As a vocal proponent of the use of statistics in sports prediction and analysis for all sports — but particularly college basketball, considering the ridiculous number of teams (347) to keep tabs on throughout the year — I’m naturally a loyal supporter of the easily digestible statistical analysis Ken Pomeroy produces for his college basketball blog/statistical database, kenpom.com.
So when Ken and a handful of other respectable statistical analysts had the Florida Gators ranked as the clear-cut best team in the NCAA tournament — their 3-seed notwithstanding — I followed suit, penciling them in all five of my brackets as, at the very least, a Final Four team. And it seemed like a great idea at the time: as a 3-seed, the Gators were undervalued by the selection committee, making them a quasi-upset pick to make the Final Four and potentially win it all.
With the old ball coach Billy Donovan still running the show in Gainesville after collecting back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007, the Gators showed all the signs of a team ready to make a deep run. They had size, speed, athleticism, and veteran leadership — all supervised by a legendary coach with a “been there, done that” attitude. They even had the X-factor of the tournament, senior guard Kenny Boynton, waiting to light up like a Christmas tree from three-point land at any moment. There were so many positives that it was hard to see their one major flaw: a lack of character.
It’s one of those unmentionable words for stat heads: character. Every anti-statistics pundit and their mother throws out an argument over a team’s character to refute the credible work of sports statisticians. (Looking at you, Skip Bayless.) But in this case, character ended up playing a surprisingly important role in the Gators’ downfall.
Losing to Michigan in the Elite Eight wasn’t the worst thing in the world, nor was it entirely unexpected. But to lose by 20 points to an all-around weaker team on national television was a tough pill to swallow — and one of the worst ways to end such a stellar season. It was in how Florida lost by 20 that brought out its true colors.
Despite their immense talent, the 2013 Florida Gators lacked the requisite character of a tournament contender. It was apparent in their poor performance in the Sweet Sixteen against Florida Gulf-Coast, and it became obvious in their 79-59 loss to Michigan two days later. The Gators didn’t have enough resiliency or mental toughness to withstand the tremendous intensity of March Madness. When punched in the nose by an underdog like Michigan, Florida, was left without an answer.
Sure, Florida’s 26 pre-tournament wins by double-digits were impressive. And sure, the stats confirmed that the Gators were undoubtedly one of the best teams in the country. But the one thing that the stats couldn’t quantify, character, ended up being the one thing that kept Florida from punching its ticket to Atlanta.
Because of their unusually slow start against the Wolverines (down by 13 before scoring a point), the Gators were forced to play catch-up for nearly a full 40 minutes. If Florida was truly the best team in the country, they wouldn’t have melted down like they did by handing out free transition layups as a result of lazy passing and poor decision making. When their long shots weren’t falling (2-for-10 from three) and their point deficit was increasing, the Gators buried their heads in the sand and waited for the remaining minutes to run off the game clock before peaking their heads out to assess the damages.
Allowing Michigan’s Nik Stauskas to put on a three-point shooting clinic (5-for-5 from three in the first half) is one thing — a strategic error resulting from placing defensive emphasis on Wolverine phenom Trey Burke. Losing your composure and allowing a suspect Michigan defense to smother your offensive attack for an entire game is something completely different — something you wouldn’t be able to predict using exclusively statistical measures.
It has to do with mental toughness and character. Pummeling Alabama State 84-35 is something you can quantify with stats; there’s no character involved in those type of games, only skill and ability. And in the vast majority of other games, stats are highly successful at quantifying the outcome–i.e. how well each team played in the contest. But in those high profile games where you’re down and the stakes are high — like Michigan’s Sweet Sixteen predicament against Kansas — it’s imperative you maintain composure and character, which can’t be measured by statistics.
There’s a reason Kemba Walker is immortalized as one of the best clutch performers in NCAA tournament history. He put an underperforming Connecticut bunch on his back and led them to a national title in 2011. It’s the same reason that no one remembers the stellar play of Rudy Gay and Josh Boone on their far superior Connecticut team five years prior to Walker’s championship run. The 2006 Huskies had their dreams to leave a mark on NCAA basketball quashed in the Elite Eight after losing a heartbreaker in overtime to 11-seed George Mason.
When the stakes were high and the Gators were genuinely challenged, they crumbled hopelessly. The pressure of being down 10+ points for an entire game in the limelight took its toll on the bunch from Gainesville, particularly their offense.
Perhaps there’s nothing to what I’m bringing up here. The explanation could be that Florida happened to have an extremely inefficient day while Michigan had one of their most efficient days. It’s definitely a possibility. All I’m pointing out is that there appears to be something more to Florida’s unbelievably embarrassing loss to Michigan than just an unfortunately poor performance.
When faced with a large point deficit and overwhelming pressure, teams with character can maintain their mental composure and produce an impressive performance. A perfect example is this year’s group of Wolverines, who snuck by 1-seed Kansas in overtime after trailing by more than 10 in the waning minutes of regulation, just two days prior to their matchup with Florida. Michigan’s Trey Burke, a Player of the Year hopeful, nailed a clutch three from a different area code with five seconds left on the clock to send the game to overtime. When the going got tough, the Wolverines hung in like contenders.
The same can’t be said for the Gators, who caved mentally when the pressure increased and the situation worsened. Pomeroy’s statistics had the Gators justifiably ranked as the best team in the nation prior to their blowout loss to the Wolverines. Other respectable statistical analysts had the Gators at, or near, the top of their rankings as well. And they weren’t wrong: Florida was assuredly one of the most talented teams in the country.
Their talent notwithstanding, the Gators weren’t mentally prepared for the grueling grind of the NCAA tournament. In the dire world of March Madness, you have to be able to handle the inevitable rough patches of a tournament run. Otherwise, you have hardly a shot at making the Final Four, let alone winning a national championship.
As a result of their lacking character, the Gators were bound to lose earlier than many expected. They should be thankful they were gift-wrapped two consecutive double-digit seeds in the Round of 32 and Sweet Sixteen that allowed them to continue as far as they did.
With no cupcakes left to beat up in the Elite Eight, the Gators were out of character and out of place–and the Wolverines made it show.