THOUGHTS OF THE DAY: MARCH 15, 2019
TOO MUCH DEFENSE, KJ AND THE HOG KILLER
Consider it the perfect confluence of a whole bunch of things that had to go right for the Florida Gators (18-14) Thursday afternoon at the SEC Tournament in Nashville. Faced with a win or else finish the season in the NIT, the Gators rode one of their best defensive efforts of the season, a monster game from freshman Keyontae Johnson and an awakening by certified Hog killer KeVaughn Allen to a 66-50 win over Arkansas that propelled Florida into the quarterfinals Friday afternoon against top seeded and 9th-ranked LSU (26-5).
Arkansas (17-15) came into game riding a 3-game winning streak in which the Razorbacks averaged 80 points per game but for the second time this season the Razorbacks couldn’t handle Florida’s lock down defense, particularly in the second half when the Gators held them to 25% overall (6-24) and 16.7% (1-6) from the 3-point line. The Gators held Arkansas without a basket in the final 7:54 of the game. Mason Jones, who torched the Gators for 30 points in January, managed just 7 and Isaiah Joe, the SEC’s leading 3-point shooter, could only connect on 2-9 from beyond the arc.
Florida helped its defensive cause by controlling the tempo of the game in the final 31 minutes. For the first nine minutes, the Hogs imposed their will on the Gators with their full court pressure but once Mike White made the necessary adjustments and turned the Arkansas press into not much more than a nuisance it was all about UF. Arkansas wanted to play the game at a breakneck pace. Florida succeeded at slowing the game down and making the Hogs play defense nearly the entire 30 seconds of the shot clock. It didn’t hurt that the Gators grabbed 19 offensive rebounds that contributed to 18 second chance points. Worn down on the defensive end by the Gators, the Hogs were totally out of rhythm when they had the basketball.
Johnson was an absolute beast on the boards. He had a game-high 12 rebounds (6 offensive) to go with a career-high 20 points on 8-14 shooting including 3-5 from the 3-point line. He was a defensive force in the paint as well as the shorter Gators outscored the taller Razorbacks, 24-22, on the interior.
Johnson kept the Gators close in the first 10 minutes of the first half until Allen woke up to once again do a number on his home state. A 15.9 scorer in previous outings against Arkansas in his UF career, Allen woke up from a dreadful 16-70 slump from the 3-point line with 9:33 to go in the first half when he hit the first of three 3-pointers for the game. Buoyed by the confidence of seeing that first 3-ball go through the net, Allen finished the half with 10 of Florida’s final 18 first half points for a 32-30 lead. He finished the game with 17 points including 3-7 from beyond the arc. It was his touch ‘em all 3-pointer with 7:26 remaining in the game that ignited the Gators on a 17-4 run that put the game out of reach.
Florida had lost three straight games coming into Thursday so the win not only ended that skid, but it certainly keeps the Gators in the NCAA Tournament hunt. A loss would have guaranteed a trip to the Nobody’s Interested Tournament. It must be noted that when the Gators broke an earlier 3-game losing streak, they went on to win five games in a row and one of the wins was against LSU in Baton Rouge. The Gators should be 2-0 against the Tigers this season, but they lost a perfectly winnable game in overtime last week, the second loss of their most recent 3-game losing streak.
The Gators should take the floor Friday afternoon with plenty of confidence. They’ve taken LSU to overtime twice (1-1 record) and this time, it’s the Tigers who have all the distractions. Florida’s NCAA chances might still be a bit iffy right now, but should the Gators get a second win over LSU the big dance will be a no doubter.
A DILEMMA FOR LSU: SHOULD SMART SIT OR PLAY?
LSU coach Will Wade says he’s ready to resume coaching the Tigers but that isn’t going to happen. LSU says until he elects to come talk to AD Joe Alleva and the higher ups in the school administration about FBI wiretaps that have him discussing payments to secure the services of Javonte Smart, Wade will remain suspended. So he’s not going to coach against the Gators Friday afternoon. LSU says it’s still investigating Smart and that has some folks speculating the hotshot freshman might play against the Gators.
The main issue for LSU is to determine if Smart in any way benefitted from the alleged payments that Wade was discussing with agent wannabe Christian Dawkins, who has been convicted of bribery in federal court. Since there is no way LSU is privy to all the evidence gathered by the FBI in this case, it is impossible to know for sure if Smart benefitted or is an innocent victim of a coach who plays fast and loose with the rules. If LSU chooses to play Smart, there is that possibility that when this case goes before a jury evidence will be produced that either implicates Smart or at least reveals that he was aware of what was going on. That would mean the NCAA could wipe out any games in which Smart participated and the SEC could void the Tigers’ first conference championship since 2009.
If Smart remains suspended, then none of the games moving forwarded would be either vacated or forfeited. There are experts who believe LSU has good enough talent to win the SEC Tournament and make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament even if Smart remains sidelined. Smart averages 11.5 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game so LSU is obviously better when he’s in the lineup.
Whether LSU plays Smart or not the NCAA could wipe out an entire championship season. Maybe LSU is of the opinion that the NCAA will nail its hide to its wall of sinners no matter what happens and sends Smart out there against the Gators but you have to wonder if the Tigers are better off without him given the distractions that Wade and Smart have caused over the past week.
SMART VS. THE GATORS: When the Gators played LSU last week in Gainesville, Smart had 15 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and a steal. He hit three 3-pointers in the second half and contributed a key assist on a 3-pointer by Skylar Mays as the Tigers staged a comeback to force overtime. In the overtime, he scored LSU’s first two points. In the first meeting between the Gators and LSU, Smart was held to only four points.
Thursday’s SEC Tournament scores
FLORIDA (18-14) 66, Arkansas (17-15) 50
Auburn (23-9) 81, Missouri (15-17) 71
Alabama (18-14) 62, Ole Miss (20-12) 57
Mississippi State (23-9) 80, Texas A&M (14-18) 54
Friday’s SEC Tournament games
FLORIDA (18-14) vs. LSU (26-5), 1 p.m.
Auburn (23-9) vs. South Carolina (16-15), 3 p.m.
Alabama (18-14) vs. Kentucky (26-5), 7 p.m.
Mississippi State (23-9) vs. Tennessee (27-4), 9 p.m.
MORE SEC BASKETBALL STUFF
After losing by 26 to Mississippi State Thursday, it seems more and more likely that Billy Kennedy has coached his last game at Texas A&M. Kennedy said after the game that he’s not certain of his future at the school.
Reid Travis, who has missed the last few games with a sprained knee, will be dressed out and available to play when Kentucky takes the floor tonight against Alabama. With Travis in the lineup, most experts think the Wildcats are a #1 seed and a very strong Final Four candidate.
Florida’s NCAA resume got a lift from an unexpected source Thursday when West Virginia knocked off 7th-seeded Texas Tech in the Big 12 Tournament. Florida beat West Virginia in New York City back in December.
Auburn has a 5-game winning streak and has won seven of its last eight heading into today’s game with South Carolina. If the Tigers reach the SEC semifinals, they’ll likely earn a #5 seed.
GATORS FACE MSU IN SEC BASEBALL OPENER
The SEC schedule kicks in tonight for the 4th-ranked (Baseball America poll) Florida Gators when 5th-ranked Mississippi State (16-1) comes to McKethan Stadium. Florida (14-5) will send sophomore righty Tommy Mace (4-0, 3.55 ERA) to the mound to face Mississippi State redshirt junior lefty Ethan Small (1-0, 1.50 ERA). Jack Leftwich (4-0, 2.05 ERA) will get the Saturday start against MSU’s JT Ginn (4-0, 1.80 ERA) with Tyler Dyson (2-0, 3.57 ERA) going Sunday against MSU’s Keegan James (2-0, 1.80 ERA).
Not only will the Gators be going against a pitching staff that has a team ERA of 1.69, but the Gators will have to contend with a Mississippi State lineup that hits for a .311 average, led by All-American Jake Mangum (.366, 0 HR, 16 RBI). The Bulldogs most impressive wins were last weekend’s 3-game sweep over Southern Mississippi.
The Gators have won their last four including an impressive come from behind, 20-7, win over 7th-ranked Florida State Tuesday night. After falling behind, 6-0, in the first 4-1/2 innings, the Gators outscored the Seminoles, 20-1, the rest of the way. The Gators have a team batting average of .300 led by sophomore shortstop Brady McConnell (.389, 2 HR, 11 RBI) and freshman first baseman Kendrick Calilao (.379, 3 HR, 25 RBI). The Gators have a team ERA of 3.46.
SEC FOOTBALL STUFF
Could this be a problem for the LSU football team? A Baton Rouge fundraiser has been charged with embezzling $810,000 and then using some of that money to pay the salary of the mom of an LSU athlete. It’s not clear if the athlete is a football player but most of LSU’s athletes who hail from the Baton Rouge metro area are football players. LSU said it is cooperating with the NCAA … LSU has moved senior wide receiver Stephen Sullivan (6-7, 232) to tight end … Auburn linebackers coach Wesley McGriff will be paid $300,000. McGriff was the defensive coordinator at Ole Miss last season … Speaking to Tony Barnhart, Georgia coach Kirby Smart sounded as if he is still bothered by the Bulldogs’ loss to Texas in the Sugar Bowl. Smart said, “We can all make excuses for players being out or juniors coming out early or injuries and all that. It doesn’t matter. You’re playing Texas in the Sugar Bowl. You get over your wounds” … Tennessee offensive tackle Marcus Tatum, who got overpowered a lot last year when he played at 293, checks in at 315 this spring.
RANDOM THOUGHTS: Teddy Bridgewater will sign a 1-year, fully guaranteed contract for $7.5 million with the New Orleans Saints to serve as the backup QB to Drew Brees … Washington State fired basketball coach Ernie Kent Thursday. Kent was 58-98 in five seasons and the Cougars never finished higher than 10th in the Pac-12 … So much for Zion Williamson feeling any rust from his 3-week layoff with a sprained knee. In Duke’s 84-72 win over Syracuse in the ACC Tournament Williamson scored 29 points, hitting all 13 of his shots from the field while grabbing 14 rebounds, 7 on the offensive end … Georgia Tech’s basketball program has been sent a notice of allegations by the NCAA. HBC Josh Pastner is not named in any of the allegations … NCAA investigators are on the campus of Kansas, looking into both the football and basketball programs … Tommy Fleetwood and Keegan Bradley both shot 7-under par 65s Thursday to share the lead at the TPC. Tiger Woods shot a 2-under 70.