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Gators playing the best basketball in the state right now

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This week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll conveys a basic truth for basketball in the state of Florida. The Florida Gators are playing better as a team than the more talented Florida State Seminoles.

Following a tougher-than-expected challenge at home from Texas A&M, which Florida won 71-62, the Gators moved up two spots to No. 15. The Gators (20-5) also won on the road at Georgia during the week.

Amazingly, Florida State fell only three positions following a disastrous performance at Notre Dame on Saturday. One week ago the Seminoles (21-5) were feeling slighted after being ranked behind ACC teams they had defeated and who also possessed inferior records to Florida State.

The slip to No. 17 now seems justified.

Why does Florida appear to be the best team in the state? Saturday provided illustrative examples.

For most of the game, the Gators could not find the range. As baseball legend Tom Lasorda was fond of saying “they couldn’t fall out of a boat and hit water.”

But Florida’s intense effort on the defensive end kept them in the game. They shot only 39 percent, but forced 20 turnovers. This let them hang around until they started making enough shots at the end.

Florida State also could not make shots from anywhere, then lost their composure at Notre Dame in the first half and could never recover. Their normally intense defensive pressure was missing and the Irish took advantage. There were opportunities to stay close, but missing 15 of 22 free throw attempts sealed their fate.

While it is true Florida’s survival came at home, they also had to find something extra during their previous game at Georgia to prove they are among the top teams in the country. Florida State has now been deeply humbled in four of their last five road games.

When the preliminary seedings for the NCAA Tournament were revealed on Saturday, Florida State was seeded second in one region and Florida seeded third in another. ESPN’s Jay Bilas said before the Notre Dame game he did not believe the Seminoles warranted a two seed.

Plenty disagreed with him Saturday afternoon, but not Saturday night. Few can disagree with a three seed for the Gators, but they have a chance to earn a higher seed over the next month.

Both Florida’s Mike White and Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton still have some challenges ahead of them before their respective conference tournaments. FSU has a home date with Miami plus a trip to Duke (and two other road games) remaining, while the Gators face SEC leader South Carolina at home along with Kentucky and Vanderbilt on the road.

Both coaches and their fans will have a pretty good idea by then if their teams are ready for the March Madness spotlight.

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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