Gators team

Florida players come together during a timeout in a win over LSU.

The Florida Gators men’s basketball team entered the 2019–20 season with high hopes following a top-10 recruiting class and the addition of highly sought transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. from Virginia Tech. UF began the season as the No. 6 team in the country.

But the season hasn’t turned out like anyone thought it would. Not in the slightest. Florida has been unranked for most of the season and is 18–11 following an 63–58 loss to Tennesse on Saturday, a far cry from the preseason hopes of a Final Four.

The thought held by many is that this team is simply too young. Florida signed five freshmen in the offseason, and four of its usual starting five are either freshmen or sophomores.

Kenpom.com, created by college basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy, tracks a statistic called “Experience” that takes all of the minutes played by the team, assigns each player a value based on their experience (freshmen have a value of zero, sophomores have a value of one, etc.) and spits out a mean.

The Gators are 346th out of 353 teams in the country in experience, so perhaps there is some weight to the age argument.

Graph 1

That argument hasn’t held up over the past five years, however. While it may seem like having an older team is an advantage, it certainly hasn’t played out like that on the court.

Graph 2

KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin (AdjEM) is simply a team’s adjusted offensive efficiency minus its adjusted defensive efficiency. There is not much of a relationship between a team’s AdjEM and its experience.

What if we filter out the “bad” teams? After all, it would be difficult comparing a school like Florida to the Niagaras and the Houston Baptists of the college basketball world.

Graph 3

Once again, there is not much of a relationship between the two. Good teams are good regardless of experience. If anything, there is a negative relationship between experience and adjusted efficiency.

Graph 4

It is apparent that young teams are all over the place when it comes to quality. Pomeroy himself has said that continuity is much more important than experience. The Gators are more toward the middle of the pack in Pomeroy’s continuity statistic (214th), so that cannot be an excuse, either.

The upper-left portion of this chart is dominated by two perennial powerhouses in Duke and Kentucky that annually attract the top prospects for a year before declaring for the draft.

The Gators’ recruiting class doesn’t have the same star power as those Kentucky and Duke teams, despite the No. 8 ranking according to 247Sports. The only one-and-done that Florida was projected to have was guard Scottie Lewis, whose struggles offensively have prevented him from making a bigger impact. Instead, you can find Florida surrounded by a group of fringe tournament teams, near-misses and a 2018 Syracuse that made a run to the Sweet Sixteen as an 11th seed.

The Gators’ youth and inexperience also hasn’t prevented them from being a decent team. Despite being the youngest team in the conference, they have won 10 of their 16 conference games so far and currently sit in a tie for fourth place in the SEC standings.

Graph 5

Florida is also 5–2 against the seven oldest teams in the conference, including a 69–47 drubbing of then-No. 4 Auburn, the oldest team in the SEC.

The issue with the Gators isn’t in the age of their roster. It is completely possible to be a younger team and still be a good team. Even outside of Kentucky, Kansas, Duke and other basketball factories, it’s still possible to produce a quality team. Other factors, like recruiting rankings, depth and coaching styles matter just as much, if not more.

Take depth, for example. The Gators have a solid starting five, but their options on the bench are lacking. They have struggled to find consistent scoring depth behind forwards Keyontae Johnson and Blackshear and guards Noah Locke and Andrew Nembhard.

The big problem for Florida has been that its play has been very uncharacteristic of coach Mike White’s teams during his time at Florida. White’s teams have been borderline elite defensively and lagging behind offensively. This year’s edition of the Gators has been the exact opposite. Florida’s offense is the best it has been since its Elite Eight run in 2017, but the defense has fallen off a cliff.

Graph 6

“Our level of pride defensively is different than every other team that I’ve had,” White said after a second-half collapse led to a 78–71 loss to Mississippi State on Jan. 28. “Our numbers are not very pretty, and they’re getting uglier every day and it’s being communicated very clearly.”

The good news is that the defense has turned itself around in the last four games, and the Gators are peaking at the right time. After a close loss to then-No. 10 Kentucky on the road, Florida kept LSU’s offense, which was ranked No. 2 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, to just 66 points in the blowout win. Lewis also finally showed promise offensively with a career-high 18 points.

With a rematch against Kentucky at home and the SEC Tournament, there is still time for the Gators to reshape the narrative of a disappointing season. There are signs that they are turning things around just in time for the NCAA Tournament next month. Bracketmatrix.com has the Gators at an average seed of 9.00 in one of the tournament’s four 16-seed quadrants out of 78 projected brackets.

However, if the Gators are bounced early from March Madness, don’t blame just the inexperience of the roster.

Follow Brendan Farrell on Twitter @Bfarrell27. Contact him at [email protected]