tampabay.com

Gators find life shaky on bubble for tourney

Until now, they hadn't really given it much thought at all.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published February 19, 2008


GAINESVILLE

Until now, they hadn't really given it much thought at all.

Yes, lately when they have been watching ESPN, the Florida players have heard themselves listed as a team on the NCAA Tournament bubble. But when you're part of a program that has been one of the most successful this decade, one coming off back-to-back national championships, failure isn't part of your mind-set. It was all just talk.

Yet standing one game over .500 in the SEC and with only five regular-season games remaining, the Gators are having to face this thought: Could they become the first Gator team in 10 years to miss the NCAA Tournament?

"That would be the worst feeling," freshman Jai Lucas said Monday afternoon. "That's what you play college basketball for, to make it to the tournament. And especially just coming to a school that's won two national championships, not to make the tournament, that just sounds ridiculous."

Maybe. Maybe not.

The Gators are 19-7 overall, 6-5 in the SEC, and have lost four of their past five games. They'll host South Carolina on Wednesday night before taking a much-needed weeklong bye to regroup for the stretch run of Georgia, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Kentucky.

Florida coach Billy Donovan is staying true to the way he has been in the past, refusing to talk about life beyond the South Carolina game. The tournament, he said, will take care of itself - win and they're in, keep losing and they're out. He's more concerned about the season as a whole, considering he lost all five starters (three lottery picks) and the league's best sixth man from last season.

"I don't know where this season puts us or where we end up," he said. "I always think your perspective going through it is different than your perspective when it starts. Sometimes people just put the focus of a season on what happens in March and they really don't look at the whole body of work. I've always been a big believer of looking at the body of work of what's happened.

"Certainly, we are playing for a lot every single time we step on the floor, but I made the comment, we are starting over. We lost more than anybody in the United States of America last year, and we are starting over. I understand that. My goal of this team is for us to play to the very best of our ability to reach our fullest potential. I don't think we are there yet."

At one point, defense was the problem. Now it's a combination of things, including poor outside shooting. In the past five games, the Gators are 26-of-111 from 3-point range.

Lucas said he's confident the Gators can shake the shooting slump. As for the tournament?

"I think it would be real bad to end that streak," freshman guard Nick Calathes said. "We don't want to be the (team) to make that happen."

MIRROR IMAGE: If its regular season is any indication, the women's basketball team might have the perfect mentality for tournament time. The Gators are 6-2 in games decided by five points or less, including Sunday's 75-73 win over Arkansas.

With three games remaining, the Gators (16-10) remain in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament berth, and their toughness has kept them alive so far, which they think will serve them well come tournament time.

"We still have three critical games remaining, but going into the SEC tournament when you don't have any turnaround time, the toughness of this team is a mirror image of (coach Amanda) Butler and her grittiness," assistant coach Susie Gardner said. "I think, without question, this team is a reflection of Coach Butler."