Even with last week's 80-69 loss at Arkansas taken into account, Florida has posted the best start in league play of any major-conference team over the past five seasons, outscoring the SEC by 0.35 points per possession. If there were an award for Historically Extreme Early Conference Season Domination, the Gators would deserve to win that honor in a walk.
What tangible rewards does this distinction deliver for Billy Donovan's team? Not many, actually. In my colleague Joe Lunardi's latest bracket projection, Florida is a No. 2 seed, not a 1, and the Gators aren't even included among the nation's top five teams in the latest AP poll.
Clearly something is amiss here. If the numbers are to be believed, Florida's not only the best team in the nation but also one of the very best teams we've seen in college basketball in recent years. But human evaluators have looked at a group of Gators that couldn't even get within single digits of the Razorbacks and concluded, not surprisingly, that this is a rather run of the mill No. 2 seed.
Who's right, the numbers or the pollsters? Neither. Florida's yet to prove they belong on the same level as, say, Kansas in 2007-08, but if Donovan shows that he can craft a workable rotation while Will Yeguete sits with a knee injury, it will be very difficult to keep this group off the top seed line in the field of 68.
Let's break down the Gators' performance so far, and consider what it means for their chances in March.
Florida's performance has been historically strong even when adjusted for a weak SEC
The first source of confusion to be cleared up is the belief that what Florida has done is mostly or even solely attributable to the sorry state of this season's SEC. This is incorrect. The SEC is indeed pretty weak by major-conference standards, but it's plainly a far stronger league than the West Coast Conference, and pollsters, quite rightly, have seen fit to vote Gonzaga into the top five in the nation regardless. This same recognition -- outstanding teams can come from weak conferences -- should be applied to UF.
One way to think of what the Gators have done is to compare their performance to that of Memphis in 2007-08. Clearly Conference USA that season was no swaggering beast in terms of overall strength, and indeed we find statistically the league was even weaker than what we're seeing from the SEC right now. The Tigers that season outscored their weak league by 0.29 points per possession in the course of posting a perfect 16-0 record. John Calipari's team received a No. 1 seed, and, well, you remember the rest. The point is simply that a statistically dominant team coming out of a very weak conference can have a very good NCAA tournament, one where they enter the 40th minute of the national championship game as a good bet to win it all.
Not that having "a very good NCAA tournament" can be guaranteed in advance, of course....
Historically strong Januarys and Februarys can mean little come March
Memphis in 2007-08 notwithstanding, not every team that looks outstanding in February has proven to be national championship material. My colleague Ken Pomeroy has already documented the similarities between the Gators this season and Stanford in 1999-2000, a team that started out strong but ended up losing in the NCAA tournament round of 32.
I'll add another candidate to the "eerily similar teams" file that Ken has started. If you're thinking Florida will turn out to be just a flash in the pan, your best prior example may well be Texas in 2010-11. In mid-February of 2011, the Longhorns were 10-0 in Big 12 play, having outscored their conference opponents by 0.26 points per possession. Rick Barnes' team was unable to sustain that level of performance, however. The Horns lost three of their last six conference games, entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 4 seed, and lost a controversial one-point game to Derrick Williams and Arizona in the round of 32.
In all there have been six teams over the past five seasons that have reached mid-February still outscoring their major conference by at least 0.20 points per trip. I suppose the good news for Florida (and for Miami, currently 0.21 points better than the ACC) is that this group of six February-dominant teams has produced two national champions: Kentucky last season, and Kansas in 2007-08. Then again, I guess the bad news is that this same bunch of fast starters has produced no fewer than three teams that went on to lose in the round of 32: not only Texas in 2010-11, but also Duke and Kansas State in 2007-08. (The sixth team in our sample of past February greats, Ohio State last season, reached the Final Four before losing to Kansas.)
In short, if recent history's any indication Florida would appear to have a reasonably good shot at reaching the Final Four. But there are also plenty of sorry tales to draw from this same history, not the least of which is the sad fate awaiting once-dominant Texas in the 2011 tournament.
Is the Will Yeguete injury more like the Ryan Kelly injury or the Fab Melo injury?
Last week Florida announced that Will Yeguete will miss the remainder of the regular season after undergoing knee surgery. Here's how Donovan characterized Yeguete's importance: "He's a great defender, great rebounder. He gives you a lot of flexibility on the defensive end of the floor....That's definitely going to be a loss."
The direct effects of one player's absence are very often exaggerated, and in this context it may be useful to think back to Syracuse last season, when Jim Boeheim lost the services of Fab Melo. Like Yeguete, Melo was a defensively-focused interior player who was on the floor about half the time. With all due respect to both Yeguete and Melo, common sense would seem to suggest that a part-time player that makes his impact felt primarily on one side of the ball should, in theory, be easier to replace than a performer like, for example, Duke's Ryan Kelly (who before he was injured logged big minutes and assumed a prominent role on both offense and defense).
Yegeute was on the floor for 252 possessions in Florida's first eight SEC games, meaning he was off the court for more or less the same number of trips. And in those eight games the Gators were very good, of course, both with Yeguete and without him. In that sense one would expect UF to be fine without him, but there is the question of potential indirect impacts triggered by Yeguete's absence. His minutes, though relatively small in number, will have to be given to other players, and if that results in more fatigue or simply in players being asked to do things they're not good at, then a player's absence can definitely have an impact -- even if that player is a defensively-oriented reserve. I'll be watching closely.
Florida has been a team of analytic interest for much of the season, and the Gators obligingly keep giving us reasons to stay interested. Whether it's posting record-breaking per-possession numbers, losing decisively to an opponent on an NIT trajectory, or having a key player go down to injury, Billy Donovan's team is never dull to those of us trying to pick NCAA tournament favorites. It's too soon to name Florida -- or any other team -- "the" favorite to win it all, but I do have the Gators on my short list of teams that are capable of doing just that. Don't count them out just yet.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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