Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Decline and Fall of the Gator Empire?

Saturday was kind of a good news/bad news sort of day. We'll get to the good news later, but I've always been a believer in diluting the bad with the good and not the other way around. So we'll start with the bad news.

The bad news is that Florida traveled to Athens and lost to Georgia, 88-86. Losing to the Bulldogs in any sport is deeply unfortunate, but falling to a team that was previously winless in SEC play stings. UGA is now 10-15 on the season, so suffice it to say this is not what the bracketologists call a "quality loss."

I couldn't watch yesterday's game, so this isn't another game story. I know Nick Calathes had another outstanding performance, and I know Walter Hodge finally played up to his seniority. I also know that true freshman Erving Walker took the last shot of the game without so much as looking for either of those two players, and that's probably not a good thing.

No, I'm more concerned about the larger issue of Florida's basketball program. (The men's, that is. The women's team is having a hell of a season) UF might well manage to slip into the NCAA tournament; they have two eminently winnable games against Vanderbilt and Alabama, and two home contests against Kentucky and Tennessee. The Gators are on the bubble, but control their own destiny.

The bigger problem is that yesterday's game offers strong evidence that, once again, Florida just isn't very good. And that's troublesome, because it's the second straight year where that's the case.

I said before the season that missing the NCAA Tournament last year wasn't disastrous, but missing it two seasons in a row would be a serious blow to the program. It would be seen as evidence that the 04's and the back-to-back national championships were flukes. UF isn't doing anything to shake that impression.

It would be one thing if the Gators had simply fallen back to their pre-championship levels. Those Matt Walsh-Anthony Roberson-David Lee teams were frustrating in a lot of ways, and they never reached the Sweet 16. But they were solid clubs. They won a lot of SEC games, put up good conference tournament performances and won some challenging non-conference games. Instead, Billy Donovan's team has stumbled even further. The Gators are still competent, still competitive, can still beat a good team on a good day, but they're no real threat to accomplish anything. UF might sneak into the tournament as an eight or nine seed, but it's hard to see what that would really mean.

There are reasons for that, to be sure, but the reasons are starting to sound like rationalizations and excuses. A drop-off was inevitable after losing all five starters from the 2006-2007 championship team. There wasn't much experience behind them, and underclassmen were thrown into the fire last year. And when Marressee Speights left early and wing player Jonathan Mitchell transferred, it guaranteed the same would still be true in 2008-2009. (73 percent of Florida's minutes this year have been logged by underclassmen.)

But the youth argument wears thin when I watch Kansas. The Jayhawks lost every important player from their national championship squad and rely heavily on underclassmen. Junior point guard Sherron Collins played a huge role on the championship team, and he runs this squad, so KU does have more continuity than the Gators did. But beyond him, the Jayhawks' squad is young and inexperienced.

And Kansas is now 20-5, 9-1 in the Big 12. They entered the week ranked 16th in both major polls. UF's record is similarly gaudy (19-6), but the Gators are just 6-4 in the SEC. That's without mentioning that KU's schedule has been more difficult, both in and out of conference. Both teams played Washington and Syracuse in a mid-season tournament. But while the Gators' next-best out of conference opponent was NC State, Kansas went on to play Massachusetts, Arizona, Tennessee, Siena and Michigan State. And the Big 12 is better than the SEC.

What makes this particularly galling is that it's not the first time Bill Self and the Jayhawks have pulled off the trick. The 2005-2006 KU team lost the core of the Aaron Miles-Keith Langford-Wayne Simien team that advanced to the Elite Eight in 2003-2004 but fell to Bucknell in the first round of the 2004-2005 NCAA Tourament. In 2005-2006, KU struggled early, but eventually won a share of the regular season conference championship and won the Big 12 Tournament Championship.

They also went on to lose to Bradley in the first round of the tournament, which was infruriating at the time. But they also had tangible accomplishments and acquitted themselves well.

Why haven't the Gators been able to respond similarly? The problem is not so much youth as it is the talent of that youth. Donovan's 2007 class, the freshmen who had to carry the 07-08 team, had five members. Only one of those players, Nick Calathes, was in a position to make an immediate impact. Jai Lucas started every game, but only out of necessity. Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus and Adam Allen are all talented players, but they were all developmental prospects, guys who needed to sit for a year and learn the game. None had the luxury.

Tyus has taken a nice leap in his sophomore year, but Parsons still too often looks lost. (Allen is taking a medical redshirt) The 2008 class is more college ready; Erving Walker's been a revalation as a true freshman, and Ray Shipman, Kenny Kadji and Allan Chaney have all made acceptable contributions.

But "acceptable contributions" aren't what the Gators need. Great teams are built in one of two ways: a talented core sticks around for two or three years and gels together into a team. Or the coach recruits a group of players so talented that they overcome their inexperience and make an instant impact.

Donovan hasn't done the latter. And the former strategy was short-circuited when Speights left last off-season. The Gators once again find themselves without an inside presence, relying on young or out-of-position players to man the interior. Tyus is too small to play center, and Dan Werner is out of position at the power forward spot.

But the "let the core gel" strategy was kneecapped years ago. Florida's senior class consists of Hodge. And...Hodge. His fellow signees didn't last long in Gainesville. David Huertas transferred after his freshman year, as did big man Jimmie Sutton. (Who redshirted in his first year) Derwin Kitchen didn't qualify academically.

Florida's junior class consists of Werner and...Werner. Brandon Powell transferred after his freshman year, and Jonathan Mitchell left after his sophomore season. Speights, as mentioned, declared for the draft.

In short, Donovan has signed two largely failed recruiting classes, leaving him to rely on underclassmen. Which, again, wouldn't be a problem if the 07 and 08 classes were filled with instant impact talent. But instead Donovan largely signed complementary players and developmental prospects in a conscious attempt to avoid some of the mistakes he made in the early part of the new century with highly regarded five stars who left early and didn't come at all. (Kwame Brown, for example)

Florida's immediate future falls on Calathes. If he bolts after this season, as some expect, Florida's basketball program will be on a treadmill, trying desperately to catch up with departed talent. The Gators should get some help inside with the addition of two well-regarded freshmen big men and improvement from Kadji and Chaney. But if Hodge and Calathes leave, Florida's guard position will fall to Walker, Shipman and incoming uber-prospect Kenny Boynton.

Boynton is exactly the kind of high-impact, early-impact player the Gators need. But that leads to another troubling question: if Boynton plays well for Florida in 2009-2010, will he be tempted to leave early for the NBA? And again, Donovan's back on the treadmill.

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