By: Chris Dortch
SEC Digital Network
Less than a week after postseason play began, the Southeastern Conference finds itself with just one school standing. That may be a surprise, but the school that remains isn’t.
Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, and many others, singled out Florida as a potential Final Four team before the season began, and the Gators are still in there with a chance. The road to Atlanta won’t be easy—NCAA Tournament surprise FGCU and either Kansas or Michigan still stand in the way—but the job coach Billy Donovan has done the last three years has come oh-so-close to duplicating his national title winning years of 2006-07.
Yes, the Gators fell short the last two years, but they reached the Elite Eight and had a chance—with one less forced shot, one more box out, one more defense stop—to reach two consecutive Final Fours. And once a team winds it way into that territory, anything can happen.
What has to happen for the Gators to once again take that next step and give themselves a chance to win it all? Point guard Scottie Wilbekin is a major key. If he’s running the offense efficiently, defending his position and keeping tight reins on his shot selection, Florida is much harder to beat.
It also doesn’t hurt if senior guard Mike Rosario is focused the way he was in the Gators’ third-round victory over Minnesota. For two years Donovan has been trying to push the right buttons to keep Rosario on point. Even as late as the Gators’ opening-round win over Northwestern State last Friday, Rosario played just 15 minutes, contributing eight points on 3-of-9 shooting.
Then came Minnesota, and Rosario, clearly having received the message Donovan wanted to send by reducing his playing time, played the best game of his Florida career. In 34 minutes, Rosario made 8 of 12 shots and 6 of 9 from 3-point range for 25 points. Almost as big—he didn’t commit a turnover.
Rosario got the Gators off to a fast start, and he also helped quell a Minnesota rally, knocking down a huge 3 to match another one by Wilbekin.
“When you shot 6 of 9, even if you’re by yourself, that’s still pretty impressive,” said Tubby Smith, who at the time had just a few hours left as Minnesota coach. “And those were really tough shots because we had some momentum going, cut it from 21 to what, seven or eight? We were back in the ball game. Both those threes took a lot of wind out of our sail.”
Asked about his big night, and how Donovan’s urging might have played a part, Rosario summed it up succinctly.
“The message that coach gave us and gave me personally is, you got to go out there and compete,” Rosario said.
In typical Donovan fashion, he wasn’t afraid to outline Rosario’s strengths and weaknesses and talk about the occasional struggles he’s had.
“There's a couple things for him that are really, really simple,” Donovan said. “When he doesn't do them, I generally have to sit him. But the first thing is, is just take open shots. I want him to be as aggressive as he possibly can be. That doesn't mean that be aggressive to just go score all the time, but be aggressive with the ball.
“The other thing with him is be responsible with the ball. If you want that kind of freedom, and if you want to be able to play aggressive, there is a responsibility that you have to yourself and to our team to make the right decision.
“And then the third part for him is, just play the right way. He has got as good of a basketball feel and understanding as anybody on our team. He sees open men, he makes the extra pass, he can get guys shots. But there's sometimes where he gets a little high risk and very, very low reward. And when he does that, it puts our team in a very, very difficult situation.”
LOOKING AHEAD TO NEXT YEAR: Much was made about the fact the SEC produced only three NCAA Tournament teams this season, but that appears to be an aberration more than a trend. Power conferences go in cycles, an unfortunate byproduct of the one-and-done rule but also an indication of the pressure coaches are under to win. Consider that this week, two good coaches, Smith and UCLA’s Ben Howland, lost their jobs despite leading their teams to the NCAAs. Coaching changes inevitably set programs back.
Of the three league teams that played in the tournament, we know Florida isn’t going anywhere, despite the lost of key personnel. Donovan and his staff have stocked up with another highly regarded recruiting class. Missouri will suffer considerable personnel loss, too, but coach Frank Haith returns guards Phil Pressey, Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross and has also recruited well.
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy may struggle to replace big men Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner, but judging by some Twitter posts, guard Marshall Henderson, the league’s leading scorer and tournament MVP, will be back.
As far as other league teams that have a chance to return, it’s a given that Kentucky will be back. Coach John Calipari and his staff are in the midst of putting together what many recruiting analysts are calling the best class ever. And of the freshmen who played this season, only Nerlens Noel, who’s assured of being a lottery pick despite suffering an ACL injury, appears headed for the NBA.
Cal will have an embarrassment of riches at his disposal.
Tennessee, which just missed out on a bid, gets back its best player, Jeronne Maymon, who didn’t play a minute all season after suffering a setback in his rehabilitation from knee surgery. He’ll be joined by two freshmen who will give the Vols more length and firepower in the backcourt. Only two seniors who played much this year, Kenny Hall and Skylar McBee, are departing.
Another team that came close to earning an NCAA bid this year was Alabama, and the Tide returns every key player except the oft-injured Andrew Steele. Other teams that will have a chance next year include Arkansas and LSU, provided the lure of the NBA doesn’t siphon off key players.