In a closed-door session with his team after Saturday's 75-70 loss to Tennessee, Florida coach Billy Donovan dared to use the three letters that brings shivers down every college basketball player's back.
N ... I ... T.
"It's an eye-opener," said Gators guard Kenny Boynton, who tied Bradley Beal with a team-high 16 points though neither shot very well from the field. "But it can only be one way. We've got to wake up and play or we could be in the NIT."
Actually, Donovan confessed he was only using the Gators' 2008 and 2009 teams just as an example what can happen when you don't finish a season strong. UF had two straight NIT years after winning back-to-back national titles the previous two seasons.
Florida (19-5 overall, 7-3 in the SEC) will definitely tumble pretty far in the polls after starting the week as a Top 10 team, then following a 78-58 loss at Kentucky with Saturday's home blowout that marked the first time in two years the Gators have lost back-to-back games.
"For the last couple of weeks I have not been pleased," Donovan said. "I don't know if it's focus or what it is, but I thought the difference in the game for me today was pretty simple: Tennessee has a lot of veteran guys, a lot of experience and a lot of talent. But a lot of these guys on their team were backup guys last year and I think their team has hardened going through last year (the firing of Bruce Pearl amid NCAA problems).
"Our guys are not hardened enough right now."
Beal said there were signs of problems coming in recent days because of the way the team had been practicing. Donovan became so irritated on Monday he threw the team out of the gym.
"We didn't compete at all, really," Beal said. "Our defensive principles were bad again. We really weren't focused and weren't getting on offense at all, just jacking up shots. We weren't focused mentally throughout the whole game. It started in practice a couple of days ago and really showed today."
It was never really much of a game.
Tennessee (13-12, 5-5) has won three straight and five of its last seven, but came to Gainesville 0-7 on the road this season. Trae Golden had 17 points to pace the Vols, who totaled 36 points in the paint and had a 35-28 rebounding advantage that was actually much worse until garbage time.
"It was a good feeling," first-year Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. "My approach to road games is always the same. I told the guys in shootaround this morning that today I felt like it was the first time we were able to win a road game. We had the necessary pieces and the necessary mindset to win the game. Before we weren't mentally ready."
Florida also saw a 19-game home winning streak, including 13-0 this season, come to an end as it played about as poorly as possible during a stretch of more than three minutes midway through the first half that pretty well spelled its doom as Tennessee went on a 15-2 run.
UF's depth was already on shaky grounds with backup guard Mike Rosario out with a hip pointer and backup post player Cody Larson not in the arena because of the flu.
With Florida up 10-9, Gators backup forward Will Yeguete hit his head against the base of the basket. He left the court to get stitches on a gash over his right eye and didn't return. Less than two minutes later, starting forward Erik Murphy picked up his second foul. With Murphy getting spot playing time and little-used Casey Prather handling most of the minutes in his place, the Gators couldn't compete inside.
Donovan said Yeguete was knocked out on the play and suffered a concussion. He failed a concussion test in the dressing room and had 8-10 stitches to repair the cut. It's doubtful he will make the trip to Alabama on Tuesday.
"A lot of it is going to be how well he responds," Donovan said.
With UF's depth virtually gone, Tennessee got six of its points in the paint in the 15-2 run that gave the Volunteers a 24-12 lead at the 10-minute mark of the game. Florida got within 26-18 but another UT rally pushed the lead back to 33-18 late in the half.
Tennessee led 41-30 at the break and it could have been much worse if not for a couple of late 3-point baskets by Boynton. The Gators had nine turnovers in the opening 20 minutes and were outrebounded 19-11. The Volunteers scored 20 points in the paint to eight for Florida.
Florida center Patric Young, who has battled an ankle problem in recent weeks, didn't have a field goal and pulled down just one rebound in the half.
Skylar McBee had a trio of 3-pointers to play a major roll in UT's impressive opening half. He came in averaging just 6.7 points a contest and did not score in the first meeting between the two clubs this season, a 67-56 Volunteer win on Jan. 7 in Knoxville. He finished with 13 on Saturday.
So what now for the Gators?
"I don't know if it's a crossroads as much as it is, who are we, who do you want to be," Donovan said. "In this game there were a lot of issues because of foul trouble and Will's injury. I understand that, it's part of the game. ... To me you can overcome shooting 43 percent (from the field), 36 percent (from the 3-point line), but it's our numbers again on the defensive end."
It was the second time in two games that UF allowed an SEC team to score 67 points or more this season. So that's back-to-back games of displaying its worst defense in league play.
"Right now, (opponents are) just playing tougher," Boynton said. "That's our fault. We've got to come out and play tough."