Florida's basketball team is limping to the finish line...literally.
Playing with a six-man rotation for much of the game, the No. 8 Gators came up short against the SEC's hottest team, the Tennessee Volunteers, losing 64-58 in Knoxville.
The Gators' top two reserves, forward Will Yeguete and guard Michael Frazier II, sat out the game with injuries. Frazier is the Gators' leading three-point shooter while Yeguete is arguably the team's best defender.
The result was the third conference road loss this month for the struggling Gators (22-5,12-3), whose SEC lead has been reduced to one game over Alabama. For the surging Vols (17-10, 9-6), it was their sixth consecutive win and could put them in position for a potential NCAA tournament bid if they continue to finish strong.
The Vols were led by guard Jordan McRae, who torched the Gators with 27 points. The only answer the Gators seemingly had for McRae was the injured Yeguete, who was sitting on the Florida bench. Yeguete is recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his knee, but is expected to return before the end of the regular season.
After going undefeated in January, the Gators seemed like a lock for an SEC title and a likely No. 1 seed at the NCAA tournament. However, injuries and inconsistent play on the road have temporarily derailed that momentum.
The good news for the Gators is they could be struggling at just the right time. Despite the setbacks, Florida is still in the driver's seat for the SEC title and should be on the verge of getting healthy again with the pending return of Frazier and Yeguete.
The Gators still have games remaining with the two teams chasing them for the conference title, Alabama and Kentucky. Florida and Alabama meet on Saturday in Gainesville, while the Gators end the regular season against Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Saturday, March 9. Sandwiched in between is a home game against Vanderbilt.
Frazier, who sat out the Tennessee game with a concussion, is expected to return for the Alabama game on Saturday. Yeguete, who was injured on Feb. 5 during the Gators' loss at Arkansas, is also expected to return before the end of the regular season, possibly as early as Saturday.
Of concern will be the status of reserve forward Casey Prather, who left the Tennessee game late with an apparent head injury.
In addition to getting the Gators healthy, the remaining regular season gives Florida guard Kenny Boynton an opportunity to regain his shooting groove in time for tournament play. Boynton, who has been a streaky shooter throughout his stellar career, was only 1-of-7 from the field against Tennessee.
After a slow start, some teams in the SEC are beginning to show signs of life, which will give Florida some good competition down the stretch. However, with its full complement of players, Florida is still the best team in the SEC.
With double-digit victories over out-of-conference teams like Wisconsin and Marquette, the Gators are still in position for a high NCAA tournament seed barring an unforeseen collapse.
So, while Florida may have peaked early in January, its February fall may be a blessing in disguise.
February setbacks are nothing new for Florida coach Billy Donovan. In his back-to back national championship seasons in 2006 and 2007, the Gators suffered similar February letdowns. In February 2006, the Gators lost three games in a row before reeling off 11 straight victories en route to an SEC Tournament title and a national championship.
In 2007, the Gators lost three SEC road games in February, but recovered to win another SEC Tournament and their second straight national championship.
This year's Gator team is now counting on a flat February leading to a momentous March.