Big Ten Wonk
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Remember Florida?
Defending national champion? All five starters returning? Number 1 overall seed?

It just seems like we're not hearing as much about the Gators as one might expect. And that's unfortunate because, whatever their fate, Billy Donovan's team is about to provide a very interesting test case:

Can a college team turn it on, NBA-style, when the time comes?

Speaking generally, of course, it would be nice if the answer to this question turned out to be "no." Granted, this year's Gators are a (very) unique case and it's not like this is going to be a worry every year. Still, one of the best things about college hoops vs. the NBA is that the regular season isn't cheapened by a defending champion knowing it can coast without consequence. (The Jordan-era Bulls and Shaq-and-Kobe-era Lakers were even able to give away playoff-series home-court advantage—and still win it all. So what's the point of a regular season?)

Make no mistake: Florida needs to turn it on. Their level of performance during the regular season in the SEC won't win their second title. In fact, their level of performance during the regular season this year is almost exactly what it was last year. The Gators have been given the tournament's overall 1-seed because of what they did last March, certainly not because of anything they've done in calendar 2007.

Recall what happened in the tournament last year: a young good-shooting team suddenly started playing defense and, a close game against Georgetown notwithstanding, pretty much marched straight through the bracket without hesitation until they were wearing ball caps and chatting with Jim Naantz and Billy Packer.

So I thought that we'd see a dominant regular season this year from that team. We haven't. They haven't been as good as we thought they'd be—or as good as people are saying they are.

Related: have they turned it on already? Isn't that what just happened in the SEC tournament? Hard to tell. The Gators certainly took their D to another numeric level (0.88 points per possession) in blowing away Georgia, Ole Miss, and Arkansas with ease. Then again the opponents were Georgia, Ole Miss, and Arkansas.

Can they play that kind of defense over the next couple weeks? We won't see the first glimpses of evidence until the Gators take the court against the winner of Arizona-Purdue this weekend.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Ohio State: pondering the possibility that coach Thad Matta may face his former team, Xavier, in the second round.

Wisconsin: feeling right at home in the United Center.

Indiana: thriving on threes.

Michigan State: tough on D, lucky that Marquette guard Jerel McNeal will not play against the Spartans. McNeal creates turnovers—and Tom Izzo's team has had its struggles in that area. (P.S. Izzo and former assistant Tom Crean are close. Really close.)

Purdue: enjoying the contrast between now and last season.

Illinois: benefiting from Shaun Pruitt's improved play but still without the services of Brian Carlwell.

Michigan: victorious, 68-58, in their first-round NIT game against Utah State in Ann Arbor last night. (Box score.) Next up: Florida State in Tallahassee.

Bracket help is just over yonder in the sidebar

The patented Wonk 360 technology has gone to work! Each venue hosts, in effect, a couple four-team tournaments—and if there's a Big Ten team involved, I've taken the liberty of breaking those four teams down. Get on over to the sidebar and enjoy.

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The similarities are uncanny!
Hi, Wonk,

Going into the last three games of the year, a national title contender, now one of the top seeds in the Midwest, was coasting along but facing two tough road games. Most thought they would win one, even maybe both, but losing both would not be entirely unexpected.

Alas, they lose both games. Not a tragedy but it still shocks the loyal fans. They'd better regroup! Fortunately, they rebound in their last game of the year and beat an arch-rival.

They head into the conference tournament. Victory! Another victory! They head into the championship game full of confidence!

Who am I talking about? My beloved Badgers?

Nope. The Florida Gators. The difference here? The Gators got to beat up on patsies Georgia and Mississippi in their conference tournament and then faced a not very imposing Razorback team for their conference championship. The Badgers meanwhile had to slug it out with heavyweights (in style if not ranking) Michigan State and Illinois before facing an Ohio State team that is clearly one of the best teams in the country.

The only difference between Florida's last three weeks and Wisconsin's last three weeks is that Wisconsin lost against OSU. That's it. Well, and Wisconsin didn't get humiliated at LSU. The only difference between Florida being on a roll and Wisconsin struggling is the Badgers losing a game to a team far superior to the one Florida beat.

One other note: I'm sick of hearing about how Wisconsin's offense is struggling. They just scored 70 on the Spartans! How many other teams scored 70 on MSU this year? One (Indiana).

The Badgers' offense is fine. They're going to find playing a couple of overmatched teams (and, yes, I consider TAMU-CC and then Georgia Tech or UNLV to be overmatched by the Butch-less Badgers) a wonderful cure for the offense that has been "ailing."

Greg S.

Vigorously asserted, sir. Many thanks.

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