Florida’s lack of depth proves problematic in Madison

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Thanks to suspensions and the academic ineligibility of signee Chris Walker, the Florida Gators are attempting to navigate their non-conference schedule with just eight scholarship players. Billy Donovan’s team was able to do enough to hold off North Florida on Friday afternoon, but taking care of the Ospreys in Gainesville and winning at Wisconsin are two entirely different matters.

After jumping out to a 16-4 lead the Gators were unable to hold onto the advantage, with Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker proving to be the catalyst the home team needed. Ultimately the Badgers would win by a final score of 59-53, with Florida fighting hard but not having the full stable needed to win a game of this magnitude. Wisconsin led by as many as 11 in the second half before Florida, led by Michael Frazier II’s 20 points off the bench, was able to scrap its way into position to have a shot at the win.

But a Traevon Jackson jumper in the game’s final minute proved to be the dagger the Badgers needed to defend the Kohl Center, and with options such as Dekker (16 points), Jackson (13 and four assists) and Ben Brust (11 and nine rebounds) Wisconsin will factor into the Big Ten race. Yet while it looks to be business as usual in Madison, the personnel issues Florida’s currently dealing with could have a negative impact long-term as well.

Freshman point guard Kasey Hill struggled, accounting for four points (2-for-11 FG) and four assists before fouling out with 3:25 to go. While it certainly can be argued that early-season struggles will benefit Hill as the season wears on, the fact of the matter is that Florida needs a disciplined (and that’s key) Wilbekin on the roster as well. And considering how banged up the available players are, the same can be said for suspended forwards Dorian Finney-Smith and Damontre Harris.

There are two questions to be answered at this stage:  how long will those suspensions last, and will the suspended players avoid upsetting on-court chemistry when they return? The answers will go a long way in determining whether or not Florida is the biggest threat to Kentucky in the SEC, because at this point it’s difficult to say that they are.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.