After a two-week break, The Silver Lining is back to its weekly publishing schedule. This edition is dedicated to taking a closer look at the Florida Gators men’s basketball team, which at 12-13 overall and 5-7 in SEC play is floundering with its leading scorer – junior guard Michael Frazier II (high-ankle sprain) – out for an undetermined amount of time.
It’s simple, really…
To anyone who has watched the Gators this season – whether a fan, journalist, analyst, player or coach – it is quite apparent that Florida is, shall we say, a flawed basketball team. Some may chalk many of the Gators’ ills up to bad luck; UF, after all, is KenPom.com’s least-lucky team in the nation by a wide margin at -.162. But its head coach, Billy Donovan, knows that’s ultimately an easy excuse and one that tries to hide a much bigger problem.
Yes, Florida has certainly had its fair share of bad luck – late-game officiating, last-second baskets made by opponents, Jacob Kurtz’s accidental own goal tip-in at the buzzer against Florida State – but its 2-6 record in games decided by two points or fewer (and 12-13 record overall) are true representations of its play to this point.
As Donovan said after Saturday’s loss, “Life, to me, is always about getting to the truth.” So let’s do just that.
Statistics like player efficiency rating and strength of schedule are considered important in basketball these days, but the ultimate point of the game is a simple one: put the ball in the basket. And these Gators are doing that as poorly as any team in program history (at least as far back as statistics have been kept).
The 65.4 points per game that 2014-15 Florida men’s basketball has been scoring through 25 contests is its lowest average since 1950-51 (62.7). (UF averaged 52.4 the season prior in 1949-50, the first season records were kept.) That fact in and of itself is amazing. Now for some perspective. The 1950-51 team played without either a three-point shot (adopted in 1986-87) or a shot clock (45-second clock adopted in 1985-86, 35 seconds in 1993-94). UF scoring so few points is quite a feat, though certainly not one to be celebrated.
Unfortunately, it does not stop there for the Gators. This team’s .439 field goal percentage is its worst since 1995-96 (.426) and the third-lowest in program history. Its .662 free throw percentage is the lowest since 1997-98 (.661), and Florida is shooting the three at a rate (.328) that is its fourth-worst in the 29 years the shot has been part of the game, lowest since 2009-10 (.313).
The Gators have had their defensive lapses at times, but the 59.9 points per game they’re allowing opponents – while the most in the last three seasons – is still the fourth-best in program history. UF is certainly not consistent defensively, but it’s playing well enough to win a majority of its games.
Scoring is down across the NCAA, which has led for some to call for a shot clock time reduction (there are proponents for 30 and 24 seconds), but Florida’s drop-off is still out of the norm. The Gators are down 6.6 points per game (offense and defense combined) from a season ago and that is not likely to change anytime soon.
The fix will not come this season, and it may not come with these players, which are another reason why Florida is currently ninth in the SEC standings, out of the NCAA Tournament (barring an SEC Tournament miracle) and currently on the bubble of the NIT.
Too many misses
While coaching absolutely matters in college more than it does in the NBA, the saying goes among professionals that a coach is only as good as his players. Donovan has proved that he can coach and mold any type of player – no matter his high school rating – into an All-SEC performer, but he has definitely been aided in large part by his recruiting acumen and roster management ability.
Those have been areas of issue for the Gators as of late, especially when you dive deeper into the players that have been added to the program yet either did not work out or have not lived up to expectations at this time.
Florida’s 2011 recruiting class included Bradley Beal (left after one season for the NBA) and 6-foot-10 Walter Pitchford, who transferred due to playing time concerns and is now averaging 6.8 points and 4.8 boards in 28.0 minutes per game for Nebraska.
The four-member 2012 recruiting class, juniors this season, is down to two (one active) with Frazier the only player taking the court. (Forward DeVon Walker, who decided to transfer two offseasons ago before changing his mind, tore his ACL over the summer.) Dillon Graham transferred this season while Braxton Ogbueze, who was not pleased with his situation at UF, is currently scoring 10.4 points per game while shooting 42.7 percent from three and hitting 80.9 percent of his free throws for Charlotte.
The Gators’ 2013 class was praised throughout the land as Donovan hauled in a pair of in-state five-star prospects in point guard Kasey Hill and center Chris Walker, the latter of which was expected to head to the NBA after one season. Hill to this point has been slow to develop; he flashes at times but is ineffective as a shooter from all points on the court, is too turnover prone and has defensive lapses. Walker, who was not eligible until well into the spring semester of his freshman year, has been the model of inconsistency despite making modest gains in his second year with the program.
And though Donovan was not expecting a ton from his current freshmen, he was down a third of his class from the get go with G Brandone Francis unable to qualify academically. Both PG Chris Chiozza and F Devin Robinson have flashed, but Chiozza is still developing a scoring touch and Robinson has been as up-and-down as can be, likely on his way to setting a record for air balls in a single season (if such a statistic existed). Each player has already shown enough to make observers believe they can be developed into top-notch players as long as they are willing to go through the process; they look to have the right attitude and work ethic in that regard.
Donovan’s recent splurge on transfers has not worked out the way he planned, either. Dorian Finney-Smith was an absolute hit; he developed nicely and filled a perfect role (for which he was named 2014 SEC Sixth Man of the Year) but has not yet achieved the necessary level of mental development to be an All-SEC performer as a starter. Damontre Harris was supposed to be a big-time reserve last season and the rock in the middle for Florida in 2014-15; instead, the South Carolina transfer could not get things together off the court and left the program twice (the second time for good). He’s currently averaging a double-double for NAIA Campbellsville.
Rutgers G Eli Carter received an NCAA waiver to play immediately as a sophomore but missed the season while still being hampered by leg injuries; he has played most of this season but appears to have lost some of his explosiveness. Neither Jon Horford (Michigan) nor Alex Murphy (Duke) was expected to be a big-time contributor with both coming in as reserves at their previous stops, but Horford’s knee injury has made him especially ineffective, while Murphy is still getting a feel for things and may be a nice piece in another year.
Would having Pitchford, Ogbueze, Harris and a healthy DeVon Walker (with neither Horford nor Murphy on the roster due to scholarship space) make the Gators better this season? Probably, especially when you consider Donovan’s aforementioned ability to develop and mold players.
“Sometimes those things don’t pan out and you get caught,” said Donovan recently. “You’re always trying to field 13 scholarships but sometimes different things happen and situations happen that are kind of out of your control.”
Donovan has also made it a point to say that programs like Florida needing a rebuilding period are common, especially when a significant amount of talent is lost all at once.
“The one thing about this program, which is a little bit different, is when you’re trying to build a program that’s not a tradition-rich program like the Kentuckys, the Dukes, the North Carolinas, the UCLAs – they’ve been good forever, ever since there’s been college basketball, they’ve been good – but really in a lot of ways, the rest of the country is trying to build and maintain a level of stability and consistency,” he said.
“The biggest challenge with Florida is maintaining a level of consistency for a long period time. I think we have maintained a level of consistency for a long time, but if you look at that level of consistency, there have been some ebbs and flows and ups and downs.”
The Gators lost five starters and their sixth man from the 2006-07 title-winning team; the result was back-to-back NIT appearances, though the program was still quite competitive those years (especially with Nick Calathes and Marreese Speights in 2007-08).
Florida saw four starters depart this offseason. While the Gators are flush with roleplayers, they do not have a point guard like Calathes to run the team or a center like Speights to help dominate the post. In fact, UF does not have anything resembling either.
That is why Donovan has repeated over and again that he “knew what this year was going to be,” admitting a couple of weeks ago that “our recruiting the last three to four years has been very, very challenging.” And he has taken the blame for it, noting that “there’s not enough around some of the guys” on the court at any given time.
But while Donovan may have known Florida was going to struggle to be competitive in its race for a league title or even a spot in the NCAA Tournament, he could not have imagined that the Gators would be sitting below .500 with 25 games gone in the season.
There was simply too much wrong with Florida to fix inside this season. From general scoring ability to basketball IQ to mental preparedness to healthy bodies, the Gators have so much working against them that it is hard to actually see them favored in more than one of their six remaining regular-season games.
What is amazing is through all of the adversity, Florida’s had a legitimate opportunity to pick up a victory in each of its last five losses, especially the three in which they fell by a single point (twice to Ole Miss). But alas, the Gators have failed to do so, and such will likely be the story of their season: close but no cigar in almost every regard.
Not Only Gators: Six down, two (plus one) to go
It’s Oscar week and after going to see American Sniper on Sunday, I’m only two Best Picture nominees (Boyhood, The Theory of Everything) plus Foxcatcher away from wrapping up my Academy Award viewing.
American Sniper was thoroughly enjoyable, no question, but I simply do not see it as a major-award winner. There is a chance Bradley Cooper takes home Best Actor, but it was not a “Best Picture” film, in my opinion.
The Imitation Game, which I also saw in the last week, was far superior in most ways including direction, acting and screenplay adaptation (best I can tell in the latter regard). Whiplash is the most underrated film this year, and Birdman is a critical darling for a reason – it’s special.
My annual Oscars predictions and picks will be posted prior to the show, so stay on the lookout for that.
This Week’s Movie Trailer
Straight Outta Compton (red band, explicit):
The Top 5 List
From the home office in Wahoo, Nebraska…
1. Chicken and waffles
2. Peanut butter and banana French toast
3. Pancakes and sausage (or bacon)
4. Crab cake Benedict
5. Shrimp and grits
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