To be frank: The Florida Gators men’s basketball team would not make the 2022 NCAA Tournament if selection of the field were done today.
At 19-12 in all games and 9-9 in SEC play, the Gators have treaded water fairly well since a terrible loss to Texas Southern in non-conference competition, but have just one great win — over Auburn in late February — and a couple of iffy losses in SEC play (at Ole Miss and Texas A&M) to their name. A failure to break through against any of the league’s top six teams other than Auburn — Florida is 1-7 in seven games against those Tigers, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, LSU, and Tennessee, all of which are NCAA Tournament locks at this point — is most of why the Gators are on the outside looking in at the field of 68 according to most bracket brains.
But Florida is also a single win shy of 20 overall and 10 against SEC competition — and the SEC is clearly one of the three best leagues in the nation, along with the Big 12 and Big Ten, which leaves the door to the so-called Big Dance open for a rear entry by these Gators.
Probably, kicking that door down requires multiple wins in the SEC Tournament, which began Wednesday and runs through Sunday in Tampa. The Gators begin in the second round and as the No. 9 seed, which matches them up against eighth-seeded Texas A&M in a rematch of a February game that was offensive only to the eye.
Florida shot dreadful percentages from the floor in the first half and had eight points with five minutes until halftime, but staged an improbable 16-2 rally to take the lead late, then gave it up on an agonizing foul of a three-point shooter by Phlandrous Fleming, falling in a 55-54 defeat that ended an eight-game skid for the Aggies.
That loss came right before Florida’s spirited effort against and win over Auburn, but the win also seems to have recharged the Aggies. Since (and including) that night, A&M is 5-1, taking a tough loss to Vanderbilt but also thumping Alabama and essentially ending Mississippi State’s NCAA Tournament hopes. And an offense that had been dormant for months has found its footing, with excellent work inside the arc fueling three straight games of 1.18 points per possession or better before falling back to earth against Ben Howland’s Bulldogs.
Of course, Florida had its own offensive renaissance in the three games prior to its last one, a dismal day of shooting against Kentucky, and the Gators are, for the season, sort of a mirror image of A&M, with a good offense and less-good defense. And it’s probable that this game is going to be decided on the offensive glass for the Aggies anyway: Florida’s season-long struggles to clean the glass were maybe never as painful as in College Station, where A&M got 46 percent of the offensive boards (17 total) and might have lost if it had only snagged 15 or 16.
Florida should shoot better than 7-for-30 from three — and especially better than 10-for-29 on twos — in Tampa. But A&M should exceed its percentages from that February game, too — and with both teams nursing slim tourney hopes, this one is liable to drip with desperation.
For the Gators’ sake, let’s hope their grip on the ball will be a little tighter than sweaty palms usually allow.