The Gators' chance to dance in the tournament tightened after their 10th loss of the season against the rival Kentucky Wildcats.
Florida head coach Todd Golden and his squad’s chances of snatching a bid to the National Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament hang in the balance. The Florida Gators (13-10, 6-4 SEC) have eight games left in their season.
Golden picked up his first signature win against the No. 2 Tennessee Volunteers at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center Feb. 1. The Gators dominated the Volunteers 67-54, pushing them back onto the bubble of making the tournament, according to ESPN reporter Joe Lunardi.
The win was key in the Gators’ effort to make the tournament, and it boosted the team’s confidence, Golden said.
“I think it’s huge for us in a lot of different ways,” Golden said. “We’ve just got to make sure we keep going.”
Florida entered Rupp Arena Feb. 4 against fellow bubble team Kentucky, who sat as one of the “Last Four Byes.”
The Wildcats took the Gators down 72-67 and made UF’s path to March Madness harder.
Florida will still have a chance to pick up signature wins that will build a resume worthy of a tournament bid despite its most recent loss.
The NCAA has a ranking system that helps in the selection process for the tournament, known as the NET rankings.
The NET rankings determine the quality of wins and rank them into four quadrants — Quad 1, Quad 2, Quad 3 and Quad 4. Wins against Quad 1 teams are the most important for a team’s chance of securing a bid to the tournament.
The Gators are 2-8 against Quad 1 teams after the Kentucky loss, with their two wins coming against Mississippi State and Tennessee.
Florida has two more opportunities to pick up resume-boosting wins against Quad 1 teams. Its first opportunity will be against the No. 4 Alabama Crimson Tide Feb. 8, and the second will be against the Arkansas Razorbacks Feb. 18.
UF will be on the road for both matchups. The Gators have struggled away from the Stephen C. O’Connell Center; they have a 3-4 record on the road and a 2-3 record at neutral sites.
Florida’s margin of error to make the tournament would be slim if it fails to beat the Crimson Tide or the Razorbacks.
Graduate student Colin Castleton said the team needs to continue to build on its progress. Florida staying consistent and keeping continuity will be crucial, he said.
“We know we have a good stretch coming up here with a lot of good teams, so we’ve just got to stay connected as ever,” Castleton said.
The Gators ended the 2021-22 season with a 3-10 record against Quad 1 teams, according to GatorWire. Last year’s team failed to make the tournament and finished the regular season 19-12.
Florida took down the No. 2 team in the nation last year also, but it wasn’t enough to receive a bid to the big dance. This year’s Gators will need to build on their upset against Tennessee to avoid back-to-back National Invitation Tournament appearances.
Golden hopes to build on the win over No. 2 Tennessee, he said. He’s grateful for the moment but doesn’t want it to be the highlight of his team’s season.
“Awesome moment for us, something we feel like we can build off of,” Golden said. “But at the same time, I don’t think we’re satisfied with where we’re at.”
The Gators will also need to protect their home court. Florida has four home games left and has posted an 8-3 record at the O’Dome this season.
Florida and Kentucky meet for a rematch in Gainesville, Florida, Feb. 22. The Gators could get revenge and capture another signature win against one of their biggest rivals.
The Wildcats rank 31st in the NET rankings as of Feb. 5. If Kentucky moves up into the top 30, it would become a Quad 1 victory if Florida wins.
The remainder of Florida’s schedule consists of Quad 2 and 3 teams. The Gators are 7-2 against opponents in those categories.
Freshman guard Riley Kugel said the team needs to close out the season strong and play to its potential.
“I feel like we’re just a very good team,” Kugel said. “We should be able to get the job done the rest of the season.”
The schedule lightens after Alabama Feb. 8. The game against the Crimson Tide is the last ranked matchup left on the schedule as of Feb. 5. The easier slate of games gives Florida a chance to stack wins but makes chances to get signature wins even more crucial.
The Gators could seal an automatic bid by winning the Southeastern Conference Tournament. Florida is 6-4 in SEC play and has not lost a conference game by more than five points.
Golden has the chance to make history as the first Florida head coach to make the NCAA Tournament in their first season if UF receives a bid. Former head coach Mike White finished 21-15 in his first year and missed the tournament.
The Gators have shown they can pull off big wins when their backs are against the wall.
Castleton will need to continue to play at a high level to keep Florida afloat. Performances like his 25 points against Kentucky and 18 points against Tennessee are examples he can live up to the billing.
If the Gators get enough offensive production to go along with its top-ten defense, they can pull off a run worthy of a tournament bid.
There’s still work to be done, but a trip to the NCAA Tournament in year one would be the perfect start to the “Golden Era.”
Jackson Reyes is a UF journalism senior and The Alligator's Fall 2023 Sports Editor. He previously served as Digital Managing Editor and was a reporter and assistant editor on the sports desk. In his free time, he enjoys collecting records, long walks on the beach and watching Bo Nix.