Our NCAA tournament hopes all but went down the drain thanks to another ugly home loss to Billy Donovan's Florida Gators. Coach Grant is now 0-10 versus the Gators in his tenure at Alabama, and they are the only remaining SEC team that we have not beat in 6 years.
We aren't playing very good basketball right now. There has been a troubling trend over the last few weeks, where we routinely play poorly in the first half and/or early in the second half, and often find ourselves with double-digit deficits. To this team's credit, they never fold in those situations, we've come back and won a few games and made others respectable on the road. It finally caught up with us last night.
The first half was probably the worst we've played all year. I get that we were playing in the 3rd game in 6 days, and the last two games were tough and physical, but there really is no excuse to come out that flat. One would think the fact that, looking at the schedule, it was obvious this was a pivotal game for us, not to mention a chance to beat a team that has owned us for a decade, would be motivation enough to overcome any physical or mental fatigue.
Halfway through the first half we had more turnovers than points. I lost track of how many times we had to settle for desperation, highly contested shots as the shot clock expired. The defense wasn't much better, we were routinely beat back in transition. The only thing that kept us in the game is that Florida played almost as sloppy as we did. Our press hasn't been effective all year, but Florida struggled against the trap at times. During our second half runs there were a couple of instances where the coaching staff called for the press after made baskets, but the team didn't recognize it in time to set up.
Florida is a better team than their record indicates. They've played a brutal schedule, and like us, they have lost some close games. They are a talented team, but you can tell they have not really gelled. They seem to lack chemistry, and they don't have the dominating point guards they've had in the recent past. Still, this is probably one of Donovan's weakest teams since his national championship run, and he just came into our house and beat one of Grant's better teams.
The second half was much better. Once again, we played more aggressive on both ends of the court, secured the basketball, and played great defense. Cooper was actually making some jump shots and Tarrant's dribble drive sparked the offense. Levi also contributed with 9 points. Unfortunately, Tarrant injured his ankle, but was able to return for the final minutes. He was still limping and obviously didn't have the same explosiveness he had before his injury, and he is reportedly on crutches today. It's fair to question if he should have returned, and if the reports of crutches are true, I would be surprised if he plays against Kentucky.
Taylor and Kessens were huge flops in this game. Florida is not very strong in the post, so I thought this would be a great opportunity for our big men to have a productive game. Instead, Taylor plays only 10 minutes because he picks up 4 fouls, 3 of which were for charging. When he came back in the game late, he had a couple of good looks but failed to finish near the basket. He's got to learn to stop fouling and to use the glass. I don't agree with designing our last shot to go to him to force overtime given the horrible game he had up to that point. Kessens only scored 4 points, and also had some bad turnovers and failed to finish around the rim on several occasions. He often catches the ball in great position, but then puts it on the floor instead of going up.
Give credit to Florida for finding a way to win on the road despite not playing a great game. We battled back from a 13 point deficit, but every time we tied the game they had an answer.
Throughout the game, I thought Florida really extended their zone. Instead of bringing our bigs out to the top of the key to set ball screens, I would have liked to have used Coop or even Taylor to set an off-ball back screen in the corner for a slasher like Levi on the back door cut.
As for the final 2 possessions, Taylor followed his man, who was not an outside shooting threat, way too far toward the wing, and Kessens was slow to recognize he needed to come over and help from the opposite block, which left the lane open for the dunk. It was good spacing and execution by Florida, but Taylor needs to be smarter and stay home there. Our final possession was apparently designed to get the ball to Taylor, for reasons that I don't understand. Given that we weren't even in the penalty, I would have preferred an earlier jump shot, preferably from 3 to play for the lead, but with plenty of time to get an offensive rebound. When the play to Taylor didn't materialize, we cleared out for Levi who drove in presumably hoping to draw a foul, which you cannot rely on in that situation. Florida had it well defended, and with so little time left, even if we could have fouled it would not have mattered.
From reading the comments here and other sites, it appears the overwhelming sentiment of the fan base is that we need to at least make the NCAA tournament this year to justify retaining Coach Grant. I like Coach Grant, but this is a results based business, and if we miss the tournament, that will be one appearance and zero NCAA tournament wins in 6 years. It's hard to argue otherwise.
I stated at the beginning of SEC play that if we could get to 4-4 through the rough January schedule, we would be in great position to be in the conversation. I literally can not envision any scenario in which we have a chance to win at Rupp Saturday, so let's go ahead and put us down for 3-5. It is my opinion that to have a realistic shot at making the field, we will need to win all remaining home games plus away games at auburn, mi$$ $tate, Vandy, and one of either LSU/aTm. This team is capable of doing that, but to say the margin is thin would be a gross understatement.
Other than pointing out the obvious above, I will not comment further on the subject of Coach Grant's job stability. I feel that such speculation during the season is counter-productive. There will be a time and place for those discussions, and that will occur after the season. For now, he has a group of guys who are still fighting hard for him, and I will continue to support this team and this coach for the remainder of the season.
After two straight sell outs, the crowd was pathetic. I would estimate no more than 8,000, with nearly 10% of that being Gator fans. This was arguably a bigger game than the 2 sell outs. Those, at least on paper, should have been a sure loss and a sure win. This was THE game of the season, and the performance of our fans was not any better than that of the team.
Up next, we go to Kentucky to take on the top ranked Wildcats in historic Rupp Arena. I normally don't bet against Alabama, but if anybody here is willing to bet on the Tide straight up (not against the spread), I will take all wagers. Just name the stakes in the comments and we will work out the details. Best game plan for this one is to drink heavily, use lots of lube, bite the pillow, close our eyes, imagine our happy place and hope they are gentle and quick. The carnage will be televised on SEC Network, beginning at 7pm EST (6 Central).