GAINESVILLE — There are two possible explanations for the current condition of Florida men’s basketball, and neither is desirable.
Either the Gators were wildly overrated in the preseason, or they have wildly underperformed in the regular season. Those are your basic choices. No need to look for any middle ground.
Teams do not simply go from a No. 6 ranking in November to near-insignificance in January without a plausible reason. And the way head coach Mike White was talking after Saturday night’s 72-61 loss to No. 1 Baylor, you might guess which explanation he favors.
In a critique of Florida’s defense, White suggested his team was immature. And undisciplined. And soft.
Those are angry words, although they were delivered with a soft, melancholy tone. Almost as if White could not believe these were the adjectives that best described the supposedly elite-level team he had put together.
But there is some justification to White’s exasperation. Yes, the team is young, but it is not without talent. Forward Kerry Blackshear was among the most sought-after transfers of last offseason. And freshmen Tre Mann and Scottie Lewis were part of a recruiting class that was widely considered among the 10 best in the nation.
All of those new faces were precisely the reason pollsters voted Florida No. 6 in the preseason, even though the Gators had lost much of the scoring power from a team that had made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2019.
The problem is the highly-praised freshmen have been spotty, at best. And the team hasn’t jelled. Which explains how Florida could look so good while beating No. 4 Auburn last weekend, then hardly put up a fight against Baylor a week later.
“Accountability is probably first and foremost," White said, essentially threatening starting jobs while explaining his team’s defensive shortcomings. “The more we can grow our bench defensively, the more we can hold our starters more accountable.
“This team has to learn that every possession is potentially the winning possession in a game. That takes maturity, and we’re an immature team right now. From a mental toughness standpoint, we are nowhere near what it takes to be a championship level team."
The problems were apparent from the very beginning of the season. Florida dropped two of its first five games, and White quickly realized he needed to revamp his offense. There was too much free styling without any production, so a more rigid game plan emerged.
There’s no doubt the Gators are a better offensive team today, but now their defense has gone backward. They gave up 91 in a loss to Missouri on Jan. 11 and then 84 against LSU last Tuesday.
The defense played well for 10 minutes or so against Baylor, but was eventually worn down by bigger, stronger players. At times, it was like watching the high school varsity take on a middle school team.
“Not a lot of signs that we’re making a step toward maturity outside of offensive flow and confidence and offensive execution at times," White said. “Defensively, we’re just casual. We’re soft. At times we lack the discipline that the best defenses in the country, like Baylor, have. That’s what we’re striving for."
All is not lost. The Gators are still 12-7 with a couple of victories against ranked opponents. They debuted in the NCAA NET rankings at a shockingly low No. 78 in mid-December, yet had moved up to No. 35 going into Saturday night’s game.
With a dozen Southeastern Conference games remaining on the schedule before tournament time, the Gators still have time to find themselves and make a better impression on the computerized NET rankings.
In a way, it’s like a backhanded compliment: The talent is there; the Gators just have to grow up.
“I think this Florida team has a chance to be a lot better than what we’ve seen. And I think we’re going to see it, I really do," ESPN broadcaster Dick Vitale said before the Baylor game. “They’re beginning to feel each other out, the kid Blackshear is a very good player. They have some good freshmen, the kid (Omar) Payne is a big kid and is getting better all the time.
“I like Mike White. I think Mike White has a lot of Billy Donovan in him. I think this team is going to cause some damage. I really do."
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.