The Florida Gators reached their second straight Final Four on Sunday, a landmark accomplishment for a team that exemplifies everything good about college sports. Yet, amidst the excitement of the moment, this game against the Oregon Ducks was not a story about a team that prevailed over a specific opponent.
The Midwest Regional Final in the Edward Jones Dome felt like one long affirmation of this team’s winning identity.
You remember late February. You remember the three losses in four games. You remember how so many members of the national media rained doom and gloom on this team. You remember how clueless bracketologists felt Florida didn’t deserve a No. 1 seed even after winning the SEC Tournament (the consensus seemed to be Ohio State, Kansas, North Carolina and either UCLA or Georgetown). You even remember how the post-Purdue and post-Butler buzz was filled with worry and uncertainty.
Was this team taking things lightly? Was it pressing? What was with the slow starts? Where was the halfcourt offense? Why were games so close? When was a blowout going to happen? Would the pressure get to the Gators? Were they overconfident? And on and on and on.
Sunday’s win over Oregon was not defined by Florida’s superiority on one day; instead, the Gators’ victory over the Ducks revealed how great this team has been throughout a stellar season that must not be viewed through the lens of raw numbers.
Numbers would suggest this team hasn’t done as well as the 2006 club. Numbers tell you the Gators haven’t registered an NCAA Tournament blowout against a team other than a 16 seed. Numbers tell you that games are more of a grind for Florida this March.
But numbers–as they so often do in sports–tell big, bad, baldfaced lies.
The numbers cannot tell you what should be so obvious by now: while the Gators were crowned Midwest Regional Champions on March 25, they earned this title on March 18 and 23. While Billy Donovan’s team cruised to last year’s championship, the Gators have registered a much more impressive accomplishment in reaching a second straight Final Four with the eyes of the United States riveted upon them.
What this Oregon game taught me was that Purdue and Butler played really impressive basketball in the second and third rounds of this NCAA Tournament. This dumping of the Ducks indicated just how well the Gators did to barely brush aside the Boilermakers and Bulldogs in their previous Big Dance donnybrooks.
The numbers would tell you that the end margin of victory was basically the same against Oregon as it was against Purdue and Butler, but the numbers could never tell you how different a game could feel. Against disciplined slowdown times like the Boilermakers and Bulldogs, a small deficit feels much larger, and a small lead feels inadequate. Sunday against Oregon, a six-point lead–which the Gators were able to consistently nurse throughout the second half, right down to the final minutes (when a freak turnover enabled Oregon to briefly trim the lead to four, but never to one possession)–felt like a somewhat more comfortable cushion.
Butler and Purdue bruised and banged Florida. Oregon played a much more finesse-oriented game. Duck defenders Marty Leunen and Malik Hairston offered precious little resistance inside, not just in terms of low-post defense, but in terms of working through screens and providing helpside rotations. The Gators made great entry passes into the low blocks, but an even more effective play for Florida in the second half–whether in halfcourt sets or in transition–was for Corey Brewer or Taurean Green to drive to the basket while a big man pinned his defender to seal off the driving lane. Compared to Purdue and Butler, Florida had broad, seven-lane highways to negotiate on Sunday.
And what about the perimeter? Oregon didn’t go away without a good fight, but the Ducks were noticeably spotty and inconsistent in keeping track of Lee Humphrey. Yes, Humpty Dump threw up a few threes in the second half that were challenged, but in the first 20-25 minutes of play, the Ducks lost Humphrey, even when Florida’s sniper wasn’t even making a hard cut or curl move. Compared to Purdue and Butler, Florida had a much easier time at the offensive end of the floor.
On defense, the Gators were also spared some of the problems they faced against Purdue and Butler. Oregon didn’t milk the shot clock, since the Ducks are an up-tempo team. Oregon’s only chance was to run like crazy, hit threes before Florida’s defense could set up, and play the game in the high 80s or low 90s. This led to one of the most fascinating elements of Sunday’s game.
Living in Seattle, I see a lot of Pac-10 basketball. On the night of February 22, I watched as Oregon guard TaJuan Porter lit up Washington State’s highly-ranked defense in an unreal shooting spree. Ever since that game, the Ducks–who had been reeling in the middle portion of the Pac-10 season–didn’t look back. They stormed to the Pac-10 Tournament title and kept shooting the ball with tremendous confidence going into their battle with the Gators. On Sunday, the big worry was that the Ducks would continue to shoot with confidence; if you watched what has happened to Ohio State since the 20-point halftime deficit against Tennessee, you know how vital it is for a team to shoot with confidence.
How deliciously ironic it was, then, for the Gators’ sniper to destroy Oregon’s long-range assassin. In one afternoon, everything that had been missing for Lee Humphrey–and which had been going right for TaJuan Porter–changed entirely. Because Oregon lost Humphrey a few times early in the game, Humphrey started shooting the ball with confidence again, even when he had some shots challenged. Conversely, the Gators were able to get a few hands in Porter’s face early on, and Porter never shot the ball with confidence, even when he had a few truly open looks. This one aspect of Sunday’s game was probably the difference, because if Humphrey hadn’t found his comfort zone, the interior might not have opened up quite so much for Florida. Yes, Oregon’s defensive effort was nothing close to the performance of both Purdue and Butler, but it remains that when Humphrey is hitting, the middle will undeniably become an even more hospitable place for Florida’s big men, on the glass and in terms of making easy catches for scores.
The defensive end of the floor revealed even more ways in which Oregon differed from Purdue and, especially, Butler. With Oregon, there was never a sense that the Gators had to make incredibly hard adjustments on defense. The Ducks are a straightforward and more conventional team compared to the Boilermakers and Bulldogs: the guards are quick and can shoot, while the big men usually occupy the low post. Purdue power man Carl Landry sometimes operated at the top of the key in round two, as the Boilermakers used creative spacing in a clear and creative attempt to negate Florida’s advantage inside.
Butler posed even more headaches for the Gators, because the Bulldogs’ whole system puts every player beyond the three-point arc within a system of screens and cuts that’s combined with an emphasis on the guards kicking out to the forwards for three-point shots. Butler guard A.J. Graves devastated the Gators in the first half of Friday’s regional semifinal not by shooting, but by driving, drawing defenders, and kicking out to Brandon Crone or Pete Campbell for open threes that the two brawny forwards knocked down. This unconventional method of operating put the Gators in a pickle. Against Oregon, there was never a sense that Florida had to make fundamental adjustments. There was no feeling (at least from this writer’s personal vantage point) that Florida was in trouble on defense. Oregon was going to sink or swim on the basis of its long distance shooting, and when TaJuan Porter got off to a poor start by rushing shots against a defense that reacted better than Oregon’s other opponents, much of the battle had already been won.
In a real and profound sense, then, so much of this game against Oregon revealed how difficult it was for Florida to play Purdue and Butler. If anyone felt those two games were examples of underachieving, they can’t hold the same opinion now. This victory against Oregon wasn’t a blowout, but it felt so much more comfortable than the previous two games. The larger meaning of this reality is that the Gators have had a great run through this tournament. Not good, not very good, but legitimately great.
Think about it. Even while struggling to some extent, Florida powered its way past Purdue and Butler down the stretch. The other three teams who will accompany Florida to Atlanta for the Final Four are comparatively luckier to be there.
UCLA has had the strongest run of any team other than Florida, but even then, the Bruins found themselves tied with Indiana in the final minute of play. Florida hasn’t had an NCAA Tournament game with that level of fragility or tension.
And on the other side of the Final Four bracket, lady luck has had an even bigger hand in sending two teams to Georgia. If referee John Cahill properly calls an intentional foul on Greg Oden with just over nine seconds left in the second round against Xavier, Ohio State isn’t headed for Peachtree Street. And while Georgetown’s Jeff Green was victimized by some shocking tick-tack fouls in the final two minutes of Friday’s regional semifinal against Vanderbilt, the fact remains that he did travel before his game-winning shot.
Of the four teams left in this Big Dance, Florida has had the cleanest run through its bracket. As a reward for surviving Purdue and Butler, the Gators played a team in Oregon that played comparatively worse defense and posed fewer matchup problems. The Gators’ offensive “woes,” if you still insist on using the term, were nothing more than matchup issues against teams that played more like underdogs. Oregon, a No. 3 seed from a power conference, never exuded the vibe of a feisty underdog. This explains why the Ducks–with this loss–have still NEVER won an NCAA Tournament game against a higher seed.
For those who don’t know their NCAA Tournament history, the Big Dance began to be seeded in 1979. That’s 28 years of basketball in which Oregon hasn’t beaten a higher seed. Even when the Ducks made the 2002 Elite Eight, they didn’t beat a higher seed.
And in looking at the Ducks’ recent nine-game winning streak, only one of those nine wins came against a team ranked higher than the Ducks (that Feb. 22 win against Washington State). In the Pac-10 Tournament, Oregon–by virtue of upsets–never had to play Washington State or UCLA, the two teams that had outright conference records better than the Ducks. (Oregon played USC in the Pac-10 final, and while the Trojans were seeded higher, the two teams had identical conference records at 11-7. Yes, the Ducks did have a higher national ranking going into that game.) And in the NCAA Tournament, Oregon got to play low seeds in each of the first three rounds. The Ducks, as a 3 seed, beat their 14th-seeded opponent in round one. Then, in round two, the Ducks drew an 11 seed (Winthrop) instead of a 6 (Notre Dame). In round three, the Ducks drew a 7 seed (UNLV) instead of the 2 seed in their bracket (Wisconsin). Oregon had a road paved with gold, but against Florida–and other superior teams–the Ducks don’t bring the same fire and fury.
Florida had an easier time of it on Sunday than it did on Friday or on the previous Sunday in New Orleans.
Why? Because Purdue and Butler–despite their seedings–were legitimately tougher matchups, that’s why.
Sunday’s victory against Oregon, then, wasn’t the story of a triumph over one team from the Pac-10. No, this Four-midable accomplishment was more of a commentary on the entire NCAA Tournament and, for that matter, the body of work this team has assembled throughout the entirety of this season.
A championship is still two wins away, but regardless of next weekend’s ultimate outcome, there can be no doubt of this reality: From mid-November through late March, there has never been a better season in Florida basketball history. They’ve played hoops for a long time in Gainesville, but never this well for such a sustained period of time. That realization should melt away any lingering pressures and relax this team before it regathers itself in the chase for another national title.