Are Gators contenders or pretenders?

COLUMBIA, Mo. — What, exactly, should we make of these Florida Gators?

After a game in which they held the lead for the first 37 minutes and 9 seconds, after being up 13 points with less than 11 minutes left, the fifth-ranked Gators dropped their second SEC contest in as many weeks on Tuesday night. And it wasn’t the way you want your top-tier team to lose. The Gators missed the front end of three one-and-ones in a row late in the game, and Missouri mounted a furious comeback at home, all but securing a place in March Madness with a 63-60 upset.

Is Florida the best team in the country, or close to it? Or is Florida something else: a well-coached but overrated bunch that can’t finish big games against the tough opponents?

Are these the Good Gators, or the Average Gators?

The case for the Good Gators goes like this: In their 11 wins in SEC play, the Gators have absolutely obliterated opponents, winning by an average of nearly 26 points. They might be the most balanced team in college basketball, with five players who average 9.4 points or more but nobody who averages more than Kenny Boynton’s 13 per game. They’re as tough on offense as they are on defense, ranking second in the nation in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The numbers guys will tell you they’re nearly tops in the country, with their No. 1 spot in the KenPom rankings and their No. 2 spot in the Sagarin rankings. Missouri head coach Frank Haith will tell you the same:

“Florida is a tremendous team,” he said shortly after beating them. “I think they’re one of the best teams in the country if not the best team in the country.”

Maybe. But maybe not. The case for Average Gators begins with one question: Who have the Gators really beaten this year, anyway? They have beaten only four teams ranked in the top 50 in RPI. Their highest RPI victory was against 14th-ranked Marquette, but that was way back in November. Their second-highest RPI victory? Against Middle Tennessee State.

Florida is 1-2 against top-20 RPI teams. They are 0-3 in games decided by six points or fewer. Their lack of quality wins underscores how weak the SEC is with a struggling Kentucky team; the SEC ranks eighth in conference RPI, behind the Pac-12 and Atlantic-10. Much of Florida’s résumé has been beefed up by feasting on clearly inferior opponents. Their strength of schedule, at 40th in the nation, is pretty mediocre for such a highly regarded team, sandwiched between Air Force and Northern Iowa.

Against the stronger teams, the Gators look mighty vulnerable: They lost in a final-minute fury by then-eighth-ranked Arizona in December. Just before Christmas they lost to a Kansas State team that has since jumped to No. 13 in the country. They have struggled in their two toughest conference road games, losing at Arkansas two weeks ago and then at Missouri on Tuesday night. (It should be noted that Will Yeguete, their second-leading rebounder, is injured and likely out until the conference tournament.)

In a wild college hoops season in which so many teams have far exceeded our expectations (Miami, Colorado State) and so many teams have fallen far short (Kentucky, UCLA), this Florida team might be the most difficult to pin down of them all.

There could be no better example of all this than Tuesday night. For the first 30 minutes, Florida dominated, looking like the No. 1 NCAA tournament seed that many have projected the Gators to be. They bottled up Mizzou on defense. They ran their screens to perfection, getting tons of open looks and making 4 of their first 6 shots from 3-point range. They moved the ball around like Billy Donovan teams always do.  Scottie Wilbekin kept on beating Mizzou off the dribble, and Michael Frazier and Mike Rosario drained their shots.

But foul trouble by their dominating big man Patric Young threw the Gators off their rhythm and allowed Mizzou back in it. Getting outrebounded 40-28 and making only half their free throws didn’t help things, either.

The Good Gator/Average Gator Conundrum could be seen in the last 90 seconds of what became a tight game. Down two and with 1:30 left, Wilbekin made the shot of the night, a ridiculous spinning stepback 3-pointer that put the Gators up one. A Missouri bucket put the Tigers back up one. The Gators called a timeout. And with seven seconds left, Kenny Boynton fired a wild 3-point attempt that might have made Russ Smith cringe.

“Did not want that at all,” coach Billy Donovan said afterward. “We would have liked to have had some action and driven to the basket. When you’re down by one you at least want to create some penetration. We talked about that during the timeout.”

“For us, 10 assists and 14 turnovers, that’s not who we are,” he continued. “We’ve been much, much better than that in terms of our assist-to-turnover ratio and the way we pass the basketball.” (They’re eighth in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio.)

Missouri is a conundrum unto itself, albeit a less high profile one than Florida. On nights like this, when Laurence Bowers had 17 points and 10 rebounds, his best performance since his knee injury last month, Mizzou plays like a Final Four-caliber team. The Tigers are energetic. They’re physical. They’re 15-0 at Mizzou Arena, a place where they’re 82-4 since 2008. Yet they are a completely different team on the road, with their only win being at Mississippi State, the worst team in a struggling SEC. This is without even going into the huge shadow of an NCAA investigation that’s loomed over Haith for two seasons. (Missouri’s biggest win of its season came the same day Haith was given his Notice of Allegations from the NCAA.)

Florida’s loss to Missouri is by no means a bad loss. But the Gators need a statement victory. Florida’s a physical, well-coached team that like Louisville and Kansas State seems built for March. The question is just how good can the Gators be, and Tuesday night, Donovan could only praise his opponent — specifically Tigers point guard Phil Pressey, who’d turned the ball over 10 times in Missouri’s 31-point loss at Florida last month but played like a pro on Tuesday.

“He was, at our place, crazy the way he played,” Donovan said. “(On Tuesday) he really did a terrific job of running his team, taking a limited number of shots, got the ball where it needed to go, made the game easy for everybody else. He really played within himself.”

That’s what Donovan needs his team to be: disciplined, sharing, calm. The Gators have the potential to be all of that, but right now the only answer is that they’re not there yet.

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