Get ready for an invitation to the NIT

Published: Saturday, March 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 2, 2008 at 12:11 a.m.

This is what coaches are supposed to say about teams in their conference.

So Rick Stansbury said it.

“Florida is definitely an NCAA team.”

He's wrong, of course.

Florida is not an NCAA team. Not now.

And probably not two weeks from today when the bids are revealed.

Get your NIT brackets ready, people. Because on a day when opportunity was right in front of them, the baby Gators again played as if they don't really want to deal with the pressure that comes with March Madness.

This wasn't one that you can blame on the usual culprit — the defense. Even though Mississippi State hit some big shots, Florida held the Bulldogs to 29 points and 38 percent shooting in the second half.

No, this was about offense or a lack of it.

Offense, defense, it's always something.

“I don't think the word you would use to describe our team is consistent,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said.

In a way, that's not true. With the exception of the home win against Vanderbilt, Florida has lost to every team that is better than the Gators.

That's why their resume is not NCAA-worthy. It's not over because there are more opportunities ahead. It's just that they are dwindling and to see a team come out and play the way Florida did Saturday makes it difficult to have a lot of optimism.

Chandler Parsons summed up Florida's offensive issues when he said, “We didn't execute the offense, we took bad shots and missed a lot of easy shots.”

What is surprising is that we are 29 games into this season and something like that could happen. There is a way to beat the Bulldogs. Donovan and his staff put a game plan in that could beat the Bulldogs. But the youth of this team bled all over the O'Connell Center floor.

There were silly passes, poor shot selections. They attacked Mississippi State's shot-blocker Jarvis Varnado as if they thought he was wearing concrete sneakers. He was not and swatted away so many shots his hand must be sore.

Even when he didn't block a shot, it rarely went in because the Gators looked afraid.

Very afraid.

So it was Mississippi State celebrating a clinched West Division title on Florida's floor.

“To come in here and win in The Swamp is incredible,” said Charles Rhodes.

Forgive Rhodes for mixing up Florida's home venues, but when you look like a tight end and play like a linebacker, the football reference is more of an analogy than a mistake.

If Florida played Mississippi State 10 times, Florida would lose most of them. It's a bad matchup just like LSU was and Florida State was and Arkansas was. Big, strong, athletic teams are too much for the soft, small Gators.

And if Florida played the way it did Saturday 10 times against Mississippi State, the Gators would lose 11.

“We exposed our own weaknesses,” Donovan said.

And there are plenty of them. It's just that to win important games like this one, you have to play to your strengths. You can't take quick shots in transition against a team that does not allow offensive rebounds. You have to go to the hoop aggressively, not passively.

I asked Donovan after the game if he was surprised that his team would fail to execute this deep in the season with so much on the line.

He wasn't.

“I watch it every day,” he said. “Part of me is surprised these guys have won as many games as they have.”

Which takes us back to the main point — this team does not deserve an NCAA bid.

Not right now. Heck, the bubble is barely within reach.

I get asked every day — whether it's by fans or in the office or on radio shows — what Florida needs to do to keep the streak alive, to make it to March Madness for a 10th straight year.

The answer is pretty obvious.

Beat somebody that matters.

Time is running out on a team that needs to get old fast.

“You try to take experiences and give it to this team,” Donovan said, “but they have to step up and do something about it.”

Immediately, if not sooner.

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