A few thoughts to jump start your Monday morning:
GATORS ARE A NO. 7 SEED, WILL FACE VATECH ON FRIDAY
Given the schizophrenic nature of this Florida basketball team, perhaps it’s a good thing that the Gators (14-9) won’t have to spend a full day sitting around waiting their turn in an NCAA Tournament like none that we’ve ever seen. The Gators, who are a generous No. 7 seed, will spring into action immediately, tipping off the first full day of tournament action Friday at 12:15 p.m. (CBS, Jim Nantz on the mike) against 10 seed Virginia Tech (15-6) of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
This is a very difficult Florida team to figure out. The Gators can be bad. Very bad as they proved in a home blowout loss to Kentucky and an unfathomable defeat at home against South Carolina, which finished the season as easily the worst team in the Southeastern Conference. They lost a winnable game on the road to Mississippi State and literally gave away a win against Missouri that would have assured them of a bye into the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
The Gators can also be very, very good as they proved by blowing out then 6th-ranked Tennessee at home by 26 points with Colin Castleton and Scottie Lewis unable to answer the bell and taking out then 11th-ranked West Virginia in Morgantown in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge. Tennessee is a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament and West Virginia is a No. 3.
There are very few teams in the tournament the Gators can’t beat and there isn’t a team in the field the Gators can’t lose to.
Some of the blame for Florida’s unpredictable nature can be placed on the 18-day pause after SEC preseason player of the year Keyontae Johnson went down in Tallahassee and the 13-day Covid-19 pause in February. With Johnson healthy and playing to his capability, this Florida team could be a top four seed. Take Johnson out of the equation and the distraction of those two lengthy pauses in which there were no games and only minimal practicing and it’s easier to understand why the Gators have been such an enigma.
Obviously, the NCAA Selection Committee believes the Gators are a fairly good basketball team when they are focused and reasonably healthy. They had the Gators ranked as the 28th-best beam in the country and Virginia Tech 37th. That’s somewhat of a surprise since VaTech plays in the Atlantic Coast Conference and had four wins over ranked teams (then No. 3 Villanova, then No. 24 Clemson, then No. 19 Duke and then No. 8 Virginia, three of which (Villanova, Clemson and Virginia) are in the NCAA field.
If the good Gators show up Friday, they are more than capable of beating Virginia Tech, which finished the regular season ranked 22nd in the Associated Press poll. The Hokies aren’t particularly tall, but they’re very physical and quite strong. Where they have run into problems is with their defensive consistency. When they keep opponents below 70 points, they tend to win. In five of the six losses, opponents scored at least 73 points. They gave up 81 to North Carolina in their ACC Tournament loss to the Tar Heels.
For Florida to win, someone other than Tre Mann has to show up offensively. Mann is averaging 23.5 per game the last four games with a high of 30 in the SEC Tournament quarterfinal loss to Tennessee. In those same four games, second leading scorer Colin Castleton has scored 31.
More alarming is the turnover-to-assist ratio the last four. The Gators have 39 assists in the last four games and 64 turnovers. If they have that kind of ratio against Virginia Tech, they’ll be heading home Friday night.
Should the Gators win their Friday game, they’ll be facing the winner of No. 2 Ohio State and No. 15 Oral Roberts Sunday.
One final NCAA Tournament note: The play-in games will be Thursday with 16 first round games Friday and 16 on Saturday. All games will be played in Indianapolis and the surrounding area. Florida’s first and second round matchups will be played at historic Hinkle Field House on the Butler University campus.
THE REST OF THE SEC NCAA TEAMS Alabama (24-6), No. 2, East: Florida in 2006-07 won the national championship in football and the NCAA title in basketball. With the football half of the daily double already in the bank, Alabama has a legitimate shot at duplicating the Florida feat. Nobody in the country plays defense like the Tide and their launch a three or take it to the rack offensive style is going to be very tough for anyone to prepare for. Alabama gets Iona (12-5) in the first round. I like Alabama-Florida State in the regional final with Alabama advancing to the Final Four.
Arkansas (22-6), No. 3, South: Before the Hogs were decapitated by LSU in the SEC Tournament semifinals, they had the look of a team that could make the Elite Eight. If they play like they did against LSU, they’ll have a hard time making it past the opening weekend. They get Colgate (14-1) in the first round and the winner of Texas Tech-Utah State in the second. I like a Baylor-Ohio State matchup for the regional final.
Tennessee (18-8), No. 5, Midwest: If John Fulkerson has recovered from concussion protocol, the Vols could get to the second weekend. They should handle surprise Pac-12 Tournament champ Oregon State (17-12) in round one, but they likely get a red hot Okie State (20-8) team in the second round. If Fulkerson is healthy they can beat Okie State. Without him? Doubtful. And, if they get to the second weekend, No. 1 seed Illinois would be the likely Sweet 16 opponent. I like Illinois in the top half of the bracket and I like West Virginia to emerge in the bottom half.
LSU (18-9), No. 8, East: LSU probably deserved better than a No. 8 seed after teaching the SEC Tournament championship game, particularly after a last-second tip-in defied gravity and popped out to give Bama the title. As a No. 8 the Tigers get a St. Bonaventure (16-4) team that has the best rim protector you’ve never heard of in 6-10 Osun Osunniyi. Survive that one and the Tigers get East No. 1 Michigan in round two. I like Florida State’s chances in the top half of this bracket. I’m not sold on Michigan.
Missouri (16-9), No. 9, West: The Tigers got the toughest draw of any of the SEC teams in the tournament. Even though Oklahoma (15-10) has lost six of its last seven, the Sooners can space you and light up the scoreboard. That’s round one. Round two, should Mizzou score the win, is Gonzaga. I’m not sure there’s a team in this bracket capable of staying within 10 points of the Zags.
AND IN THE NOBODY’S INTERESTED TOURNAMENT (NIT)
In what could be called the Mike White Memorial Game, Ole Miss (16-11), which is better than at least half the teams in the NCAA Tournament, will face Louisiana Tech (21-7) of Conference USA in the first round. Mike White played collegiately at Ole Miss and was an assistant coach there under Andy Kennedy. He was the HBC at Louisiana Tech before coming to Florida.
Also from the SEC, Mississippi State (14-13) will face Saint Louis (14-6) in another first round game.
GATORS TAKE TWO OF THREE FROM JU BUT THERE ARE PROBLEMS
Kevin O’Sullivan has to like what he sees from his hitters and weekend starters but it’s highly doubtful he’s happy right now, even though the 5th-ranked Gators (13-4) took two out of three from Jacksonville over the weekend. The Gators launched nine baseballs out of the new ball yard and the weekend rotation of Tommy Mace, Jack Leftwich and Hunter Barco gave up a combined four runs and 11 hits in 17-1/3 innings but there are issues, particularly in the field and with the relief pitching.
The Gators have committed 23 errors in 17 games, a .965 fielding percentage that ranks dead last in the SEC. This has to distress O’Sullivan since the Gators perennially rank among the nation’s best teams with the glove. Although the bullpen held JU to no runs and only one hit in 5-2/3 innings in games two and three, they gave up eight runs and nine hits in innings six through nine Friday night when UF dropped a 10-9 decision to the Dolphins.
Another issue that has to be resolved is midweek starters. When Nick Pogue and Tyler Nesbitt were lost for the season due to Tommy John surgery, it put the Gators in somewhat of a bind. Garrett Milchin (1-0, 2.00 ERA) gave O’Sullivan four strong innings against Georgia State last Tuesday night. He’s likely to get the start against FSU Tuesday. Freshman Chase Centala (1-0, 2.79 ERA) has one start in five appearances. O’Sullivan could also go with lefty Jordan Butler (1-1, 4.50 ERA), who has been a midweek starter and weekend reliever throughout his career.
Kirby McMullen, who homered in all three games over the weekend, led the assault at the plate. Josh Rivera homered Friday and Saturday. Nathan Hickey, Jud Fabian, Kris Armstrong and Jordan Butler each hit one out of the yard. Fabian leads the team with six homers, while Hickey and McMullen have four each.
The Gators will face Florida State (6-6) Tuesday night in Tallahassee and open SEC play Thursday through Saturday with Texas A&M (14-4) at the Florida Ballpark.
OTHER UF SPRING SPORTS Softball: The 6th-ranked Gators (16-2) handed 9th-ranked Kentucky (20-2) its first two losses of the season to take the opening SEC series of the season. The Gators won their Friday and Saturday matchups by identical 3-1 scores before falling in the Sunday finale, 4-2, in nine innings. Elizabeth Hightower (8-0) got the win Friday and a save Saturday.
Track and Field: The Florida men finished fourth at the NCAA Indoor Championships while the Florida women finished sixth.
Men’s Tennis: It was a big weekend for the 7th-ranked Gators (12-1, 8-0 SEC), who went on the road to take out 19th-ranked Ole Miss (5-7, 4-3 SEC), 6-1, Friday and 24th-ranked Mississippi State (11-5, 2-4 SEC), 7-0, to remain the only team in the SEC unbeaten in league matches. The Gators host 5th-ranked TCU in a midweek match on Wednesday and Florida State next Sunday.
Women’s Tennis: The 29th-ranked Gators improved to 7-6 overall, 5-3 in SEC play over the weekend by blanking 41st-ranked Missouri (13-9, 1-6 SEC) and 20th-ranked Arkansas (10-3, 4-3 SEC) by identical 4-0 scores. The Gators will return to action March 25 when they travel to Ole Miss.
Lacrosse: The 5th-ranked Gators (3-2) were stunned by Jacksonville, 12-11. The Gators will travel to Temple for Friday and Sunday matches as American Athletic Conference play begins.
Volleyball: The 7th-ranked Gators (16-2) took out 25th-ranked Missouri (11-7) twice over the weekend, setting up a two-match showdown next weekend with unbeaten and 3rd-ranked Kentucky (16-0) at the O-Dome. If the Gators can beat the Wildcats twice they will win the Southeastern Conference title.
Soccer: The Gators (4-8-2) lost to LSU, 2-1, in a Sunday match played in Orange Beach, Alabama.
ONE FINAL PITHY THOUGHT: Drew Brees made it official Sunday, calling quits his storied NFL career, leaving Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston as the immediate quarterback options for the New Orleans Saints. Unless the Saints want to become the Aints again, they better find someone else to play QB. Hill is 31-year-old career backup who is better known as a runner. Winston has shown a propensity for completing passes to the other team. I have no idea what the Saints are thinking, but from my vantage point if they can’t make a trade for an established QB they need to draft either Alabama’s Mac Jones or Florida’s Kyle Trask, both of whom can thrive in Sean Payton’s offensive schemes.