Thoughts of the Day: March 2, 2020

IT’S BEEN A SEASON OF TOO MANY CLOSE CALL LOSSES With two games remaining in the regular season, the Florida Gators are 18-11 overall, 10-6 in SEC play, certainly not what was expected when the season began back in November. Mind-numbing is the fact the Gators could easily be sitting at 24-5 with a 14-2 SEC record that would be tied with Kentucky for the SEC lead. Instead of battling for a 7-9 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Gators would be sitting no worse than the two or three line for every reputable bracketologist.


Saturday’s 63-58 loss to Tennessee in Knoxville was Florida’s sixth of the season by seven or fewer points. The losses to UConn and Utah State (by three each), LSU (by two), Mississippi State (by seven), Kentucky (by six) and Tennessee were all winnable games. In each of these six losses, you can look back to a couple of missed shots or a defensive lapse toward the end of the game and know that the Gators were really so close.


The Tennessee loss was a tale of two halves. Was it Tennessee’s defense was just that good in the first half or a case of complete lack of execution by the Gators? I’m not trying to take anything away from Tennessee’s effort because the Vols played with real purpose on the defensive end, but the Gators looked like a lost ball in the tall weeds in the final 10 minutes of the opening half. In the second half, Florida looked like a completely different team. The ball moved, there were good shots to be had – and made – and there was real effort defensively. Had the Gators played with that same intensity in the first half, they would have walked away with a win.


Most of the people who do basketball brackets for a living have the Gators solidly in the NCAA field. A bad loss Tuesday night at Georgia followed by a blowout at home against Kentucky next Saturday and then a bad showing in the SEC Tournament in Nashville could very well change that, but for now, at least, figure they’re in. The question is do the Gators want to ease their way into the tournament or do they want to go in with muscles flexed, ready to take on the world and win?


The Georgia and Kentucky games are winnable, but then so were so many others. To win them both, Florida can’t have another game like the one Saturday in which Keyontae Johnson, Andrew Nembhard and Scottie Lewis combined for 12 points. In the win over LSU earlier in the week, the three of them combined to score 60. Now, Tennessee is a far superior defensive team than LSU, but still, you don’t expect a 48-point dropoff from one game to the next.


Florida played good enough defense to win the Tennessee game, but they played well enough defensively to win the UConn, Utah State and Kentucky games, too. The problem in each of those losses is they missed way too many shots. There is a fine line between being a pretty good team and one that could be something special. The special teams make shots in the tough, grind it out games.


It’s not too late for the Gators to be something special, but they can’t have another game like Tennessee or any of those other five close call losses if they’re going to make people forget what might have been.

SEC BASKETBALL Tuesday’s games

Mississippi State (19-10, 10-6 SEC) at South Carolina (17-12, 9-7 SEC), SEC Network

Vanderbilt (9-20, 1-15 SEC) at Alabama (16-13, 8-8), SEC Network Tennessee (16-13, 8-8 SEC) at #8 Kentucky (24-5, 14-2 SEC), ESPN Wednesday’s Games FLORIDA (18-11, 10-6 SEC) at Georgia (15-14, 5-11 SEC), ESPNU Texas A&M (14-14, 8-8 SEC) at #15 Auburn (24-5, 11-5 SEC), ESPN2 LSU (20-9, 11-5 SEC) at Arkansas (18-11, 6-10 SEC), SEC Network Missouri (14-15, 6-10) at Ole Miss (14-15, 5-11 SEC), SEC Network


SURE IT’S EARLY BUT UF’S 11-0 START IS IMPRESSIVE The real grind, which is the SEC portion of the schedule, doesn’t begin for a couple more weekends, but still, Florida’s 11-0 start to the 2020 baseball season is impressive. Only twice in school history – 1989 and 2002 – have the Gators started a season 11-0.


Already this team has shown the ability to win in extra innings (three straight in extras, Jacksonville and the first two last weekend at Miami) and come from behind (had to do that both Friday and Saturday nights against Troy). The pitching, so far, is much better and more consistent than it was last season and Kevin O’Sullivan indeed has more good hitters than he has places in his lineup.


In taking out Troy three straight, the Gators rallied from down 2-0 in the seventh to take a 3-2 Friday night win, scored six in the seventh inning Saturday for a 10-7 win, and then got just the right amount of hitting to back up excellent pitching Sunday afternoon to complete the sweep. In Sunday’s win, freshman lefty Hunter Barco gave up four hits and one run while striking out nine in five innings. He got insurance in the eighth when Jud Fabian hit his second homer in as many days (fifth of the season), a three-run blast that cleared the bleachers in left field.


The sweep of Troy, which hits like a team that will make the NCAA Tournament in May, will keep the Gators ranked #1 nationally in the Baseball America, D1Baseball.com and NCBWA polls for another week.


Next up for the Gators is a Tuesday night game against Florida Atlantic in West Palm Beach. The next home game is Wednesday night against FAMU.


COMBINE WARRIORS

C.J. Henderson had a good showing in Indianapolis with a 4.39 in the 40 and 20 reps on the bench press. He measured 6-1, 204. Barring something drastic, he’s a solid first rounder.


Jabari Zuniga definitely helped himself. Measuring 6-3, 264, he ran a 4.64 40 with 29 bench reps and a 10-7 standing broad jump.


Jonathan Greenard put up good but not great numbers. He ran a 4.87 40 and had 22 bench reps with a good 4.34 time in the 20-yard shuttle run.


Lamical Perine didn’t do anything to hurt his draft chances, but something faster than a 4.62 40 could have moved him up to day two.


MONDAY MEANDERINGS

South Carolina (the state, not the university) has elected Steve Spurrier to its Football Hall of Fame Class of 2020. Spurrier is not only the winningest coach in both University of Florida and University of South Carolina history, but he’s also the last coach to win an Atlantic Coast Conference championship at Duke.


In knocking off Auburn, 73-67, to win the 49th Southeastern Conference basketball championship in school history, Kentucky’s Immanuel Quickley scored 18 points and pulled down 12 rebounds, further cementing him as the favorite to win SEC Player of the Year.


David Ballou is leaving Indiana to become Nick Saban’s strength and conditioning director at Alabama. Ballou was once the head strength guy at IMG Academy before leaving to work for Matt Balis at Notre Dame. Perhaps the announcement of Ballou (please inject sarcasm here) was what caused Bama DB Scooby Carter to announce he’s put his name in the transfer portal. Again. He did it last fall, then announced he had come back to the team. Now he’s transferring out again. Make up your mind!


At the LSU ceremony in which the jersey of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (formerly Chris Jackson), Shaquille O’Neal said in a video message, “You are undoubtedly the greatest player ever to play at LSU. I appreciate you showing me how to be great.”


LSU landed two 4-star basketball recruits: point guard Eric Gaines (6-3, 170, Lithonia, GA) and center Jerrell Colbert (6-9, San Antonio, TX Cornerstone Christian Academy). They’re just the latest additions to a most impressive recruiting class for Will Wade. I have to wonder if this recruiting class gets squirrelly when the NCAA sends out what is expected to be a blistering Notice of Allegations in the next two months.


Beware of Virginia when you start piecing together your NCAA Tournament brackets. The Cavaliers have won their last seven games including a 52-50 win over Duke Saturday night. Virginia leads the country in scoring defense (52.7 points per game) and ranks second nationally in defensive efficiency. In the win over Duke, center Jay Huff blocked 10 shots to go with 19 points and nine rebounds. His block of Duke star Vernon Carey Jr. in the last seconds was the most important defensive play of the game.


Vanderbilt isn’t going to name a new athletic director until after new chancellor Daniel Diermeier takes office July 1. There will be a lot of pressure for him to take the interim tag off Candice Storey Lee but whoever is hired needs to motivate the well-heeled boosters to pony up the cash to bring Vandy into the 21st century when it comes to facilities. As much as they want to blame the high academic standards for the lack of championships, that doesn’t seem to stop Stanford and Duke, both of whom have invested heavily into facilities, coaches and athletic budgets. What Vandy gets from the SEC ($45 million plus) dwarfs what Stanford and Duke (both around $30 million) receive from their conferences.


GOOD QUOTES FOR MONDAY

Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated on baseball’s fight to reclaim the game from the technocrats: “Baseball is in a fight to reclaim its soul. The soul of the game must be found in its aspirational value: players of all sizes playing a simple kids’ game. The conceit we’d like to keep is that this is our game writ slightly bigger.


“Baseball lost its soul under a growing technocracy. Brutish efficiency and cold, inarguable algorithms guide searches for the smallest of advantages. To be abundantly clear, the Astros are not evidence that this embrace of information and technology is wrong. It’s provided much good for the game, especially as a training tool. The Astros are the warning shot of what happens when it goes too far.”


From Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com, Southern Cal athletic director Mike Bohn on the possibility of leaving the Pac-12 to go independent: “The answer is no. Why should we do that? We’ve got 21 sports here. You know the drill. There would be no way for us to do that. Now, that being said if the unexpected happened and NBC said, ‘Hey, we want to partner you guys with Notre Dame’ … then that’s different.”


From Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com, Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz on his recruiting philosophy: “I don’t think you have to do it the way the rest of the SEC does it. Ole Miss is going to try to do it the way they’ve always done it, right? You don’t have to do that at Mizzou.”


RANDOM THOUGHTS: CBS extended Tony Romo’s contract and gave him a raise to $17 million. That’s nice work if you can get it … The rules committee has sent a proposal to the NCAA that would limit instant replays to two minutes … The first game in SoFi Stadium, which will be the home of the NFL Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers, will be the LA Bowl, which will be played in December 2020 … Okay, did anyone watch an XFL game on TV this weekend?

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