Mike White’s Florida Gators had a disappointing non-conference season. The Gators entered the season as the 8th-ranked team in the country and got up to as high as 5th, before losing four out of five games in a 12-day stretch to fall out of the rankings. The losses came against Duke (87-84), Florida State (83-66), Loyola-Chicago (65-59), and Clemson (71-69).
However, since then, the Gators have run off five straight victories and opened up SEC play 3-0. Part of the team’s struggles can certainly be attributed to not having senior center John Egbunu in the lineup while he’s still recovering from ACL surgery. But, Florida seems to be rounding into form and Egbunu could return at the end of this month. How dangerous will the Gators be? Can they challenge for a much more wide open SEC? To find out the answers to these questions and more, we caught up with CBS Sports Network’s Jon Rothstein.
CBS Local Sports: After a rough stretch in mid-December Florida has seemingly bounced back. What’s been the key to the Gators recent success?
Jon Rothstein: One of the things that we kind of anticipated early in the season was that, Florida wasn’t going to be able to shoot as well as it did out of the gate. This was an unbelievable offensive team at the PK80 and the beginning of the season. Then, they made some adjustments after they got humbled a little bit. You saw a couple of losses at home that maybe people thought they shouldn’t have lost. And, they also lost a neutral site game to a tough Clemson team.
But, when you look right now at the chemical make-up of things, this Florida team is a perimeter-dominated team, and they still haven’t gotten great production out of KeVaughn Allen. This guy has had nine points in his last two games and still, has really yet to move the needle. I think that’s a good sign for Florida. They’ve been so good, and so effective in the SEC and they’ve gotten nothing out of the guy who, a lot of people, myself included, thought was an all-conference caliber player.
CBS Local Sports: Dates with both of the Mississippi schools are on the docket for this week. What potential pitfalls do these teams present for the Gators?
Jon Rothstein: In conference play right now, you’re looking at a situation where every game is a separate entity. Look at what happened last week in the Big Ten. Michigan State came into the game against Ohio State first in field goal percentage, first in defensive field goal percentage and Ohio State drilled them at home. You can’t look past the next game on your schedule if you’re trying to be in a situation where you’re trying to earn a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. Looking ahead never does anybody any good.
CBS Local Sports: The SEC seems to be more wide open this year than in past years with Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Auburn all proving capable of beating one another. In this year’s SEC, what do you think of this year’s conference?
Jon Rothstein: The SEC, to me, is as deep as it has been in a decade. I still don’t know if it has a legitimate and bona fide Final Four contender. But, I will say this. When you look right now at what team is most built to go on a run in the NCAA Tournament, it’s Texas A&M, who has yet to win a game in league play. But, they could make some noise because of how talented and how experienced that talent is on their roster. They’ve just had too many off the court issues, too many suspensions so far.
CBS Local Sports: A couple of other games to note on the CBS networks this weekend, one later in the day Saturday with Colorado State on the road taking on Wyoming. The Cowboys are 5th in the Mountain West right now, how big of a threat are they to make a run towards post-season play?
Jon Rothstein: The Mountain West, everybody is chasing Nevada. I think that one thing that has been kind of established over the first few months is that Nevada is the best team that nobody is talking about. But, Wyoming is the type of team that could go on a run in the Mountain West tournament because they have a guy like Hayden Dalton. Hayden Dalton I remember last year was sensational when Wyoming almost beat USC, and he’s been just as good this year. He is a no question, first team All-Mountain West caliber player.
CBS Local Sports: On Sunday, CBS has Northwestern vs. Indiana. These two teams have performed opposite of expectations so far. We’ll start with Northwestern who returned most of last year’s team that made the tournament, what’s gone wrong for them so far?
Jon Rothstein: Well, Northwestern is fighting human nature. It’s human nature to let up a little bit after you’ve had an unbelievable accomplishment. And, they’re also dealing with the fact that, they have to travel roughly 14 miles to go play a home game. There’s no home games on campus this year. Northwestern won 24 games in total last year and 14 of those were at Welsh Ryan Arena. So, really, there’s no difference in the ambiance if you look at Northwestern playing at home versus playing on the road. That’s one big thing to look at with this year’s team.
CBS Local Sports: On the other side, Archie Miller entered the season with lower expectations as this was supposed to be a bit of a rebuilding year for the Hoosiers. Instead, they’re 3-2 in conference, and one of those loses came by just four points to Michigan. What’s surprised you the most about this team?
Jon Rothstein: Archie is one of the best coaches in the country and, with the chemical make-up of the Big Ten, you look and you see a league that has Michigan State, Purdue and then, everybody else. Maybe you have Ohio State and Michigan at three and four, but that all bodes well for Indiana. Now, Indiana got some rough news when it was announced earlier on Wednesday that De’Ron Davis is going to miss the season with a leg injury. But, I think, given the landscape of things, that Archie Miller, despite being in a situation where he’s kind of trying to bridge things from Tom Crean’s era to his regime, could end up coaching the Hoosiers to finish in the top half of the Big Ten. That’s in spite of having limited resources and the injury to De’Ron Davis.
CBS Local Sports: When you look at the Big Ten, there seems to be three rock solid teams at the top, followed by a pack of teams in the middle right now. Which teams do you expect to make a push to the tournament?
Jon Rothstein: I think that, obviously, you’re going to see Michigan State and Purdue at the top of the list. But, I think Ohio State joined the party a little bit with that huge win over Michigan State in Columbus. That now makes it a situation where you’re tracking a couple of teams that have a chance to get into the tournament.
Maryland, has great talent, and a great freshman by the name of Bruno Fernando. Not as many great wins that move the needle though. Their best wins right now are against Butler and Bucknell, so Maryland is going to have to cash in on some opportunities. They have a big game against Ohio State coming up.
But, I’ll give you something right now, and this is something I’ve been looking at for a couple of weeks. I think the sleeper team right now in the Big Ten is Nebraska. Nebraska is a team that is built in the same mold as Fred Hoiberg’s teams at Iowa State because there’s so many transfers. James Palmer from Miami, Isaac Copeland from Georgetown, Anton Gill from Louisville. Those are three guys from high-major programs who came to Nebraska as their second stop. Remember, Nebraska has already beaten Minnesota and they also almost beat Kansas. Svi Mykhailiuk made a shot at the last second. I think Nebraska is the team, especially with the make-up of this Big Ten, that could do some damage.