A few thoughts to jump start your Friday morning:
ROTATION CHANGES AS GATORS HOST GEORGIA IN CRITICAL SERIES
The importance of this weekend’s series with Georgia (28-18, 11-13 SEC East) isn’t lost on Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan. Although the Gators trail East Division leader Tennessee (38-11, 17-7 SEC East) by two games and second place Vanderbilt (35-10, 16-7 SEC East) by 1.5, the 9th-ranked Gators (33-15, 15-9 SEC) are still very much in the hunt for a divisional title or at least a move up to second place.
While the Gators are facing Georgia at home, 4th-ranked Tennessee will be hosting No. 1 Arkansas (37-9, 17-7 SEC West) and Vanderbilt goes on the road to face 18th-ranked Ole Miss (34-14, 14-10 SEC West). If the Gators pull off a sweep while the Vols and Vandy lose two out of three, Florida could find itself tied at the top of the East on Sunday night. If UF can continue the momentum to either win the division or finish second they will earn a first day bye at the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Alabama. Considering the lack of overall depth and fragility of the Florida pitching staff, one extra day could be critical since a strong showing in Hoover could ensure hosting both NCAA regional and super regionals.
Championship possibilities have everything to do with O’Sullivan shaking up his weekend rotation ahead of tonight’s first game with Georgia (6:30 p.m., SEC Network+). The importance of winning game one without going deep into the bullpen is why O’Sullivan has moved Tommy Mace (5-0, 4.43 ERA) back into the Friday night starting role after spending the last four weekends pitching on Saturday. Mace hasn’t been dominant in his last four starts but he eats up innings and doesn’t walk people. If he can give the Gators at least five or six good innings, O’Sullivan can save wear and tear on long reliever Christian Scott (4-2, 2.74 ERA, 2 saves) and closer Jack Leftwich (6-3, 3.51 ERA, 4 saves).
The move to Mace on Friday shifts Franco Aleman (1-2, 5.17 ERA) back to Sunday afternoon. When Aleman is on his game, he can dominate with heat in the 95-98 range, but he gets into trouble at times with location. Perhaps the move back to Sunday will take some of the pressure off and allow Aleman to find some consistency.
The shakeup moves lefty Hunter Barco (8-2, 4.26 ERA) up a day to Saturday. During the past month, Barco has won each of his last four starts. He is coming off a dominating effort against Kentucky last weekend when he limited the Wildcats to two hits and struck out 10 in 6-2/3 innings for his team-high eighth win. The innings and strikeouts were career highs.
One Florida pitcher to keep an eye on this weekend will be Brandon Sproat (2-0, 3.31 ERA), who had his best outing of the season against Stetson Tuesday night when he allowed only one hit and one walk in four shutout innings. If Sproat can give the Gators two or three innings of long relief this weekend, O’Sullivan will have options on how to use Scott and Leftwich.
Georgia will go with lefties Liam Sullivan (1-1, 3.96 ERA) and Jaden Woods (3-0, 4.00 ERA) on Friday and Saturday.
Hot Gators: In Florida’s last 14 games, center fielder Jud Fabian is 19-47 (.404) with six doubles, seven home runs and 15 RBI … Kris Armstrong has three home runs and 10 RBI in his last nine games ... Leftwich has two wins and four saves in his last nine appearances. Leftwich has allowed only 39 hits in 56-1/3 innings.
SEC SOFTBALL TOURNAMENT: GATORS COME FROM BEHIND … AGAIN!
Does this sound familiar? Mississippi State (33-23) jumped on the Florida Gators 2-0 in the second inning at the SEC Softball Tournament in Tuscaloosa Thursday afternoon. The Gators (41-8) were behind so they had the Bulldogs right where they wanted them.
Following an all-too-familiar script, the Gators limped along offensively a lot longer than Tim Walton probably would like, but in the fifth and sixth innings a wakeup call was delivered to the Florida dugout. With one out in the bottom of the fifth, Emily Wilkie was hit by a pitch and Charla Echols followed with a single up the middle, just the Gators third hit of the game off Mississippi State starter Annie Willis. Kendyl Lindaman then delivered her seventh home run of the season to right center on a 3-2 count to put the Gators up 3-2.
In the bottom of the sixth, Cheyenne Lindsey and Hannah Adams hit back-to-back one-out singles to set the stage for Echols, who hammered her 13th home run of the season to right center to essentially put the game out of reach and advance the Gators to the tournament semifinals against Missouri (38-14), a 4-1 winner over LSU. In the other semifinal, host Alabama (43-7) will face Tennessee (41-12).
Elizabeth Hightower got the start for the Gators, going four innings before Natalie Lugo (15-2, 1.65 ERA) came on in the fifth to mow down nine of the ten batters she faced to earn the win.
It was the 11th come from behind win for the Gators and their fifth in the last seven games.
Other UF spring sports:
Lacrosse: The 6th-seeded Gators (16-2), who have won 13 games in a row, will face Southern Conference champion Mercer (7-7) in an NCAA Tournament first round game at Donald Dizney Stadium today at 4 p.m. If the Gators win, they will face the winner of Jacksonville (11-1) and Vanderbilt (12-6) Sunday at noon.
Shannon Kavanaugh is Florida’s top scorer with 13 goals and three assists while Brianna Harris has eight goals and five assists.
SEC track and field championships: After one day at the SEC Championships in College Station, the Florida men are in fifth place with 11 points as Thomas Mardal won the hammer throw with a season best effort of 245-4. It was the fourth SEC championship of Mardal’s career.
OVER, UNDER, AROUND AND THROUGH THE SEC
Alabama: Grad assistant and former Bama DB Shyheim Carter will get a chance to try out for the Houston Texans.
Arkansas: Defensive lineman Enoch Jackson is transferring to North Texas. He played in two games in 2019 and didn’t get into a game in 2020 … When Florida travels to Arkansas for the final SEC baseball season of the regular season, Baum-Walker Stadium will be at full capacity. Capacity is 11,531.
Auburn: Safety Chris Thompson Jr., a former 4-star recruit, is transferring to Southern Cal. He played in six games with eight tackles in 2020 … Nolan Hickman, the point guard who asked out of his LOI with Kentucky, has narrowed his choices down to three schools – Gonzaga, Kansas and Auburn.
Georgia: Georgia will allow full capacity at Foley Field for its May 20-22 baseball series with Ole Miss.
Kentucky: Five-star point guard Ty Ty Washington (6-3, 180) will sign with Kentucky, picking UK over Baylor, LSU, Kansas and Oregon.
LSU: Quarterback TJ Finley says Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and Mississippi State have reached out to him since he announced he is transferring out last week.
Mississippi State: DJ Stewart, who was the second leading scorer at 16 points per game and the team leader in assists with 103, is expected to remain in the NBA Draft.
Missouri: Scott Linehan, a former NFL offensive coordinator and last year’s passing game coordinator at LSU, has joined the Missouri staff as an analyst.
South Carolina: Pitcher Sam Swygert is transferring out. He is one of five players from the 2020 recruiting class who have elected to leave the program.
Tennessee: Former UT quarterback and pitcher/first baseman Todd Helton has been named to the College Baseball Hall of Fame. He holds the UT career record for home runs (38) and saves (12).
Texas A&M: Jimbo Fisher told the Dallas A&M Club that he’s happy the Aggies went 9-1 last year but “we finished fourth (nationally), that’s just three spots too low.”
Vanderbilt: While claiming pitcher Jack Leiter is not injured, Vandy coach Tim Corbin says he hasn’t decided if Leiter will be part of the rotation this weekend against Ole Miss.
NON-SEC FOOTBALL, BASKETBALL, BASEBALL AND OTHER STUFF
Former Gator Udonis Haslem, who is more like a player-coach for the Miami Heat, made his season debut on the floor Thursday night. Haslem had hardly broken into a sweat when he got into an altercation with Dwight Howard of the Philadelphia 76ers, for which the 40-year-old was promptly ejected.
The Pac-12 has hired George Kliavkoff, the president of entertainment and sports for MGM Resorts International, as its new commissioner, replacing the inept Larry Scott. Kliavkoff has a 5-year contract to get the conference off life support when it comes to football.
Former Arkansas basketball coach Mike Anderson is feeling the love at St. John’s. Anderson led the Red Storm (I hate that nickname, liked the old one better but it’s not politically correct) to a 16-11 record this past season after being picked to finish 9th in the Big East. St. John’s has given Anderson a 6-year extension.
A group of 50 Hartford businessmen known as “Friends of the Neighborhood,” are pushing back against the University of Hartford’s decision to drop down from Division I to non-scholarship Division III. The group, which includes many financially well connected and influential members, intends to use whatever leverage possible to get the Board of Regents to reconsider the move. This sounds a lot like what happened when UAB tried to drop football a few years back.
Patrick Baldwin Jr., who was being heavily recruited by Kentucky, Duke and numerous other blueblood basketball programs, will try to elevate the program at Milwaukee where his father is the head coach. A 6-10 forward who is a pure shooter with what seems to be unlimited range, Baldwin Jr. is considered the nation’s fourth best prospect.
On the resignations front, Northwestern athletic director Mike Polisky resigned 10 days after his hire amid protests from students and faculty. Polisky is one of four defendants named in a lawsuit filed by a former Northwestern cheerleader. At South Carolina, school president Bob Caslen resigned after plagiarizing a speech during commencement.
Alex Rodriguez is heading a group that has put in a bid to buy the NBA Minnesota Timberwolves for approximately $1.5 billion.
If you are craving college football, then you better watch the D1AA championship game between Sam Houston State and South Dakota State this weekend. It’s the last college football you’ll see until late August.
ONE FINAL PITHY THOUGHT: As I was leaving a lunch gathering Thursday, I had to chance to talk for a few minutes with old friend Jack Thompson, a former Florida offensive lineman and assistant coach, about future of college sports. Thompson sees tough sledding ahead as sports deal with name, image and likeness in the future. “Here is where it could undercut all of college sports,” Thompson said. “You get a school that wants to recruit a couple of guys who are considered program-changers. Next thing you know, someone arranges a deal for them to come play and this is BEFORE they’ve ever suited up. You’re going to have two problems. One is in the locker room with guys already on the team who are going to be unhappy because guys who haven’t proven anything are getting a money deal. The second is with your recruits who didn’t get a deal. Nobody is going to be happy. I don’t know how they’re going to deal with this in the future, but from what I’m seeing it’s not going to be good. I think this is going to be the end of college sports as we know them.” Obviously, this is a time when leadership will be critical to figure out how to make this work, but when I look to the NCAA I see Mark Emmert and realize my friend might very well be right.