A few thoughts to jump start your Thursday morning:
THE GATORS CAN’T PULL OFF THE IMPOSSIBLE … CAN THEY? After getting swept by Arkansas in Fayetteville last weekend, no one with a functioning brain would have been shocked if the Florida Gators were one-and-done in Hoover, Alabama. It’s the way the Gators lost three in a row to the Razorbacks that had everyone shaking their head, hoping for the best in Hoover, but expecting the worst. Those were three winnable games that the Gators blew, not exactly the way a team headed for bigger and better things is supposed to be playing at the end of the regular season.
Okay, so they beat Kentucky in that first round game, not exactly a monumental achievement but considering the way UF played in Fayetteville and how well they played against Kentucky, it was enough to raise a few eyebrows. After that 4-1 win that was highlighted by exceptionally good pitching, just enough hitting to put the game out of UK’s reach, and defense that for once didn’t do something stupid like commit a stupid error to open the floodgates for a bad inning, folks who do the baseball bracketology were saying the Gators had cemented hosting an NCAA regional.
That was about as good as it is supposed to get for the Gators, but a funny thing happened on the way to a second round loss to a Mississippi State team that has spent the majority of the season ranked among the top five teams in the country and a team that has a shot at the NCAA record for most strikeouts per nine innings by a pitching staff. The Gators (a) didn’t lose, (b) struck out only three times, (c) ripped and shredded five MSU pitchers for 18 hits, and (d) run-ruled the Bulldogs. The Gators (37-19) led 13-1 after seven innings so by SEC Tournament rules, mercy was declared and there were the Gators, looking in Hoover like they were supposed to look back in Gainesville when the season began back in February when everyone with a vote and opinion had UF ranked No. 1 in the nation.
And now, instead of a tail-dragger of a loss to Mississippi State (40-14) that puts UF in the elimination bracket, the Gators find themselves on day three with a date to play Alabama (31-22) of all people. Alabama wasn’t supposed to survive day one much less knock off 4th-ranked and 2nd-seeded Tennessee 3-2 in 11 innings on day two. Instead of an early morning elimination game, the Gators and Alabama will play at 5 p.m.
In beating Mississippi State, Florida got the best pitching performance of Hunter Barco’s career. The second-year freshman lefty (10-2, 3.81 ERA) gave up Mississippi State’s only run in the bottom of the first and then shut down the Bulldogs the rest of the way. He gave up only four hits, didn’t walk a batter and needed only 91 pitches in going the seven-inning distance. Barco struck out only two hitters, but he got 13 groundouts including a double play grounder to end the sixth inning. By going the full seven innings, Barco gave Florida’s bullpen a day of rest, something that could come in handy against Alabama this afternoon.
While the Bulldogs kept beating the ball into the ground against Barco, Florida hitters were spraying line drives all over the yard. Josh Rivera had the first 4-hit game of his career. Nathan Hickey, who got the surprise start at third base, went 3-5 and Chris Armstrong drove in four runs with two singles and a double. Freshman Sterlin Thompson hit a second inning homer and drove in three runs. All nine starters had at least one hit.
When the SEC Tournament began, D1Baseball.com projected the Gators as a No. 14 NCAA seed, hosting a regional and moving on to Austin for the super regional. It’s still a longshot for UF to host all the way through, but with a win against Alabama, the Gators will advance to the Saturday semifinals against a team that has had to stave off elimination. By going 2-0 in Hoover, the Gators certainly won’t host a super regional, but if they are 3-0 heading into Saturday, they will definitely be in the hunt. If Florida was to somehow pull off the grandest of miracles by going 5-0 in Hoover to take the SEC Tournament, it might be impossible for the NCAA selection committee to keep UF from one of the top eight national seeds.
Against Alabama, Florida will go with righthander Franco Aleman, who has given up 23 earned runs in 23-1/3 innings over his last four starts. Aleman (1-4, 5.61 ERA) has had some quality starts like the one against Auburn when he allowed only six hits in five shutout innings back on April 23, or against Tennessee back on April 10 when he allowed only one hit and two runs in five strong innings. The key with Aleman, it seems, is knowing when to lift him as he always seems to mix three or four dominating innings with one or two bad ones.
Alabama is expected to go with hard luck junior righthander Dylan Smith (1-7, 4.04 ERA). Smith has 100 strikeouts in 82-1/3 innings this season in 14 starts. In Smith’s 14 starts, Alabama has averaged only 2.95 runs per game.
Sam Riffice to NCAA tennis semifinals: Sam Riffice marched into the NCAA tennis singles semifinals Thursday with a 6-3, 6-0 quarterfinal win over Texas A&M’s Valentin Vacherot. The 6th-seeded Riffice will face Kentucky’s Liam Draxl, the No. 1 seed, at 2 p.m. today.
Riffice is attempting to become just the third Gator to win the NCAA singles title. Mark Merkelein won the singles championship in 1994 and Jeff Morrison did it in 1999.
TJ Moore transfers to Charlotte: Offensive lineman TJ Moore, a 4-star prospect who never panned out at Florida, is transferring to Charlotte where he will have one year of eligibility remaining. Moore played in 19 games at Florida including all 13 in 2019, but he was never a starter.
Gators ranked seventh by Pro Football Focus: In their preseason college football rankings, Pro Football Focus places Florida seventh nationally with a three percent chance to win the national championship and a 10 percent chance to win the SEC. Emory Jones is rated Florida’s highest grading returning player.
TREVOR LAWRENCE ON TIM TEBOW
Despite all the criticism that Tim Tebow is going to give poor Trevor Lawrence some kind of inferiority complex by being a bigger than life personality in Jacksonville, the rookie quarterback and expected savior of the Jaguars seems to think Tim will be a perfectly good teammate.
Speaking to Eric Edholm of Yahoo! Sports, Lawrence said, “The first thing that jumped out to me was the person. Just his character. What he brings to the locker room. A guy you want to be around. He just does things right. I think coach [Urban] Meyer and the staff knew that, bringing him in … It’s been cool to see, and obviously, it’s still really learning and just coming in later than some other guys for the install, so he’s just getting his feet wet. But man, he’s doing great.”
And, speaking on the AP Pro Football Podcast, Lawrence said, “He's just a guy that you want to be around. Character is awesome. Had a few conversations with him and I can already tell, and [he's] just a hard worker. No one is going to work harder than him. Those are the kind of guys you want in your locker room and you want to be around every day. And then I'm excited to see what he can do on the field as well. We got in a few days and he looks great. He's in awesome shape."
OVER, UNDER, AROUND AND THROUGH THE SEC
Alabama: Alabama’s football season opener with Miami in Atlanta has been cleared for a full capacity crowd at Mercedes Benz Stadium … Pro Football Focus has Alabama ranked No. 1 with a 23 percent chance to win the national championship in 2021 and a 51 percent chance to win the SEC.
Arkansas: Left Lael Lockhart had a perfect game through 6-2/3 innings Wednesday when he allowed a single by Georgia’s J McCallister. The perfect game gone, Lockhart gave up a 2-run homer to C Collins but he finished with a 2-hitter with 11 strikeouts. Next up for the Razorbacks is Ole Miss, which beat Vanderbilt Tuesday night … The Hogs are ranked 53rd for 2021 by Pro Football Focus.
Auburn: Basketball coach Bruce Pearl, who has mined the NCAA transfer portal for five players, commented why he will take advantage of new NCAA rules that allow immediate eligibility to first-time transfers: “So when they change the rules and now you have got the transfer portal, and you have got players that are one-time eligible immediately, you can get more experienced or older in a hurry.” … Pro Football Focus has Auburn ranked 15th nationally for 2021 with a one percent chance to win the SEC.
Georgia: Justin Kier, who averaged 9.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists last season, will be a grad transfer to Arizona. Kier spent one year at Georgia after transferring in from George Mason ... Georgia (31-24) will face Ole Miss in an elimination game at the SEC Baseball Tournament at 10:30 a.m. … Georgia is ranked fourth with a seven percent chance to win the national championship and a 24 percent chance to win the SEC by Pro Football Focus.
Kentucky: Kentucky is the latest SEC school to announce football games at Kroger Field will be played before a full capacity crowd in the fall ... Pro Football Focus ranks Kentucky 27th for 2021.
LSU: The Tigers are the 10th-ranked team for 2021 by Pro Football Focus. They’re given a two percent chance of winning the national championship and a six percent chance of winning the SEC.
Mississippi State: Third-seeded and 8th-ranked Mississippi State (40-14) will face 2nd-seeded, 4th-ranked Tennessee at 10:30 in an SEC Tournament elimination game ... The Bulldogs have the No. 55 national ranking for 2021 by Pro Football Focus.
Missouri: The Tigers are ranked 41st by Pro Football Focus for 2021.
Ole Miss: Ole Miss (39-18) will face Arkansas this evening in an elimination game in Hoover … Ole Miss is ranked 40th by Pro Football Focus for 2021.
South Carolina: Pro Football Focus gives the Gamecocks the No. 73 national ranking for 2021.
Tennessee: The Vols (42-15) face Mississippi State in a 10:30 a.m. elimination game in Hoover … Pro Football Focus ranks the Vols 45th for 2021.
Texas A&M: Pro Football Focus ranks the Aggies sixth with a two percent chance to win the 2021 national championship and a five percent chance to win the SEC.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores (40-13) are in the winner's bracket against No. 1 Arkansas after beating Ole Miss ... Vandy couldn’t crack the top 100 for Pro Football Focus for 2021. The Commodores are ranked 106th.
ONE FINAL PITHY THOUGHT: The research varies on the subject, but most who have crunched the numbers say a college basketball player has a less than one percent chance of being drafted by an NBA team. Imagine what the odds are for kids who are still in high school. It’s worth bringing this subject up because something called the Overtime Elite pro league is getting kids to forego their last couple of years in high school, promising six-figure salaries, health care and as much as $100,000 toward college costs should kids decide they need an education. Matt and Ryan Bewley are 6-9 twins who have just finished their sophomore year at West Oaks Academy in Orlando. They have drunk the Overtime Elite Kool-Aid. They are skipping their JUNIOR AND SENIOR seasons to play in the league, believing people who really don’t have their best interests in mind that this is the way to go. I know all the stories about Moses Malone, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James going straight from high school to the NBA but those were athletic freaks of nature who would have been that one percent with or without college. I don’t know about the Bewleys other than to say someone isn’t being honest with them and it isn’t just about basketball. It’s about life and this league isn’t going to prepare these kids for the real world. Kwame Brown had all the talent in the world when he went straight from high school to the NBA. He made several million dollars, most of which hangers on spent for him. He was an NBA bust, not because he lacked talent, but because he was too immature and unprepared for the realities of life. I seriously doubt anyone is telling the Bewley twins or any other kids stupid enough to take the Overtime Elite bait about Kwame Brown.