ST. LOUIS — In a cold and grainy city where the only signs that the SEC is staging its premier basketball event are in and around the Scottrade Center, Florida’s basketball team got a break.
The tournament’s TV broadcast shifted to ESPN from the SEC Network so the players could watch the semifinals.
While Florida coach Mike White and a group of UF officials jetted home on a small plane, the team was stranded in the Marriott Grand Hotel (which did not carry the SEC Network; go figure) because their team charter wasn’t available.
Instead, that plane went to Kuwait, leaving the Gators to wait until today to return home.
“It has been a weird season,” White said after landing in Gainesville. “And it has been a weird team.”
The Gators waited in St. Louis with the memory of another sub-par performance haunting them as they watched other teams finish out the tournament.
And as painful as it was, these Gators knew what another one would mean.
The end of this strange season.
Today they will find out where they go and who they will play in the NCAA Tournament and their fans will wonder which team will show up.
The one with enough Quadrant 1 wins to get them into the Big Dance or the one that lost 12 games, some of them to teams that left those same fans scratching their heads in frustration.
White among them.
“The way we played those last three games (of the regular season), that was the best version of this team,” he said. “Then we take a week off and we regress, we revert. I probably shouldn’t be surprised.”
There are two ways to look at these Gators as they get ready for the biggest game or games of this season.
Is it Team Mystery or has White done a masterful job to get this flawed team into the tournament?
At times, this team has looked awesome. But for it to be that way, they have had to play with an incredible level of intensity that isn’t always there.
It wasn’t there Friday night when they were bounced by Arkansas. It was there when they won those three in a row to close the regular season, but vanished in the tournament they had to watch from their hotel rooms on Saturday afternoon.
White talked about it Friday night and again Saturday afternoon after Keith Stone threw some of his teammates under the bus by saying some of them weren’t ready to play.
Which is in itself bewildering.
“We haven’t handled success very well, but on the other hand we’ve handled failure really well,” he said. “So I expect (in the NCAA Tournament) we’ll be back with attention and focus.”
Speaking of Stone, here’s a stat that tells a lot about this team — Stone has had three 20-point games this season and Florida has lost all three of them.
That’s because the book on these Gators is to cut off the head of the snake and that head has four parts — Chris Chiozza, Jalen Hudson, KeVaughn Allen and Egor Koulechov. Defenses focus on them and sometimes leave Stone free to shoot.
In Florida’s impressive three-game winning streak, Stone scored only 18 points because the other guys had big games. During the mind-numbing three-game losing streak that preceded Florida playing its best basketball of the season, Stone had 38 points.
It’s a team that may seem difficult to figure out, but in reality, it is not.
The Gators have to play at a high level on both ends of the court. They are basically playing four-on-five on the offensive end because of a lack of a post presence. Defensively, they have to make up for a lack of length with in-your-face energy.
Sometimes, they do both. Sometimes, they do not.
And all of that makes Florida a team that nobody (at least not today) expects to go far in the big tournament. The 19 SEC games have given whoever Florida plays a blueprint on how to contain the Gators.
But the one way to overcome it is to play with the intensity of a white hot star.
Maybe it’s not Team Mystery as much as it is Team Quiet. The most noise they made Friday night was complaining to the officials.
That was part of the problem, players who let calls get into their psyches.
They are fragile.
They are flawed.
But they will be dancing. We just have no idea where and how long the dance will last.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.