February freefall leaves Florida in need of Kentucky win
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) A February freefall has Florida on the verge of more March sadness.
The Gators have lost three in a row for the first time in more than a year and are on the verge of playing themselves out of the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season.
Although coach Mike White's team can always win the Southeastern Conference Tournament next week in Nashville, Tennessee, and lock up an automatic berth in the 68-team NCAA field, no one who has seen the Gators (17-12, 8-8 SEC) struggle down the stretch would even consider that a realistic possibility.
So Florida's best bet at bolstering its NCAA Tournament resume comes Tuesday night against No. 22 Kentucky (21-8, 11-5). It's Florida's home finale as well as Senior Night for leading scorer Dorian Finney-Smith.
More importantly, it's a chance for the Gators to get back on the winning track after a futile February.
''It's huge,'' White said Monday. ''We've squandered some opportunities, and this is one of the last few we'll have. Obviously, this is a big, big opportunity for our guys to overcome some mistakes and failures. It'll be a very, very difficult game to win, but if we play very well - we're at home - we should have our chances.''
Indeed, the Gators are 12-3 in the O'Connell Center this season, but have lost two in a row there. So even home-court advantage in Gainesville is not quite the sure thing is seemed earlier this season.
More problematic for the Gators, their once-reliable defense has been shaky at best in recent weeks, culminating with giving up a combined 183 points the last two games.
The effort was so amiss against Vanderbilt and LSU that White held a defense-only practice Sunday.
''The emphasis had probably moved toward offense too much,'' White said. ''We've spent an inordinate amount of time shooting free throws, running dry offense by shooting a ton of jump shots, individual offense, skill development. ... I guess it's always a balancing act, and we've got to get back to defending at a high level to give ourselves a chance.''
Compounding Florida's issues, guards Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen have hit huge slumps.
Chiozza has reached double figures just once in the last seven games, and Allen is shooting a measly 22.9 percent from 3-point range in February. Throw in the inconsistencies of Devin Robinson, Kasey Hill and Justin Leon, and the Gators have nothing to hang their hat on at this point in the season.
''We just have to get back to whatever we've been doing,'' Finney-Smith said. ''We just have to buckle down and play defense. Our defense. when we gets stops, it gives us a better chance of winning. When we don't get any stops, we can't rely on us making jump shots on our offense because we're an up-and-down offensive team, but we can control our defense.''
The Gators could have more control of their postseason fate, but they lost games in February to Kentucky, Alabama, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and LSU. Florida's Ratings Percentage Index - a key component in determining the NCAA Tournament field - suffered, too, falling to No. 46.
The Gators still have a strength of schedule that ranks 14th, but it's doubtful they can survive many more losses.
A win against the Wildcats would work wonders.
''We still have a chance if we can just be the best team (Tuesday),'' Finney-Smith said. ''They're a great team. They're going to come out and play with a lot of energy. They just lost on the road. We know they're going to be jacked up. We just have to come out and be the better team.''