Throughout Gator history, there have been a few teams that have had their seasons ended in egregiously unfair fashion. Specifically, they have been both very good and very hard working teams full of truly laudable players on and off the court, teams that did everything right and deserved to go out winners or at least be turned away in a close, admirable loss. But alas and alack it was not to be; for them, fairness was not in the cards.
They All Deserved Better
In football, no team epitomized this inequitable end like the 1995 squad who turned in the Gators’ first and still to date, only SEC title that capped off an undefeated regular season. Led by the original choir boy Danny Wuerffel, local walk-on made good Chris Doering, and a host of hard working Gators blazing a path never before traveled and lighting the way for three future national title teams (and counting). Then the Fiasco Bowl, where they were plastered by Nebraska 62-24, humiliated by a last second mercy kneel at Florida’s goal line, and made the butt of an eternal joke (“Nebraska just scored again”).
The same thing has happened to the baseball and softball teams – twice each – in just the last few years. Story book seasons replete with an abundance of made-for-TV heroes that ended with embarrassing, drubbing sweeps in the national championship series. And of course the basketball program is no stranger to this phenomenon, with the 1999-2000 team riding a magical season and a colorful and exciting team of upstarts to the school’s second-ever SEC title. The typically-disrespected SEC champs (whenever it isn’t Kentucky) were given a five seed and responded by giving the tournament one of its greatest signature moments with a Mike Miller overtime buzzer-beater basket to beat Butler and a charge to the school’s first national championship game that included big wins over legendary programs Duke and North Carolina, and of course a win against its former coach Lon Kruger who famously left the program because he said it could never be made into a basketball power. That group deserved better than a blowout win against the Michigan State Spartans, and even more so against that year’s winner of the Christian Laettner Insufferable Miscreant, Mateen Cleaves.
The 2012-2013 Gator basketball team has hit the top ten of this list – maybe the top five – with a bullet. There are so many reasons they deserved better. First off, they really were a truly great team. Not a group of truly great players, mind you: a truly great team. Except for the rare game when nothing went right, this team was a pure joy to watch in action. Every piece of this team’s puzzle had his own unique set of offensive and/or defensive skills he brought to the team recipe, each had their own interesting personal story, and they played so very well together as a team.
They were such a cohesive unit, even when their playing chemistry was thrown into a funk when Will Yeguete missed several games amidst a steak of multiple players missing time on the disabled list, that they almost never had a game where nothing went right. When one or two guys were off their game, one or two others would step up and lead the team. On any given night, a different player or two could and did take over the game. And on those nights when everyone was at the top of their game, this team was unbeatable. This is why Gator fans had so much hope for a possible national title run this year: when they were on, this team could not be beaten.
They were so good in fact, that they only had two games all year when nothing went right for them. That probably cannot be said about any other team in the country. Unfortunately, one of those two games was in the Elite round of Eight against Michigan. In Gainesville, they’d probably beat Michigan by double digits. But for whatever reason, this team could not find the basket in either of their games in Cowboys Stadium. Thus is life, but they deserved better.
Billy the Kid’s Best
The reason they deserved better is the same reason Billy Donovan won the coach of the year, finally, for doing the best coaching job of his career: this team should not have been this good. It should never have won 29 games, especially with perhaps its team MVP Yeguete, out for seven straight games in the second half of the season, throwing their late-season stride – upon which championship teams refine their team and their game to head into the post-season – into immense disarray. It should never have been able to blow out seven NCAA tournament teams in a season (three of them in the actual tournament itself). Because it did not have the talent to do so. The reason it accomplished all these things is that it wasn’t an “it”; it was a “they.”
It was a team that far outplayed its abilities through hard work and selfless coachability. How do we know? This year’s group of Gators featured a complete set of great college pieces, but almost certainly not a single NBA player on the roster. Patric Young will likely be drafted, but with his inability to score, it is anyone’s guess as to whether he can make an NBA roster. Will Yeguete fits the same profile, as do many others: many good qualities, but lacking the complete elite level skill set to stick in the league. The Gators have made the Elite Eight the last two years with only one NBA player on each roster: Chandler Parsons in 2011 and Bradley Beal in 2010. Those years showcased great coaching jobs by Donovan, but to get a third-straight team to the Elite Eight, and this one with probably no legitimate NBA player on the roster? Phenomenal.
By comparison, let’s look at Billy’s first three Elite eight teams – all of which went on to the Final Four and national title games (two of them of course being crowned champs). The most recent two squads to reach the Elite Eight – both winning national titles – boasted four NBA first-round draft picks, two second-round draft picks, 26 years of combined NBA tenure (four still playing and starting), one all-rookie team, one all-defensive team, three NBA all-star teams, and one NBA championship ring. Billy’s first Elite Eight (and Final Four/national title game) squad featured two NBA first-round draft picks, one second-round draft picks and one free agent signee who stuck, 38 years of combined NBA tenure (three still playing), one Rookie-of-the-Year, one Sixth Man-of-the-Year, two all-rookie teams, one franchise all-time rebounder (yes, read that one again) and four NBA title rings.
This year’s team? Most probably NBA goose eggs down the entire roster.
A team with no NBA players that wins 29 games against one of the toughest schedules in the country, wins the SEC title and reaches the Elite Eight for the third-straight time deserves an incredible amount of talent.
And certainly deserved better than their humbling dismissal Sunday.
No Shame in the Game
And though it was a humbling loss, it was dealt to a team that needed no humbling. They reached the heights that they did by playing without ego and without arrogance. Humble was their middle name. And I would like to state for the record that contrary to what was muttered by many across Gator Nation Sunday afternoon, there was no shame in losing by 20 points in the Elite Eight.
Because there is no shame in losing in the Elite Eight. Any season that comes one game shy of the basketball Holy Land that is the Final Four, is a special one. Any team that reaches the final round of eight is a special team. And like in any sport, things just happen sometimes and you get blown out. But in the Elite Eight, every team is good enough to blow anyone out on the right night. Or the right day. And Sunday was just the wrong day for Florida. The only shame in losing at this level would come by reacting in a classless way. There was shame in losing in a tournament and reacting by shooting the crowd a “double tall-man” hand salute, such as happened with a certain SEC player this year. There is shame in losing in a tournament and reacting by throwing the entire team under an exploding bus, calling them out as uncoachable and completely to blame for the loss and everything else negative that had happened to them all year, as was the case with a certain SEC head coach this year.
There is no shame in losing with class and dignity and holding one’s head high for the effort of a great season ended too soon, as was the case with a certain team from Gainesville that overachieved all season and exceeded nearly everyone’s expectations heading into the NCAA tournament after having to adjust and re-invent everything they were doing due to late-season injuries.
There is no shame, whether the score is 62 to 24, or 14 runs to 4, or 89 to 76…
Or even 79 to 59. In a season like this one, with the accomplishments they’ve amassed, the journey trumps the destination. And truthfully, it was a fun, exciting journey this year, wasn’t it? And I have news for you: the Gators are going to be right back in the Elite Eight next year, too. And next year they are going to feature more than one future NBA starter. As for what difference it will make, we will have to wait and see. Until then, remember that every day is a gift, that’s why they call it the present.