Saturday March 12th, 2016

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For now, the latest chapter in the new era of Florida basketball must end like this: Four free throws, two each from Texas A&M guards Alex Caruso and Admon Gilder, taken in the final moments of a quarterfinal matchup in the 2016 SEC tournament. Those four shots served as the finishing touches to the Aggies’ 72–66 win over the Gators on Friday, a result that propelled the league’s top seed one step closer to its first SEC crown.

Florida, meanwhile, found itself tumbling off a pedestal long reserved for top-tier SEC contenders. Along the way these Gators, under the direction of first-year coach Mike White, likely spoiled their shot at an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament. “Wherever we’re sent,” White said, “we’ll be excited to play, or we’ll find the right guys that are excited to play. We’ll continue to represent Florida and play hard and look to improve.” 

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In recent years, representing Florida meant trips to the Final Four, SEC titles and 30-win seasons. But this team won’t vie for a national championship when brackets are unveiled on Sunday. In order to reach the NCAA tournament, White and his Gators needed to bolster their resume in Nashville, and they failed to answer the call. A 68–61 win over Arkansas on Thursday was a nice appetizer, but an upset of top-seeded Texas A&M would have been a sterling statement. Instead White’s team once again stumbled against a premiere opponent, the hallmark of the coach’s first season in Gainesville. 

Florida’s underwhelming season certainly deserves a dose of perspective. White inherited a program that former coach Billy Donovan took from a preseason top-10 ranking to a 16–17 record in 2014–15. That group missed the NCAA tournament completely after reaching four straight Elite Eights under Donovan, who won two national titles in a legendary career at Florida. Few expected White’s first roster to reach those heights, but an ability to compete at the top of the SEC has long been the standard with the Gators. By that measure, White’s first Florida squad fell short, and its early departure from the SEC tournament serves as the most recent example of that disappointment.

In the first half against Texas A&M, Florida remarkably stood toe-to-toe with the league’s top seed. A layup by Justin Leon gave the Gators a 17–11 lead at the 11:45 mark, but the Aggies rallied to take a 34–32 lead into the break. Still, Florida’s stingy defense forced Texas A&M to work for each shot; the Aggies led at half despite going scoreless in the final 2:36.

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The game stayed tight all the way through the second half until Texas A&M guard Danuel House drilled a back-breaking three-pointer with 1:02 to play, giving his team a seemingly comfortable 68–62 lead. A putback by Florida’s Devin Robinson and two free throws by Kasey Hill closed the Gators’ deficit to two, but they didn't score again. That allowed Caruso and Gilder to cement an A&M victory from the charity stripe. 

The end result was all too familiar to White. In a 71–68 loss at Texas A&M on Jan. 12, Florida tied the game twice in the second half without being able to take advantage. The Gators fell short again on Friday, only with more serious consequences. “Again, it’s twice we’ve had a really good Texas A&M team in a position to potentially do something special,” White said, “and they just made the right plays down the stretch.” 

It’s possible the NCAA tournament selection committee could overlook Florida’s short stint in Nashville. The program still boasts the strength of schedule (19) and RPI (51) of many bracket-bound teams. But the eye test won’t favor the Gators, who performed erratically against tournament competition during the regular season. With Friday’s loss to Texas A&M, Florida finished the year 2–10 against top-50 teams, a mark that includes nonconference losses to Miami, Michigan State and Purdue. That record hardly translates to one of the best 68 teams in the country.

Barring any surprises, Florida’s tournament exit likely leaves the SEC with just three sure-fire bids to the Big Dance: Texas A&M, Kentucky and South Carolina, three teams that also happen to be the league’s top three conference tournament seeds. The Gators, meanwhile, compiled a 9–9 overall record in SEC play, a pedestrian mark set in stone by Friday’s loss at Bridgestone Arena. “We played a great Texas A&M team,” forward Dorian Finney-Smith said. “The key players made shots and key baskets, and we just couldn’t put it through.” 

Being great again remains a ways off for Florida, but White is probably the coach to get it there. The 39-year-old White arrived in Gainesville fresh off three straight conference tournament titles at Louisiana Tech. At a program like Florida, steeped in tradition, the intense White has the tools to replicate that success. And as long as Gator fans understand their new coach isn’t Donovan—after all, who is?—the future can be bright at Florida.

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For now, White’s reality is the Gators’ immediate future, which will unfold on Selection Sunday. Even though Florida’s likely destination is the NIT, White isn’t ready to forecast his program’s postseason. “I’m not going to go there with what happens next,” he said. “I don’t know. I think that our administration has done a great job with putting together what the committee wants to see, and that’s a high-level schedule. In addition, we played a grueling SEC schedule in a grueling league.”

In White’s first season, that body of work probably won’t earn Florida a trip to the NCAA tournament. But after a year of growth, perhaps the Gators’ next chapter will feature a brighter ending—whatever it might be.

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