There were so many reasons to think the Florida Gators deserved their top-10 ranking at the outset of the 2017-18 men’s college basketball season.
Florida returned Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen, each spectacular in his own right in a Sweet Sixteen victory over Wisconsin last March. The Gators were adding talented transfers Jalen Hudson and Egor Koulechov to form a deep group of wing scorers. Keith Stone was set to make a jump from bit player to key contributor. Kevarrius Hayes was an energetic post player, and while Florida had missed John Egbunu down the stretch last spring, Hayes did enough as Florida’s lone center-like player to get the Gators to the Elite Eight.
And then Florida burst out of the gate as brilliantly as any team in America. Koulechov scored 34 points in 26 minutes in Florida’s season opener. By the Gators’ second win, freshman Deaundrae Ballard had two double-digit scoring games, and sophomore Gorjok Gak and freshman Mike Okauru had one each. By Florida’s fifth win, a double-overtime thriller over Gonzaga in Portland — at Nike’s ballyhooed PK80 Invitational, in front of a decidedly Gonzaga-friendly crowd — the Gators had scored 100 points four times, gotten another 30-point night from Hudson, and seen Chiozza score 26 for his new career high.
Florida then outpaced No. 1 Duke for about 30 minutes of a 40-minute game in its next outing — one that came one day after the end of Florida’s dispiriting football season, with nearly every Gator watching and hoping for the announcement of another dominant band of Gators — before collapsing and giving up a 17-point second-half lead in its first loss of the season.
The hope then was that Florida could be what it had been en route to that 17-point advantage against Duke, and shore up the weaknesses that helped lead to the collapse.
But that hasn’t happened — and nothing about this season then has truly felt as good as that scintillating start did.
Florida is 12-9 since its blazing 5-0 start, and hasn’t threatened 100 points since nearly averaging 100 points per contest in that spurt — the closest the Gators have come to 90, even, was an 88-73 win over Arkansas. Florida does have wins over Cincinnati, Kentucky, Missouri, and Texas A&M (all away from home) since that start, but it also has losses to a significantly less talented Loyola of Chicago team, an inconsistent Florida State, and to Georgia (twice), Ole Miss, and South Carolina.
Six of Florida’s nine losses this year are by six or fewer points. The other three are to Florida State, Georgia, and Alabama — teams that Florida fans particularly hate to see beat the Gators.
And while Kentucky, Missouri, and Texas A&M could arguably comprise be the three most talented teams in the SEC in some order in regards to the future NBA prospects of players on the roster, Florida has yet to face the best teams in the conference this year.
Those would be the Tennessee and Auburn squads that the Gators will suit up against next week, in case you were wondering.
Florida’s NCAA Tournament résumé is that of an inconsistent team that has a lot of very good wins — Florida currently has five “Quadrant I” wins, short for home wins over RPI top-30 teams, neutral-site wins over RPI top-50 teams, or road wins over RPI top-75 teams, per Warren Nolan’s RPI — and a puzzling set of losses, as denoted by the Gators’ current 5-5 record in “Quadrant II” games.
(The usage of RPI and arbitrary benchmarks in determining Quadrants helps make this accounting fuzzy and inexact, as you might expect. Florida could have another Quadrant I win by next week without winning a game based solely on Arkansas inching back into the top 30, and its loss to Alabama could be seen as a less damaging Quadrant I setback if the Crimson Tide were to do the same.)
That has Florida in line for something like a No. 5 to No. 8 seed — Bracket Matrix suggested a No. 6 last night, prior to Florida’s loss to Georgia — and a tough NCAA Tournament road that could send the Gators to a far-flung subregional site like Boise or San Diego rather than the relatively close sites in Charlotte and Nashville.
And, honestly? I’m okay with that. It’s about right for what this team is, and what this team does.
Florida’s roster, that one that I outlined in the first couple of paragraphs, is a deeply flawed one, despite its standout players.
The Gators have an excellent point guard in Chiozza — who has had a superb senior season worthy of All-SEC recognition and potential All-American consideration — and three good but limited wings in Allen, Hudson, and Koulechov. Chiozza and Allen are both too small — Chiozza is very generously listed at 6’0” by Florida, and Allen’s height is likely rounded up to 6’2” — to thwart guards on defense or bully defenders to the rim on offense with their strength alone, so they must get by on quickness, which does not always work. Hudson, on the other hand, has ample athleticism and height to defend wings, but is not always an engaged defender; Koulechov does, generally, play with intensity on the defensive end, but is also usually defending bigger players by virtue of having to play as a massively undersized power forward on this team, though he might also struggle with defending quicker wings by virtue of his lack of lateral quickness.
And those players are Florida’s best ones.
Hayes has been, charitably, a substantial disappointment in his junior season, and is averaging just 5.2 points and rebounds per game — sixth and second (to Koulechov) on Florida’s roster — despite often playing as the Gators’ only interior option. His inability to create for himself inside more than once or twice a game, penchant for fumbling away the ball, and woeful foul shooting — he’s sitting at an atrocious 52 percent, a year after improving what was an equally abominable 48 percent from the line as a freshman to a respectable-for-a-big 68 percent as a sophomore — have all made him an offensive liability.
Consequently, Mike White has seemed to consciously avoid trying to feature Hayes at that end as a result — a move that makes sense in a vacuum, given his other options, but one that has also robbed Florida of the benefits of having even a plausible threat in the low post, given that none of the rest of Florida’s players are consistent post-up options, either. Without a reason to double a post player or commit any sort of extra defensive attention to the paint, Florida opponents are free to devote their efforts to stopping drives and/or extending defense to or beyond the three-point line, and to switch liberally without fear of a big feasting on a mismatch.
And on the other end of the floor, using Hayes as Florida’s lone big means putting him in one-on-one matchups that disadvantage him and require perimeter defenders to cheat in and help — which, in turn, often leads to those same perimeter defenders attempting to recover and rotate to defend three-point attempts, something they do not do particularly well. (Hayes remains a premier shot-blocker and a good help defender, but he does not thrive as an individual defender.)
The best solution Florida has to that problem is, in practice, deploying Stone more as a true power forward to shore up its interior presence. But, plainly, he’s not one on offense, lacking a back-to-the-basket game to speak of, and he’s better as a help defender than an individual one. And while Stone has developed into a good option as a tweener forward — in a major surprise, he’s put up this team’s best percentage from three at 42 percent — he also makes a terrible 21.4 percent of his two-point jumpers, worst on the team, and finishes at the rim at a lower rate than the diminutive Chiozza.
And yet Stone soaking up more minutes at forward is still probably a better call than rolling the dice with Gak and Dontay Bassett, who share “committing fouls” as their standout consistent skill, and who have only been effective in fits and starts.
And while John Egbunu, Chase Johnson — who had gotten more hype than fellow freshmen Ballard and Okauru in the fall — and Isaiah Stokes could all have helped this team inside, in theory, Johnson is the only one who has suited up this season, and he’s played just four games.
It’s hard to say any of those three players will suit up in the near future, either. Wednesday was the anniversary of Egbunu’s ACL tear at Auburn, and a recent setback has not halted Egbunu’s attempt to make it back to the court this season, but time is running out. Stokes playing now would be counterproductive when he could simply redshirt; the same is true for Johnson, who sustained multiple concussions in the fall and whose slow recovery from them is likely prudent for the player despite being perplexing to the observer.
Adding those three players — who all stand 6’8” or taller, per Florida — would obviously buttress this team’s frontcourt. It’s just not going to happen this year — and though, should Egbunu apply for and be granted a sixth year of eligibility, all three could still yet add substantial reinforcement to the program, Egbunu taking that route instead of simply trying to go pro would be unorthodox.
And so we circle back to what this team is, and what (we think) it can and cannot do. It can score, especially from the perimeter, when its shots fall; it cannot rely on any one of its guards to be that consistent scorer, night after night. It can occasionally defend with intensity, especially by leveraging its speed; it cannot shut down other teams consistently unless it rebounds effectively, which it struggles to do because of physical limitations of individual players and a lack of size. It can build leads; it cannot keep them, as White’s best efforts to slow down multiple games and try to scrape together stops have proven, by the conventional means of “playing defense well.”
I think this team, warts and all, can still make an NCAA Tournament run. It shoots well enough to catch good teams on hot nights, and — for whatever reason — plays well at neutral sites, with its only losses on neutral floors coming to Duke and Clemson, two very good teams, by a single possession. Chiozza and Allen have given proof of their ability to star in March, and Koulechov, whose peripatetic collegiate career has featured zero NCAA Tournament minutes to date, is likely hungry for a chance to show out on such a stage.
But we must also be prepared for the distinct possibility that Florida will do something dumb — like, say, going 3-1 against Tennessee, Auburn, Alabama, and Kentucky over the next two weeks, then limping into the NCAA Tournament off an SEC Tournament loss to one of the conference’s lesser teams — that makes some Florida fans tear their hair out.
I won’t be one of them, and not just because I don’t have enough hair to do that as often as this team would warrant. I accepted the flaws of this team, one capable of terrific and terrible, a while back.
And I’ve tried to enjoy the good and be less wounded by the bad — a strategy that has come in handy for, oh, the last decade or so of Florida football, and one you would think other Florida fans might occasionally employ when the “Florida should be the greatest at all things at all times” posturing gets exhausting — over the course of this season, which has let me smile about beating a subpar Kentucky team at Rupp and shake my head sadly while watching last night’s game.
Greatness is rare, and Florida fans have been repeatedly spoiled by seeing it from virtually every team that wears the Gators name over the last three decades.
Greatness is also hard, and Florida fans underestimate how hard it is.
And not having or accomplishing greatness is not failure, despite how binary our world has come to be.
These Gators probably won’t achieve ultimate greatness this season — probably is not certainly — and I’m okay with that.
I urge you to try to be okay with it, too — not least because the alternative is misery, and we have more than enough of that in the world as is.