You read that question, scoffed, looked up the respective records of both teams and scoffed again, but it has to be asked. At 13-4 (1-1 SEC) with a more talented roster, the No. 19/19 Florida Gators should be an easy favorite over the 8-8 (0-2 SEC) South Carolina Gamecocks who have lost 11 of their last 12 against SEC opponents. Then you take one look at Florida’s four losses and have to wonder exactly how much this game means.
On Saturday, Florida travels to South Carolina to face the Gamecocks in what will be the Gators’ fifth true road game of the season. Florida is winless in the previous four and despite that aforementioned talent advantage the Gators are only favored by seven over the Gamecocks. Put all of that together and there’s a reason the question is being asked.
The Gators have two quality losses among the four road defeats. Few will fault them for dropping road games to the Syracuse Orange and the Ohio State Buckeyes. If the Tennessee Volunteers continue to improve, that loss may not be considered much of a blow either. The loss to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights shouldn’t have happened, but it did and there will be those from time to time. They aren’t losses we enjoy (which ones do we like to be honest?), but they happen. The issue is that those four together, at this particular moment in the season, make us ask the question – is Saturday’s game at South Carolina the most important game of the season for Florida?
The answer just might be yes even if it’s difficult to fathom. It’s a yes that will repeat itself if the Gators somehow fall short on the road again. So to that point, they simply can’t let it happen.
At this stage in the season games become more value in whatever twisted equation the NCAA Tournament selection committee uses. We’ve heard the committee focuses on the final 10-12 games a team plays more than any others. The thought is a team that is 22-8, but 4-8 over their final 12 may not be nearly as good as those 22 wins makes them out to be. We also know items such as strength of schedule and strength of losses all factor in. Let’s be clear, Florida will make the tourney, but their seeding, region and potential opponents will be greatly impacted by their resume. That resume can’t include many more road losses and it definitely needs to be free of away defeats the Gators shouldn’t have occurred.
Then there is another factor: mindset. A player’s mindset can have a great impact on his performance. A team’s, well, multiply the player’s by the roster size and you could either have Billy Donovan’s national championship teams who felt they couldn’t be beat by anyone or the potential for disaster. Before anyone jumps at the idea that I’m saying I believe the current Florida squad is headed for disaster, I’m not saying that at all, but if (and this is one of those enormously immeasurable ifs) the Gators lose a fifth straight on the road, all bets are off. This game against the Gamecocks is even more important because of that. We have yet to see Florida carry the momentum of a win into a hostile gym. If they’re able to do so, they’ll answer a lot of their own questions about mental toughness. If they aren’t, they’ll be a lot more we’ll be asking.
Watch the entire game, but pay special attention to Florida’s play in the first few minutes and especially if South Carolina keeps it close. On paper, this may not seem like the most difficult of tests, but it’s an extremely important one nonetheless. The momentum of the first road win could propel this season’s squad to new heights; heights that could determine the path of the remainder of the season.