GAINESVILLE -- The top-ranked Gators — media darlings to win to 2014 NCAA Tournament — have aced nearly every test this season, but Billy Donovan’s senior-laden squad does have a scarlet shortcoming that could torpedo its title hopes.
No. 1 Florida (32-2), which opens the second-round Thursday in Orlando (4:10 p.m., TBS) against play-in winner Albany, ranks as the nation’s No. 289th team in free-throw shooting at 66. 1 percent — ninth-worst in the tournament’s field of 68.
While the cure-all for Florida’s habitual slow starts has seemingly amounted to a halftime dousing of Michael Jordan’s “Secret Stuff,” Donovan has found no remedy for UF’s woes at the charity stripe.
“We’ve got to do a better job there,” Donovan acknowledged.
“We were doing really, really well for a while there. One of the things that happened is we did work on it some, but we’ve got to spend more time on that. That has to be an emphasis and focal point for us. We’ve shown the ability and the potential to shoot the ball well. There’s been numerous games where we come down the stretch of games and gone 10 for 11, we’ve made 16 out of 18. There’s been some good stretches.”
But others have been wretched.
The Gators shot a woeful 50 percent (27 of 54) over three games in the Southeastern Conference tournament, nearly coughing up a championship with a 7-for-17 performance against Kentucky in the finals.
“We’re just going to have to put in more work,” said forward Dorian Finney-Smith, who missed the front-end of a one-and-one with 20 seconds remaining against the Wildcats as Florida clung to a one-point lead.
“I didn’t even notice we missed that many free throws, but now that I know the stats, we got to do a lot better than that.”
Florida — which proved capable at the free-throw line during a stretch in mid-February, shooting 79 percent in four games decided by single-digits — must buck history if it’s going to capture its third national championship since 2006.
The last NCAA team to shoot under 70 percent and win a national championship was Florida in 2006-07, joining 2004 Connecticut as just the second school over the past decade (2004-2013) to do so.
“It’s an area we’ve got to get better,” Donovan said. “Certainly that three-game stretch from us was not a great stretch at all.”
The Gators have two players — senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin (72.6 percent) and sophomore swingman Michael Frazier II (83.6 percent) — who shoot north of 67 percent, but Wilbekin was just 1 for 6 at the line during the SEC tournament.
“Obviously we want to make those free throws, but we did a good job focusing on the next play,” he said.
Florida may run out of “next plays” in the NCAA Tournament though.