|Defending champion Gators struggling to reach NCAA tournament|
|Written by Admin|
|Tuesday, 04 March 2008 02:02|
It was meant to be a sign of unity as the Gators tried to state their case for making the NCAA tournament.
But the whole thing went awry - maybe a fitting statement given how the season has turned for the two-time defending national champions.
After starting 18-3 and beating then-No. 14 Vanderbilt by 22 points, the Gators (21-8, 8-6 Southeastern Conference) have lost five of their last eight games and might need a couple of upsets to make their 10th consecutive NCAA tournament.
``We all know what's at stake,'' freshman forward Adam Allen said Monday. ``We know we've got to win some games to get in the tournament. Nobody wants to go to the NIT. It's like the champion of the losers if you win that. Everybody wants to play in the NCAA tournament.''
For the Gators to get back there, they might need to beat No. 4 Tennessee on Wednesday night and maybe win at Kentucky on Sunday. Otherwise, they might have to win the Southeastern Conference tournament.
``We need at least one of them,'' Allen said. ``If we lose both these games, it's going to be really hard to get into the tournament. I don't see how we can do it if we lose both of them.''
No one really expected Florida to be in the mix for an NCAA berth before the season. After all, coach Billy Donovan had four players leave school early and lost his top six scorers off the title team.
Three of them - Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer - were NBA lottery picks. That left Donovan with a junior, three sophomores and five freshmen, the least experienced team in his 12-year tenure.
``We have not been able to offset the departure of six guys,'' Donovan said. ``I knew that coming in. I knew what this was going to be like in terms of testing myself, our coaching staff and these guys. I don't think there's anyone, with where we're at right now, that's saying, 'This caught me off guard, or boy, I'm surprised, it's not what I expected.'''
Nonetheless, the Gators have proven to be formidable when they shoot well and don't have to defend bigger, stronger, more athletic opponents.
It worked early.
But Florida has been exposed lately. Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi State manhandled the Gators down low.
Tennessee and Kentucky could be somewhat better matchups inside. Then again, the Gators needed overtime to hold off the Wildcats in Gainesville in January and got outscored 58-30 to close out a blowout against the Volunteers in Knoxville last month.
The Gators, whose NCAA tournament resume includes an RPI of 61 and a strength of schedule ranking of 105, need to play much better in the second meetings to turn things around.
``Definitely there's more pressure on us,'' forward Alex Tyus said. ``But I feel like we already put ourselves in a bad position, so now what we need to do is come out there and get the win, don't worry about who we're playing.''
Players had the same attitude before facing Mississippi State, and Lucas believed the head-shavings would be a nice touch.
But after the first lines were cut, he realized an ``F'' was going to be ``too outrageous,'' so he went in a different direction.
The Gators can only hope the same will happen on the court.
``Any year not in the NCAA tournament is a bad year for Florida,'' Allen said. ``The coaches try not to (say), 'If we lose, we're done.' They don't try to throw that out there. I think we all know in our minds that we have to get something done here.''