On Thursday the Gators lost on the road, in double overtime, to Rutgers. So it might be an odd time to consider if they are legitimate national championship contenders, but it's easier to learn about a team when they struggle than when everything is going right. This team isn't as talented as the back-to-back Champions from 2006 and 2007, but what team is? Billy Donovan had a front line comprised of three top-10 NBA picks. This team is different. Yes, there's Patric Young in the middle, but the tallest player on the team - Erik Murphy - takes half his shots from beyond the arc. The 2006 and 2007 teams had designated marksmen - Lee Humphrey and Taurean Green (a 2nd rounder in his own right). The 2011-12 version has six players who take at least 49% of their shots from three. That's one difference. But either way the offense works. The 2006 Gators had the 2nd best offense in the nation, and the 2007 and 2012 Gators had (have) the best.
Another difference, and perhaps more significant, is the 2011-12 lack of defense. They're not a bad defense. They're just not elite. The 2006 team was 5th. The 2007 team was 12th. The 2012 team is 71st. This team doesn't have any glaring holes, but they aren't elite at anything either. In the four factors (eFG%, TO%, Off. Reb%, FTA/FGA) they rank between 47th and 152nd in every category.
Looking at the Rutgers game the Gators were 9-27 (33%) from beyond the arc, and on defense they allowed 1.08 points per possession. They entered the game shooting 40% from 3, so on average they should have made two more. Not a big deal, but in a double overtime game even one would have been the difference. On defense, Rutgers entered having played five top-150 teams, and their average offensive output in those games was just 0.89 points per possession. They didn't exceed 1.0 per trip in any of those games. Against UF it was 1.08.
These are relatively small margins, but small margins are what decide the NCAA Tournament. Reliance on the three-ball is a dangerous thing. When they're dropping, UF can beat anyone. When they're not, they can struggle with much lesser foes. But the defense might be the larger issue. Their Championship teams could survive offensive droughts because their defense caused so many of their own.
To look deeper into these two factors I charted every Final Four team for which advanced data is available. That's a pool of 36 teams from the 2003 to 2011 NCAA Tournaments. First, I looked at the percentage of field goal attempts which were from beyond the arc. The 2012 Gators have attempted 44% of their shots from three. The average NCAA team since 2003 has taken 33.3% of their shots from three, and the average Final Four team took 31.3% of their attempts from three. Here's a chart of all 36 teams plus the 2012 Gators.
There have been two teams (2005 Louisville and 2011 VCU) who have attempted more than 40% of their FGs from beyond the arc. Neither attempted as many as UF does this year. So what are the odds that the 3s fall in the games which they need them to fall, and how many of the six Tourney games would they need to hit 3s to win considering their defense?
Next I looked at the Gators defense in relation to the 36 Final Four teams. After all, 71st isn't bad. It's not going to kill them. Or is it? Here's what that same chart looks like:
86% of Final Four teams have had a top-25 defense. 81% have been top-20. 42% have been top-5. Only two have had defenses ranked worse than 2012 UF's, and that was last year's VCU team and Marquette from their Conference USA days.
So, back to my original question. Can the Florida Gators win the National Championship? Obviously, the answer is yes. But what are the odds? Are they worth picking as your sleeper team to cut down the nets? Unless they find more interior offense and tighten up the defense, definitely not.