Survive and advance. Survive and advance. That is all that matters in post season basketball. This week the Gators have done it in convincing fashion. I kept hearing that Florida struggled with Albany, but there was not a single point in that game where I was really concerned about the Gators losing the game. Yes, Florida allowed Albany to hang close enough that a run by Albany could have been problematic but there was never any indication that such a run was going to happen. Pittsburgh was a matchup that concerned me somewhat. Pitt plays excellent defense. Florida showed them what excellent defense really is. The Gators absolutely smothered the Panthers offense. That game was complete domination.
So next up was UCLA, one of the (if not the) most storied programs in the history of college basketball. This is not your father’s UCLA. Nor, is it John Wooden’s UCLA, but it is a very good basketball team that came into the game as one of the top scoring teams in the country, averaging 82 points per game but a defense that gave up 70 points a game. But, history prevailed. Just as they have three times before in the NCAA Tournament, Florida did whatever it needed to do to win the game. UCLA wanted to crank up the tempo and score quickly. Florida just kept grinding at both ends of the floor. On defense, the Gators forced the Bruins to hold onto the ball late into the shot clock and take a bad shot. Florida patiently waited its openings and found them on the perimeter with Michael Frazier II and on the interior thanks to some slick passing from Kasey Hill. At the end, Scottie Wilbekin did what he does late in games and the Gators did it to UCLA again.
The fact that Florida is the only team in the country to have been in the Sweet 16 and now the Elite Eight the last four seasons indicates that this team and its coaching staff have all the experience needed to advance to their first Final Four since the 2007 NCAA championship team. The stumbling block has been the Elite Eight game. So Saturday is the hump the Gators must prove they can get over. Dayton has had a magic run so far in this tournament, much like Florida Gulf Coast last year, but we all saw how that played out. As I have said before, we all know that anything can and does happen in the NCAA tournament but Florida seems to have the advantage in this Elite Eight.
However, make no mistake about it Dayton isn’t a fluke. The Flyers have talent and athleticism. If you take them lightly they will beat you. Michael Frazier II must stay hot from 3-point range. Patric Young needs to stay out of foul trouble. In short, the Gators must remain as committed to smothering defense as they have been the last two games. Do that and Florida should still be playing next Saturday as well.
This Gator team seems to be dialed in for this tournament. I still believe that they are the most likely team to be cutting down the nets to “One Shining Moment” a week from Monday. Florida just needs to keep doing what they have been doing. Twenty-nine and counting on this winning streak, they just need three more wins.
Florida was faced with Pittsburgh’s brutal defense and dominated. The Gators were faced with UCLA’s blistering offense, and dominated. There is no reason to think the Gators are not capable of the same thing with Dayton. With teams remaining like Michigan State, Virginia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Louisville, it will be the Final Four where the real challenges should arise. For now the Gators just need to stay focused and take care of business Saturday. They will have a week to take a deep breath and prepare for what promises to be a brutal Final Four. Go Gators.