The Florida Gators up and down basketball season is on the upswing again. This time it is on the ups at a critical time. The Gators closed out the non-conference part of their schedule with two big wins against teams from a conference they traditionally have trouble with, the Atlantic 10.
Florida was 14-17 all time vs. A-10 teams with a road game at Xavier and a home game against Rhode Island coming up. An upset loss to Jacksonville following a huge win over then-No. 6 Kansas State and a rather mundane 66-55 win over 2-9 Radford had ramped up the pressure on Billy Donovan's squad.
The Gators could ill afford losing these two games and going into SEC play with five losses. The game against Xavier on Friday was a rematch of a game played in Gainesville last February in which the Gators were thumped by 12 points. XU was sporting a 30-game home court win streak going into the game also.
True to form, the Gators played to the level of their competition and stepped up their game. Erving Walker scored 18 points to lead the Gators. Three other Gators also scored in double figures. Kenny Boynton scored 15, Vernon Macklin 14 and Ales Tyus chipped in 12. Chandler Parsons had 11 rebounds to lead Florida as the seniors really stepped up.
Florida broke the game open with a 13-1 run in the second half to take a 15 point lead. Xavier kept fighting and cut the Gator lead to three when Walker hit a free throw to ice it, giving the Gators the four-point win.
On Monday the Rhode Island Rams cam to visit. Florida came out and dominated from the start. With Eric Murphy out and Vernon Macklin not starting due to injury, the Gators came in shorthanded. It didn't matter.
The Gators were hot from the outside and dominated the boards. Parsons and Tyus looked as good as they have all year, each making thunderous dunks and several great defensive plays. When Macklin played he played effectively. His hook shot was falling and he also made some strong moves to the rim resulting in dunks.
Florida opened a 35-14 lead on the Rams with about 4:00 to go in the first half. The Rams then cut the lead to 14 at 38-24 at halftime. A traditional three point play at the 18:00 mark ballooned the lead back to 19 at 45-26 and the rout was on. Rhode Island never cut into the lead again.
Parsons led UF with 18 and Walker ended up with 14. Boynton and Tyus each had 10. The Gators also got contributions from the bench with Patric Young (even though he did start this game) with 8 points, Casey Prather with 8 and Scottie Wilbekin with 6.
The Gators head into the SEC with a record of 11-3. They have good wins over Florida State on the road, Kansas State on a neutral court, Xavier on the road, and Rhode Island. They have one bad loss to Jacksonville at home. The other two losses are to teams currently undefeated, Ohio State at home and UCF on a neutral court.
What will Florida's SEC record be?
The Gators head into the tough SEC East needing to improve on last year's 3-7 mark. 11-5 would keep their losses into single digits heading into the NCAA Tournament which would huge in terms of seeding. Florida's strength of schedule heading into the URI game was No. 10. Two games a piece between Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia will do nothing to hurt that ranking.
If Florida goes at least 8-8 in the SEC they should make the NCAA Tournament. They would be 21-11 with some pretty good wins on the resume. But UF should be thinking about getting a high seed which 11-5 or better would bring. A 24-8 record with some very good wins would set UF up for a possible Sweet 16 run. From there, who knows?