Bubble Watch: Florida and Ohio State
by Max Powers, Senior Handicapper - 02/27/2008
It was less then a year ago that these two teams were battling for the NCAA Championship in Atlanta. Florida dominated most of the game as their veteran leadership proved to be too much for the young upstart Buckeyes, led by two freshmen, Greg Oden and Mike Conley. The Gators won the game by nine points and thus completed back-to-back NCAA Championships for the first time since Duke did it in the early 90s. A team that reaches the championship can pretty much be assured a place in next year's NCAA Tournament field, but that is not the case with these two squads, as both sit clearly on the bubble. The following will examine their resumes and compare and contrast the likelihood that either could reach the Final Four yet again.
Last year the Gators were clearly the team to beat. They had dominated the 2006 tournament field and returned all five starters from that squad. They had a great combination of speed and quickness to go along with strength and size. They took everyone's best shot and did suffer some questionable losses during the year, but turned it on during the tournament and repeated as champions with a 35-5 record. Shortly after that they witnessed a mass exit that including Coach Billy Donovan, who left to coach the Orlando Magic in the NBA. Donovan then had a change of heart and returned to the Gators but still had to replace his top seven scorers from that championship squad.
This year's Gators currently sit at 20-7 and one would easily assume that would be good enough for a tournament bid since they do play in the SEC. They problem they have is that their non-conference was extremely easy and featured numerous home games against colleges most people have never heard of. North Florida, Stetson and High Point all made it onto their schedule. Florida opened the season with 18 wins in their first 21 games and were ranked in both polls in late January. They did have some quality wins during this time as well and opened the SEC with five wins in their first six conference games. At the peak of this run they did move up to No. 42 in the RPI rankings and appeared well on their way to a tournament bid.
But starting with their Feb. 2 game against Arkansas they have taken a turn for the worse or what many believe is a punch back into reality. They have lost four of their last six games with their only two victories coming against Georgia and South Carolina at the O'Connell Center. This recent losing streak has dropped them to No. 56 in the RPI and they clearly have work to do if they plan on making another trip to the Big Dance. The problem with Florida is that they do not have one quality win during the non-conference season. They suffered a home loss to the Florida State Seminoles and had a chance to make a big statement with a victory in Columbus, but fell flat on their face.
Speaking of Ohio State, last year's runner-up clearly sits on the bubble as well when it comes to making the tournament this season. Like Florida, they had to replace key players from last year's squad including the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft, Greg Oden. The Buckeyes did return point guard Jamar Butler and his experience figured to be a big plus for another successful season. He was a preseason all-conference selection and can get it done scoring and dishing the basketball. State also fared much better during the non-conference portion of the season, picking up a victory against Syracuse and the before mentioned Gators. In a selection we used, the Buckeyes dominated the Gators, 62-49, in a game that clearly meant more for them, since they suffered championship game losses in football and basketball the previous year.
The Buckeyes then took advantage of an easy Big Ten schedule to open conference play, going 3-0 with victories against Illinois, Iowa and Northwestern, and moved up to No. 16 in the RPI on Jan. 9. But since then they suffered three straight losses to likely tournament teams and currently sit on the bubble with an 8-6 Big Ten record. Normally a .500 or better record in the Big Ten will get you into the tournament and I feel that this year is no exception. But the Buckeyes have a brutal schedule remaining and it's possible they could lose all four games and finish 8-10 in conference play. They will likely need to beat Purdue or Michigan State in Columbus to secure a berth into the field.
The Buckeyes are clearly the fifth best team in the Big Ten and that is usually good enough for a berth, especially with an RPI in the 40s. But they have suffered some bad losses recently including setbacks at Michigan and Iowa. They have had trouble scoring points lately including just 53 points at Value City Arena against Indiana and Wisconsin. As it sits now they are also on the outside looking in and need two victories in their last four games to assure themselves a bid. This could be the first time in history that two finalists from the previous year both did not make the tournament.
So who has better case to make the tournament: Ohio State or Florida? The answer is clearly Ohio State at the moment, since they did challenge themselves in the non-conference portion of the season and did beat Florida this season. Both still have work to do and getting to 10 conference wins is the first step in securing a likely bid. These are just two of the bubble teams and it will be interesting to see how both schools finish.
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