With just under four minutes left in the second half at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center, the Florida pep band started playing Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.”
The Gators were down 69-62 to the visiting Tennessee Volunteers, a three by the mercurial Erving Walker slicing the Vols’ lead to single digits for good. As the music for the first verse rolled on, one of the friends I attended the game with asked what song it was.
When I told him the title, he responded, “It’s appropriate.”
And it was, and is, appropriate, for this game against Tennessee and for this season, one spent searching for a spark.
The Gators and their faithful have lived and died by the classic tactic of Billyball, three-point shooting, and have had their hearts broken by all sorts of late-game heroics from other squads’ studs. Florida’s lack of size and perimeter speed forces Billy Donovan to use a 2-3 zone that has been bombarded by snipers all season. Though Florida is third in the SEC in three-point field goal percentage and lead the conference in overall shooting, the Gators languish in tenth in defensive field goal and defensive three-point field goal percentage. (See stats here.)
Couple the porous perimeter defense with a lack of discipline from a young team that often misses assignments and is slow in rotations, and Florida becomes a team that must outshoot its opponents and hope to win horse races rather than a team that can grind out victories on days when shots don’t fall.
In the first ten minutes of the game, it looked like Sunday would be one of those days, as the Gators went 6-of-18 from the field while allowing Tennessee to sprint out to a 15-point advantage at 29-14. Florida would slash that lead to 31-29 with 6-0 and 7-0 runs, but the Vols rebuilt the lead heading into halftime, Josh Tabb tossing in a three just before the buzzer to vault the Vols to a double-digit advantage, 45-33.
The second half saw another such yo-yo effect in the visitors’ lead: it swelled to 15 points again at 53-38, then to 16 at 59-43, but Florida chipped away at a three-or-more-possession edge with spurts and three-pointers, eventually creeping to single digits on Walker’s three.
For a two-minute stretch after that three, the Gators put in field goals while Tennessee’s J.P. Prince and Tyler Smith were each hitting one of two free throws at the line, and the lead shrunk. Florida trailed 73-70 with 1:30 left, and 75-72 with 46 ticks on the clock as Josh Tabb committed a turnover to give the Gators their first possession with a chance to tie the game since the 14:00 mark of the first half, when the score was 11-9.
The play was sound, a low-post screen that freed Walker to come screaming to the bottom corner of the arc and take an open three, and he was fed the ball with enough space to shoot.
But Scotty Hopson, the Vols’ excellent 6’7″ freshman, made up for being a step slow in pursuit of the 5’8″ Walker by getting a paw on the shot, deflecting it into the arms of Wayne Chism.
Florida fouled, and went through the routine of fouling and hope that all teams in that situation do, but, at that moment, the fans knew the day was lost. Another Walker triple cut the score to three again, at 78-75, but Tyler Smith hit the second of his two free throws to bring the margin to 79-75.
And this loss felt so familiar to so many other close defeats this season, because as at South Carolina, Kentucky Georgia, and LSU, the Gators staged a rally and were beaten by a greater one.
There was no singular shooter to doom UF, no Jodie Meeks or Terrance Woodbury or Marcus Thornton to shoulder the scoring load for the opposition, but the siren song of three-point shooting remained the same, with Tennessee shooting 52.6% from beyond the arc while Florida jacked up 28 threes, a little less than half of their 59 field goals, and made just 13.
Florida outrebounded Tennessee 32-27 and snagged nine offensive boards, but could not finish inside; Alex Tyus and Kenny Kadji combined to shoot 2-of-9 from the field and score seven points.
And this is this team’s problem: with no consistent presence inside, they must turn to perimeter shooting on offense and concede it on defense. Without a superb three-point shooter on the roster (Calathes, Chandler Parsons, Walker, and Walter Hodge are very good collectively, but none is a top-level shooter) or any shutdown defenders (the exception being the sparingly used Ray Shipman, a gritty, quick defender who seems to enjoy the role and deserves more minutes, and a nickname like “Takeaway,” because of it), the Gators are consistently forced to gun against teams with better aim. Worse, they know this, and commit themselves more fully on the offensive end.
It was striking to see Tennessee’s guards picking up men at midcourt, slapping the floor, and generally relishing the task of stopping opponents; these Gators often are caught moseying back after big buckets, and seem tentative rather than disciplined in their zone, often neglecting to extend it to the three-point line.
Conceding one half of the offense-defense battle so easily forces a team to make up for it on the other end and then some, and streaky shooting has prevented Florida from doing that this year.
Strangely, though this loss confirmed all its flaws, I haven’t been prouder of this year’s team than I am right now.
The Gators fought today, scrapping back from large deficits against a Tennessee team that thundered past them like an avalanche on Rocky Top. This is an emotional young team, which explains much of the good play at home and struggles on the road, but today, with the cauldron of orange and blue around them, Florida seemed almost anodyne in the face of adversity, neither imploding nor exploding.
Ideally, a team would play with that sort of atmosphere-neutralizing stability on the road and let the crowd amplify them at home. Given a choice between the two, though, I would take the former and not worry about the latter, hoping the crowd instead negatively impacts the visitors.
And I hope that bodes well for this team, which should have a future with its current core. Calathes is an NBA Draft prospect, though a quick review of mock draft writings indicates he would likely not be a lottery pick. Hodge, the team’s lone senior, has been a disappointment, being outscored and outpaced from three-point range by Walker, who is also more active on defense. Losing Hodge is a certainty and no huge problem for the 2009-10 Gators, but Calathes departing would rob UF of its best overall player, scorer, and ball-handler, likely entrusting all of those titles to incoming freshman and McDonald’s All-American Kenny Boynton.
Next year’s Gators should also be tougher inside, with Georgetown transfer Vernon Macklin eligible to play and freshman Eloy Vargas possibly having surgery to remove the bench from his behind. Vargas has struggled with conditioning and injury issues this year, but could be a defensive stopper with his lanky frame, and Macklin will be one of just two seniors on that team. (The other, Dan Werner, has evolved from object of fan vitriol to passable interior defender; theoretically, with more size and scoring ability on the floor next year, Werner could come in as a key reserve for high-energy minutes on defense, likely his ideal role.)
It may seem presumptive to be looking forward to next year, with a potential NCAA Tournament bid on the horizon this season, but this team is, barring a sudden transformation to SEC juggernaut in the conference tournament, headed for no better than an 8 or 9 seed.
If the Gators made the Big Dance, they would have to play at a level they’ve reached only rarely this year to even get out of the first round of the tournament, and a Sweet Sixteen run would be as implausible for this squad as the 2005-06 Gators’ national title campaign was.
That hard truth, and the team’s previous NIT experience, in a run to Madison Square Garden last year, means that it’s unlikely this team can shock the world in a postseason tournament and difficult to believe that there would be a lot of experience gleaned from here until the end of the year.
Clearly, those aren’t reasons to give up on the team. But I think I’ve got a better grasp on what realistic expectations for this squad should be, and that will allow me to enjoy them trying to exceed them as this season draws to a close.
We know what these Gators are: a decent SEC team and a marginal NCAA Tournament bid candidate, an occasionally breathtaking unit on offense and often heartbreaking unit on defense.
It doesn’t really matter if they make it to the Tournament or not; nothing these Gators do in the next month will change their outlook heading into the next season. In fact, the fight they displayed today is probably better sustenance for the hopeful Gators fan than the inevitable second-round NCAA beatdown will be.
“You live for the fight when it’s all that you’ve got,” Jon Bon Jovi sings towards the end of “Livin’ on a Prayer.”
This year’s Gators ought to be living for the fight, for the challenge of upsetting older, wiser, better foes.
Next year? Well, they’ll be more than halfway there.