The Gators were first in the SEC. They were first in the national rankings. They were first in the NCAA tournament seeding. They were the first to qualify for the Sweet 16. It was only fitting that they were the first team to move their names into the Final Four brackets for the first time since 2007. And for a team that had waited impatiently through Elite Eight dismissals three-straight years, it was sweet mercy that they did not have to wait any longer to punch their tickets to basketball nirvana. There have been more talented teams in Florida’s past, perhaps even better teams, but I don’t know if there has ever been a Gator team that deserved to go to the Final Four than this year’s squad.
And while we fans all have our eyes on the prize, hoping for the national championship to put a final measure of legitimacy to the specialness of this season, we need to realize what this team has just accomplished. Really. If the team falls short, the statement of 2014 dominance will be muted, the advancement of Billy Donovan’s legacy is on hold for another year or more, and many fans and media and certainly rival fans will forever point at this season as a year where Florida should have won it all but fell short of their potential in a major upset. But I am here to tell you that all of that is fodder for the circular file. Because this is a Final Four season. Every Final Four season is magical. Nothing can ever take that away. It doesn’t matter if you’re the #1 seed and #1 team in the nation riding a 30-game win streak: once you make the Final Four, anything else is just gravy.
The Shot Heard ‘Round the Gator Nation
I’m just going to say it.
The 3-ball Scottie Wilbekin sunk against Dayton to beat the first half buzzer was the most important basket of the season.
Everyone was thinking it right?
Florida was ahead by 11 points at the time. Miss that shot and the Gators would have started the second half with an 11-point lead.
Two of the last 3 years Florida failed to get past the Elite Eight after having 11-point second half leads. Against both Louisville and Butler, had they pushed that 11-point lead by another bucket or even a single point more, Florida probably wins and goes to the Final Four both years.
That may have been a tectonic shot by Scottie. In Arlington we will see just how far the shot will propel them.
The Rule of 3
As the games of the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight played out last week, the scenarios for Florida’s potential Final Four opponents slowly took shape in starts and fits, as qualifying games across the regions went back and forth and back again in the second halves. As all of these games progressed, and scenarios took firmer and firmer shape, a set patterns arose that revolved around a Rule of 3.
The biggest Rule of 3 that loomed for Florida was the prospect of making the Final Four along with the last three teams to beat them: Connecticut and Wisconsin this year and Michigan to end the Gators’ season in the Elite Eight round last year. But this was the big Rule of 3 that everyone knew about. Slightly lesser noticed was the fact that Michigan was working on its own Rule of 3: to win the national title, it was likely they would have to do it by beating all three SEC teams in the tournament: Tennessee in the Sweet 16, Kentucky in the Elite Eight and Florida expected in the title game. That scenario went up in smoke with the same stroke that ended Florida’s Rule of 3: the stroke of a last second 3-ball from Kentucky to knock Michigan out.
As it turns out, that 3-ball made Kentucky the team completing its own Rule of 3. The Wildcats had to dispatch in 3 consecutive games 3 of the teams that made last year’s Final 4 in order to make this year’s Final Four.
Florida still became part of another Rule of 3. Three of the coaches in the Final Four have won national titles. Billy Donovan has two, John Calipari has one and Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan won four natties in Div II, all in the nineties. And there is one final Rule of 3 in this Final Four: outside of #1-seed Florida, none of the other three teams were expected to be in Arlington this weekend except as spectators. In fact, they were all long shots. Even as a #2 seed, Wisconsin was not on the level of other #2s, or even #4s like Michigan State and Louisville. None of the other 3 teams in the Final Four even won their conference title or their conference tournament.
Rule of 4
Since Michigan’s loss cost Florida fans their highly anticipated chance at an all-revenge Final Four Rule of 3, the Gator Nation can now shift their focus to the Rule of 4. One Rule of 4 has already come through. With its win over the Bruins in the Round of 16, UF became only the second team in NCAA history to eliminate the same team from the tournament four different times in an 8-year span.
There is another Rule of 4 looming, of course. One of which all Gator fans are keenly aware. If the Gators get past Connecticut and the Wildcats defeat Wisconsin, the Gators will be shooting for their fourth win over the mighty ‘Cats this season, a feat never before attempted, let alone accomplished. Their three wins over Big Blue already marked a program first for Florida, and going 4-for-4 would be an unheard of and unsurpassable feat.
But there is one final Rule of 4 that the Gators are after. A championship Rule of 4. Regardless of whether Florida wins the national title, or wins another game, the Gators have already clinched the title of the most championships won this year. The Gators have thus far won three championships: the SEC regular season title, the SEC tournament title and the NCAA South Regional title. The remaining three teams in the Final Four have won only one title apiece: their individual NCAA regional crown. If one of them wins the national title, they will have won two titles to Florida’s three. I am sure they would take that trade any day of the week, but it bears mentioning to further underscore not only how incredible Florida’s season has been, but also just how dominant it has been over every other program in the nation.
Rule of Seniority
I don’t want to play Kentucky a fourth time. Firstly because I want two revenge games, Connecticut then Wisconsin. But secondly because the more often two teams play each other, the greater the odds that the lesser team will eventually win a game against the better team. Odds are some day the better team will have an off-night, or have all the bounces go against them, or face a badly biased officiating crew, or simply catch the lesser opponent playing unconscious for one shining night. I know Florida is better than Kentucky and if they played five more times, they would beat the ‘Cats at least four more times. But that one possible fluke loss could come at any time.
As much as I do not want to face that risk, there is something to be said about keeping a potential opponent out of the Final Four who already has Final Four experience. In addition to playing the best team basketball in the country, that is one of Florida’s biggest advantages in this Final Four: great experience and deep seniority. The last thing we would want is to reach the championship game and face a team that has a year’s worth of Final Four experience under its belt. That would have been the case if Michigan had reached the title game (assuming Florida beats UConn, of course, which is no lock by any stretch). And as much as nobody this year wanted to play a Florida team that was so driven to make that next step to the Final Four, likewise nobody would want to face a Michigan team trying to do the same thing in the title game, after reaching the final step last season only to fall off the ladder in the championship spotlight.
The Cinderella Killers
Anyone who was concerned about getting run over by the Cinderella coach on the way to the ball should have rested easy by resting on history. Florida simply does not lose to Cinderella. Not under Billy Donovan. Heading into the match against Dayton, the Billy Ball Gators were a perfect 4-0 against Cinderellas in March Madness. They dispatched two of them in 2006 (UW-Milwaukee & George Mason), and one each in 2012 (Norfolk State) and 2013 (Florida Gulf Coast).
For Gator fans who have been around a few years, this may not ring true. After all, Florida lost to mid-major schools with no tournament history three times in Donovan’s first six trips to the NCAA tourney (Manhattan, Creighton and Gonzaga before they became a staple power in the tournament). However they were all first round exits. Cinderellas don’t have their pumpkin turned into a coach until they have won a game in the tournament. Florida turned them into Cinderellas, but they did not lose to them as such. Likewise beating Butler in 2000 did not count in Florida’s favor because that was an opening round game (and the win over Butler in 2007 did not count because by that time they had three tournament wins in recent years against Wake Forest, Mississippi State and Louisville and were a 5-seed).
And the ability to beat Cinderella cannot be understated as a critical strength to have in this tournament. Yes every year every bracket is mostly chalk, but every year somebody makes a run – somebody who is a nobody. And it’s like the old computer game Mine Sweeper: there are always bombs hidden somewhere in the field and you never know where they are and which misstep will set one off. You never know which one will blow up your season. This year everyone was picking the likes of Stephen F Austin and Harvard to be possible Cinderellas and crash someone’s party, but nobody picked Mercer and nobody picked Dayton. Yet those were the two Bouncing Bettys that blew apart the season and tournament hopes for perennial favorites and perpetual heavyweights Duke, Syracuse and Ohio State. That is what makes March Madness possibly the most exciting, romantic & intoxicating event in sports. And it is why for an elite team like Florida, a clock that strikes midnight on Cinderella is a very valuable trinket to have.
S-E-See What We Told You?
Yep, SEC fans said all year long that the league was getting shafted in the respect department. They were being far undervalued. Underrated. Under-appreciated. Florida was only given the #1 spot in the polls in February because every other option that wasn’t in Wichita just kept losing. But checking the scoreboard, the SEC is by far the most successful conference in the tournament, despite only getting three teams in, and one of them was relegated to a play-in game.
The SEC is now 11-1 in this year’s tournament. A 92% winning percentage. The league has already clinched the best winning mark of the tourney, and both entrants are favored to win their next games and meet in the finals. It doesn’t even bear mentioning the second or third place leagues in their rear view mirror. It is really puzzling that the SEC is perpetually so under-appreciated in the tournament, given how successful they have been in the tournament for some time now.
Since 2006, the SEC has sent teams to the Final Four eight times, which is the second-most of any conference, just one behind the Big East. The SEC and the Big East are also the only conferences during that time to send two teams to the Final Four in the same year, and both have done it twice. So many folks are surprised to see two SEC teams in the last quartet, but they shouldn’t be.