At some point during the Gators' second-half onslaught against Alabama last night, Billy Donovan had to realize that this team really does have the potential to make a deep NCAA tournament run. But what was Billy thinking after the first half, when the Gators played their sloppiest offensive half in weeks?
The key word defining the Gators' season up until SEC play was "inconsistent". They had a lead on an elite Ohio State team, only to blow it in the second half. They destroyed a very talented Kansas State team. And then they lost to Jacksonville. Then they won at Xavier. By New Year's Day, one had to wonder who the Florida Gators really were.
But SEC play has brought an almost remarkable consistency. Aside from hiccups against Mississippi State, South Carolina, Auburn (a win) and Kentucky, the Gators have won their SEC games with an almost identical formula--good shooting, tough defense, and controlling the rebounds.
Last night's first half was extremely troubling. The Gators shot 11-30, including 2-12 from three point range. Alabama's zone defense made it difficult to penetrate from the perimeter, and with Florida's guards unable to find open men in the post, there were many errant passes and bad shots. Of course, had the shots fallen, the game would have been put away much earlier. For as bad as Florida was, Alabama was worse in the first half.
But in the second half, Alabama did the Gators a huge favor by switching to a man-to-man defense. This opened up many opportunities inside and consequently outside for Florida. The Gators shot 18-26 in the half, outscoring Alabama 48-21 and causing the O-dome to erupt. There was great defense, forcing Alabama into 15 turnovers for the game. With Alabama's offense stifled, the Gators seemed to either run them down the court for a transition basket or work the ball around for an open shot.
As encouraging as the second half was, the first half has to be a concern. Once the NCAA tournament rolls around, the Gators cannot afford to play a sloppy half. They cannot take poor shots, they cannot make bad passes, and they certainly cannot give opponents second-chance points in the paint.
The teams that make the Big Dance are simply too good, and if the Gators dig theirselves a hole, it will be exceedingly difficult to get out of it. No NCAA tournament team will turn the ball over as often as Alabama did, which is part of the reason Florida was able to keep it close in the first half. So the question is, which team will we see come tournament time?
If we see the first-half team, the sloppy, disorganized, and tentative one we saw Tuesday night, the Gators will not make it out of the NCAA tournament's opening weekend.
But if we see the second-half team, the suffocating defense, strong transition play, and excellent offensive flow, this could be a very special couple of weeks for this team. Florida has the players, the coach, and the moxie to go very deep into the NCAA tournament. But if their alter-ego from the first half shows up, the dance will end very early.