brutal if you lose.
As always, this Weekly Open Thread is for any and all comments on any and all topics, with the rules of commenting decorum still in full effect.