The two biggest memories of the 2009-10 Florida Gators are Chandler Parsons' three-quarter court heave to stun N.C. State and his subsequent one-upmanship of Devan Downey to take out South Carolina at the buzzer. Due in significant part to those fantastic finishes, the Gators squeezed their way into the NCAA tournament, ending a two-season absence following the program's back-to-back national titles in 2006 and '07.
So it's safe to assume Florida was pretty lucky last season, right? Statistically speaking, not even close.
In fact, according to kenpom.com's luck calculations,the 2009-10 campaign was the second consecutive season in which the Gators' overall record actually fell far short of expectations. Last year, based on Florida and its opponents' overall performance curves, "bad luck" actually cost the Gators almost 2.5 wins, leaving them in the nation's bottom 50 for bad karma.
Credit the national perspective on the Gators, then, to a more traditional syndrome: selective memory.
"I think those were such big plays and big wins," Parsons said by phone Monday of his shots and point guard Erving Walker's late floater that beat Alabama. "I think it [made people] overlook the other part of it." That part included five losses by four points or fewer and 10 of its 13 total losses by single digits.
This season, the Gators look primed to take their first real strides backs toward the level of the illustrious "'Oh-Fours," who set the table for what many believed would be an extended run of national prominence. Florida returns all five starters from last season's 21-win team and adds a handful of talented freshmen to the mix. The most crucial newbie is forward Patric Young, a top-20 national recruit and physical menace who should provide extra rebounding and shot-blocking for a team that was, to put it gently, a bit offensive-oriented last season. The incoming class, which also includes top-50 wing Casey Prather, should help round out -- and toughen up -- the Gators' rotation.
"We have someone coming in at every position pushing the guy in front of them," said Parsons. "Just because all five starters are returning doesn't mean they're going to start this year. If coach decides to go with Pat or another freshman and that's going to put our team in the best chance of winning, I think we have guys who are willing to do that."
You'd expect the incumbents will get the first crack, though, so it will help if talented-but-erratic sophomore shooting guard Kenny Boynton can take a typical second-year leap. Despite leading the team in scoring at 14.0 points per game, Boynton only made 29.4 percent of his 245 three-point attempts last season -- a large reason why the Gators shot a terrible 31.3 percent from beyond the arc as a team.
Improvement in Boynton's jumper (and shot selection) would help bring the Gators' numbers back closer in line with a typical Billy Donovan team, and that increase in efficiency would take some pressure off a defense that allowed foes to shoot over 48 percent from inside the arc last year. Still, if the Gators are going to live up to preseason top-15 expectations, they'll need to do a better job of stopping people.
"It's going to have to start with defense," Parsons said. "Our team is really going to have to lock up and improve on our defense this year. We know we can have guys who can score and put the ball in the basket."
If things break right for the Gators, they should find themselves in far fewer close games this season, which is key because blowouts help marginalize luck. After two seasons of relatively bad fortune and with the talent now on hand, simply needing no luck would be a welcome development in Gainesville.
Florida is not the only team that got a bit less than its fair share record-wise last season. While the pool of candidates for 2010-11 isn't as robust as some past years (with last season's Georgetown and Georgia Tech and 2008's Missouri, Illinois and LSU as prime examples), here are four other teams that could see an improvement in the win column with some better luck and growth in their personnel:
(All stats and national rankings are from kenpom.com.)
If -- and these are two big ifs -- a trimmer Renardo Sidney lives up to his reputation after more than a season away from the court battling NCAA eligibility issues and Dee Bost wins his appeal after butchering his attempted withdrawal from the NBA draft (it doesn't look good at the moment), the Bulldogs should be the class of the SEC West. Mississippi State finished more than two games worse than expected last season, and that likely was the difference between making and missing the NCAAs after the tough overtime loss to Kentucky in the SEC title game. They'll miss Jarvis Varnado's defensive presence, but if Sidney is effective after the long layoff, they could be a more balanced offensive club with the quality three-point shooters coming back. It will be interesting to see how much more the Bulldogs pressure the ball this season. MSU forced turnovers on only 16.6 percent of opponent possessions, the 12th-worst rate in Division I, although funneling everything into Varnado led to blocked shots that served as turnover proxies.
Anyone who followed the A-10 last season knows how many close games the Flyers dropped on their way to missing the NCAAs. Anyone who saw Dayton subsequently win the postseason NIT knows how much talent was on the roster. The primary cause of those league pratfalls was Dayton's sloppiness with the ball (turnovers on 21.4 percent of possessions), a carelessness that often seeped into game-deciding possessions. Now, two of the leading offenders -- point guards Rob Lowery (27.3 percent turnover rate) and London Warren (a galling 34.3 percent) -- are gone and highly touted recruit Juwan Staten steps in. The return of Chris "Top Flight" Wright for his senior season means the Flyers still have an elite athlete and rebounding presence at both ends. They also have some solid complementary pieces returning. With better point guard play, the Flyers could make some noise in the bigger postseason tournament this time around.
The Illini pretty much return everyone from a team that was mildly unlucky last year, finishing about a game and a half worse than expected, which likely cost them an NCAA tournament bid. Do-it-all guard Demetri McCamey led Division I in assist rate last season, providing the helper on over 40 percent of Illinois' baskets when he was on the floor. Now add top-25 recruit Jereme Richmond (Illinois' Mr. Basketball in 2010) on the wing and 7-footer Meyers Leonard, who adds even more size to one of the nation's biggest teams (in terms of effective size). Richmond won't help the Illini from the three-point range, where they only shot 34 percent as a team last season and didn't use it as much of a weapon. Still, if they can get a boost from former Illinois Mr. Basketball, Brandon Paul, who shot the ball terribly last year, the Illini should be a serious threat in the Big Ten.
The Nittany Lions went 3-15 in the Big Ten last year with a points-per-possession margin of -0.07 after going 10-8 the year before with a margin of -0.04. Overall, Penn State finished nearly five games worse than expected last season, making it the second-most unlucky team in Division I. The young Nittany Lions did some things very well. They led Division I in defensive rebounding percentage and very rarely put people on the free-throw line, both of which are strong positive defensive indicators. They didn't block any shots or force many turnovers, though, which means opponents simply got too many good looks at the rim to overcome. Penn State won't be an NCAA team, but with star guard Talor Battle returning and the maturation of some of the young talent, things should improve in Happy Valley.