Gators' faults a group effort

Originally Published: February 3, 2004
By Pat Forde | Special to ESPN.com

The Florida Gators are 13-5 and ranked No. 21 in America in the latest ESPN/USA Today poll. While that might thrill at least 300 NCAA Division I basketball programs, it's hardly the stuff of parades and pep rallies in Gainesville.

Fact is, it's the lowest regular-season ranking the Gators have had since March 1999. And it's their worst record through 18 games since 1997-98, Billy Donovan's second year on the job.

It's not quite enough to make anyone miss the John Lotz Era (if you don't know, don't ask). But life could be better.

Matt Walsh
Matt Walsh can be great one night, and like the rest of the Gators, inconsistent the next.

That's the curse of consistency and the burden of expectation, both of which weigh heavily on this program. Florida has become so routinely good under Donovan -- 85 consecutive weeks in the AP top 15 until just last month -- that the temptation is to ask, "What's wrong with the Gators?" While that might not be fair, there is reason to believe this program has underachieved the past couple of seasons.

Florida's fate-kissed run to the national championship game in 2000 was viewed at the time as a launching-pad moment. Instead, it's become a high-water mark. What's followed has been a string of excellent regular seasons, followed by early (and often ugly) SEC and NCAA Tournament losses. Florida has also had to endure a return to back-seat SEC status behind Kentucky, which comes to the O'Connell Center on Tuesday (ESPN, 9 ET) night seeking a fifth straight win over the Gators.

The Wildcats' two-game sweep last year, which included an outright punking in Lexington just hours after the Gators rose to No. 1 in the land, went a long way toward labeling that Florida team as soft. So far this year Donovan's team has done little to alter that perception.

Beating Arizona in Springfield, Mass., in November was terrific -- but Zona has its own reputation as a finesse team to deal with. Getting outrebounded by 19 at Tennessee last Saturday didn't help establish the Gators' toughness. Neither did a seven-rebound deficit against Mississippi State in Florida's first home loss to an SEC West opponent in five years.

And Florida's performance with the biggest of bullseyes on its back has not been the sternest of stuff, either. For the second straight season, the Gators have reached No. 1 and immediately fainted.

Last year it was the rout in Rupp Arena. This year they celebrated the top ranking by losing at home to Maryland, then being embarrassed in Freedom Hall by Louisville later that same week.

Against the Cardinals, Florida looked unwilling to dig in and play tough defense down the stretch. That and an apparent disinterest in sharing the ball made the Gators seem like less than the sum of their sumptuous parts.

"Part of the reason we're up and down is because of our youthfulness," Donovan said. "We're like a lot of other people in the country. When you have nine freshmen and sophomores, you're going to have your ups and downs and some roller coasters. ... We have to rely more on these guys than maybe some other teams do."

While there's some truth to that, it's also true that youth becomes a more hollow excuse every year in elite college basketball. And some of Florida's most important young players are hardly babes on the hardwood.

Sophomore Matt Walsh has started 51 straight games. Fellow sophomore Anthony Roberson, last year's Freshman of the Year in the league, has played more than 1,300 collegiate minutes. Soph Christian Drejer missed half of last season with injuries, but he's starting and averaging 29 minutes per game this year.

Those returning players are why Florida began the year in everybody's top 10 and were considered by many to be a Final Four pick. But all three players are still operating at roughly the same levels as last year.

Walsh remains as likely to commit a turnover as have an assist, and his shooting percentages are down. Drejer has been an effective distributor, but still hasn't lived up to the raves he got coming out of Denmark. And the explosive Roberson still seems like he's not fully embraced the pass-first, shoot-second concept. (Which might be a reason why power forward David Lee isn't getting enough shots. Lee was 1 for 5 against Tennessee, although Donovan praised him for passing the ball well when double-teamed.)

Those are reasons why some people are ready to slap Donovan with the dreaded great-recruiter/iffy-coach tag right now. The jury remains out on that issue -- but this year is an important one for Donovan to re-establish his Youthful Genius rep.

So the arrival of Kentucky, which comes with its own issues (like finding some offense), could be statement time for the Gators. With a loss, they'll be 4-4 in SEC play and inhaling the Wildcats' exhaust fumes again. With a win, they'll at least have stood up to King Kentucky, defended their home court and kept themselves in the thick of the SEC East race.

And maybe being ranked No. 21 won't seem like a letdown anymore.

Crosstown Bearcat trap?

Cincinnati enters its annual Crosstown Shootout rivalry game with Xavier as the ranked favorite, and that might not be good news for the Bearcats.

Three of the last four times they've met when Cincy was ranked, Cincy has lost -- including twice as No. 1. In fact, Xavier has won five of the last seven meetings overall, specializing in nip-and-tuck victories. Three of those wins were by a single basket, and last year the David West-led Musketeers won by six.

Even though Cincinnati is 15-2, a warning light is flashing on the dashboard. This team is not playing typical Bob Huggins defense right now.

When Cincinnati gave up 93 points to Louisville on Jan. 21, it marked the first time since 1997 that a Conference USA opponent had scored more than 85 on the Bearcats. Then Charlotte did it again 10 days later in an 86-83 upset win on Cincy's home court.

In both games, the Bearcats sent the opponent to the foul line way too often, showing more hacking hands than moving feet. This isn't a vintage Xavier team, but expect Romain Sato and the boys to challenge Cincinnati to guard better than it has of late.

Games to Watch
Louisville at Memphis, Wednesday
Ancient rivals will go their separate ways when Conference USA fractures in 2005, which means this could be the last time the Cardinals play in Memphis. Considering that someone once threw a switchblade on the floor during a Cardinals-Tigers game at the old Mid-South Coliseum, Louisville might not miss it much. Calipari and Pitino can compare tailors before tipoff.
Marquette at DePaul, Saturday
Golden Eagles looking to sustain momentum gained in Freedom Hall upset last week. Blue Demons looking for quality wins to help stay on the periphery of the NCAA Tournament picture.
South Carolina at Kentucky, Saturday
Gamecocks finally threw in a clunker, giving up 79 points at Ole Miss last week. A win here would be huge in Carolina's bid to win the East for the first time since 1997.
Georgia Tech at Tennessee, Saturday
Volunteers have been infinitely better at home than on the road and have yet another opportunity against a ranked team, following narrow losses in Thompson-Boling to Kentucky and Louisville and a narrow win over Florida.
Mississippi at Mississippi State, Saturday
Another game that definitely fits the Rivalry Week motif. Ole Miss is playing better, but State is playing best of anyone in the league right now.
Around the South

  • Marquette's Tom Crean showed again Saturday why you don't want to give him a week to prepare for your team. Crean took his underdog Golden Eagles into Freedom Hall and upset wounded Louisville, a huge win for a team struggling just to get into the at-large NCAA Tournament argument. Consider them there now, with their RPI rocketing from 67 to 47, thanks to a career-high 30 points from mad bomber Steve Novak and some tenacious defense on the Cardinals. Louisville made just 5 of 34 three-point shots and had trouble breaking down the defense the way it had become accustomed to. In preparation, Crean and his staff pored over tape of the Louisville-Holy Cross game -- a butt-ugly defensive battle in which the Crusaders frustrated the Cards for 40 minutes.

  • The Marquette loss not only ended Louisville's 16-game winning streak and loosened its grip on first place in C-USA, it left the Cardinals with continued health issues heading into a dangerous trip to Memphis Wednesday.

    One day after saying he doesn't like to play anyone unless they're 100 percent healthy, coach Rick Pitino -- himself coming off a major health scare -- played point guard Taquan Dean for 21 miserable minutes. Dean missed four of five shots and failed to record an assist, then limped out of the game with his pulled groin as sore as ever -- putting him on the shelf for the Memphis game and perhaps beyond.

    "I couldn't do anything," Dean said.

    "I won't let him come back now until he's 100 percent," Pitino said. "If we have to take our lumps, we have to take our lumps. We have to get him back healthy for the tournament."

    Swingman Francisco Garcia played on a sprained ankle and was not himself (eight turnovers, 5-of-15 shooting), but should be OK for the Memphis game.

  • Charlotte looked like it gave away a key home game when it lost to UAB Jan. 24, but regained it with its stellar performance at Cincinnati. Now: look out. The 49ers play only two teams the rest of the way ranked higher than their 32nd in the RPI, and both are at home (Louisville Feb. 12 and Cincy Feb. 28). The 49ers (13-5, 5-2 in league play) have the week off before traveling to East Carolina, which is in the throes of an eight-game losing streak. Last year the Pirates lost 13 of their last 15.

  • Don't look now, but UAB (13-5, 6-1) could be sneaking into the C-USA driver's seat. There's a long way to go, and the Blazers still must make trips to Louisvile and Memphis, but they're tied for first and get all the breaks in the league's ludicrously unbalanced scheduling. The three teams UAB plays twice are the three worst in the league: East Carolina, South Florida and Tulane. (Compare that to co-leader Louisville's three repeat opponents: Cincinnati, Marquette and Memphis.) Cincinnati and Marquette come to Birmingham this month. It's set up for the Blazers, if they're good enough to take advantage.

  • The hottest team in the South, and perhaps the land, remains Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are the only team in the competitive SEC with a double-digit positive scoring margin in league play, and rank in the top half of the league in 18 of its 19 statistical categories. (The lone exception: three-pointers made. The Bulldogs are 11th at just 4.9 threes per game, preferring to pound it inside to Lawrence Roberts.)

  • Ole Miss forward Justin Reed is making a dark-horse bid for league Player of the Year, and he's taking the Rebels with him. Mississippi has won three of its last four games, capped by an upset of South Carolina in Oxford Saturday, and Reed has been magnificent. He scored a career-high 32 against the Gamecocks and is averaging 20.1 points and 6.9 rebounds in seven conference games.

  • Arkansas coach Stan Heath was not thrilled with his team's 50-point output and 21-point loss at Georgia Saturday and wants an attitude adjustment. The Razorbacks employed an every-man-for-himself offense, racking up all of five assists. "The first thing we have to get straightened out is our attitude," Heath said. "Winning comes first. I want our mindset to be focused on teamwork."

  • Tennessee finally won a close game over a ranked team, but Buzz Peterson isn't sure that means the Volunteers (11-6, 3-4) have turned a corner just yet. "There is such a fine line between winning and losing," Peterson said. "We are an offensive possession and a defensive stand from being 13-4 and perhaps ranked in the Top 25. Also, we could be 10-7. We need to give it our best shot and execute down the stretch every time."

  • SEC teams seem to have figured out that Kentucky is short on shooters. Keep two eyes on Gerald Fitch, keep a hand up on Kelenna Azubuike, and the rest of the team cannot pick up the perimeter slack. Through six SEC games the Cats are shooting just 28 percent from three-point range, 11th in the league.

    Quote to note

    "Coach (Kevin Stallings) told us they jump out to leads, but don't hang your heads because they'll give it right back to you if you play good defense."
    -- Vanderbilt senior and former Kentucky Mr. Basketball Scott Hundley on Stallings' prescient Kentucky scouting report. The Wildcats once again coughed up a second-half lead (this one 10 points) and this time failed to make the plays at the end in a 66-60 Vandy upset.

    Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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