There was a time that Florida’s road to Atlanta went through Knoxville every year. Lately, it has gone through either Jacksonville or Columbia. But that is Florida’s road to Atlanta in football – the path to the SEC Championship Game in Dogwood City. This is basketball season, and Billy Donovan has claimed A-town for the Rowdy Reptiles as well. When the SEC basketball tournament made its debut in 1933, the Atlanta Athletic Club was the selected venue. Although it would be nearly seventy years before Billy Ball made Florida a regular powerhouse in the city, the Gators were there at the beginning, too. In its sophomore season, the SEC tournament returned to Atlanta to pit the Florida Gators against the Crimson Tide in the title game. The matchup that would dominate the football championship in this fine city many decades later made its debut in just the second stanza of the basketball title tilt.
The Gators would not return to the tournament title game until 1989 when a fresh-faced Livingston Chapman took home the MVP honors while the Tide again took home the trophy. But that was in Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tennessee, a far cry from the Big Peach. But during a four-year stretch from 2004 to 2007, the Georgia Dome hosted three SEC tournaments and a Final Four, and Florida appeared in the title game of every one of them, winning two of the SEC tourneys and of course the national title game against Ohio State. The Gators owned that building so definitively that their fans started calling it the Florida Dome.
In the words of Garrett Morris, Gator fans could say, “The Georgia Dome has been berry, berry good to me.” The SEC Tournament was held in Nashville this year, which could explain Florida’s reluctance to make their title game lead stand up in the final minutes, but the Final Four returns to Hotlanta this year, and it would be a venue in which this Gator squad would be very comfortable. But first they must get there. So without further ado, and because I am running out of nicknames for Atlanta, I will walk through the most likely path I envision for the Gators to return to Atlanta and claim a third national championship for the program and for Billy D.
There are obviously two schools of thought on the Gators’ opening game. The first being the most obvious that Northwestern State is simply not in Florida’s league and it will be a strong win by the SEC champions. The second is brought to the table mostly by those fans who remember similar games leading to early NCAA exits for the Gators in the early-to-mid 1990s (Creighton and Manhattan should ring a bell here). But this program I believe has been proofed of that sort of early round trap game, and even if it had not, this team is in Year 3 of a mission to reach the Final Four and I just don’t see any such letdown in the future.
The big fear is that the as the nation’s top scoring team, the Demons from Natchitoches could overwhelm a Florida team that is looking ahead. However, a closer look at the opponent should allay some fears. They lost the Southland Conference to Stephen F Austin, which hasn’t scared anyone since “The Six Million Dollar Man” was cancelled, but beat them in their league tourney to break into the Big Dance. They tallied 23 wins against just 8 losses, but those losses included dropping games to Steve Austin and Oral Roberts (two very old men), and blowout losses to Nicholls State and Niagara. Their quality out-of-conference opponents were LSU, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Arkansas. They lost to all four of them by an average margin of double digits. Florida blew out three of those teams this year, and LSU they blew out twice. And to hearken back to football again, when I think of their leading the nation in scoring, I am reminded of Steve Spurrier’s comments on the Mississippi defense that played Florida as the nation’s best pass defense: “They came into the game Number One in the nation in pass defense, but they didn’t leave the game that way.”
The next round will bring Florida the UCLA-Minnesota winner. Many people are picking the Gophers in this game and projecting them to give Florida fits with their tough physical style of play. But folks I think are concentrating too much on the one time late in the year when they beat Indiana. I am focusing more on 11 losses in their last 16 games. The media have been in a love-fest with the Hoosiers all year, and anyone who beats them is looked at as a giant in a field of toddlers. Never mind that following that win and an gimme against pathetic Penn State, they lost to bad Nebraska (only 5-13 in the Big10), were blown out by average Purdue (losing record overall and in conference), and were 1-and-done in the Big10 tourney to “okay” Illinois (an NCAA tourney team, but a losing 8-10 conference record). And never mind that in the two games leading up to the Indiana game, they were blown out by Ohio State and NIT-bound Iowa.
The Gophers only played 2 quality out-of-conference teams, beating Memphis and getting blown out by Duke. In-conference, they beat Indiana and Michigan State in regulation and nipped Wisconsin in overtime. They lost 2-of-3 to Illinois, split with NIT-bound Iowa and Northwestern (who isn’t even going to the NIT), were controlled in a home loss to Michigan and then all the losses mentioned above. Frankly I am miffed as to how the Gophers even got into the tourney.
So I see UCLA being Florida’s roadblock to the Sweet Sixteen. If you know your tournament history, you know this is a favorable matchup for the Gators. If there is any non-SEC program in the nation that has Florida inside their heads more than the Ohio State Buckeyes (a dual sport obsession), it is the UCLA Bruins basketball program. Seems every time they get into the NCAA tournament, the Gators blow them out of it. In 2006, they beat them in the national title game by 16 points; in 2007, they beat them in the national semifinal game by 11; in 2011, they beat them in the NCAA second round by 8. They keep getting closer as the game gets further from the title game, but the losses just keep mounting. And they will be without the services of star freshman Jordan Adams, lost to injury for the year in the PAC 12 tourney. Throw another loss to the Gators on the fire for the burnin’ Bruins.
As great as it would be to face Oklahoma and head coach Lon Kruger – the first coach to bring Florida to the Final Four and the only coach in NCAA history to every coach five different programs to NCAA tourney bids – in the Sweet 16, I don’t see any way that Georgetown doesn’t leave Philadelphia with two wins in its pocket.
This was of course, Florida’s opening night opponent in a game that was cancelled at halftime due to precipitation from playing the game on deck of a battleship. Florida was to some extent having its way with the Hoyas and brought a lead into halftime, and most optimistic fans believe they would have won handily – while the pessimistic fans believe they would have folded at the end of a close game as they have many times throughout the year.
Regardless of the possible outcome of that game, both teams have grown and evolved a lot since then. In the entire mix of the matchups in this game, the thing that stands out the most to me is that I do not believe Georgetown can score enough points to beat the Gators. The Hoyas won a number of games with very low scoring outputs. They beat Tennessee this year by scoring just 37 points (and only beat them by 1), beat Towson by scoring 46 (6-pt win), beat Louisville by scoring 53 (2-pt win) and beat Syracuse by scoring 57 (11-pt win).
Florida has only scored under 60 points twice all year. Those were a 4-point loss to UK and a 6-point loss to Tennessee, but one was without Will Yeguete and one was in Yeguete’s second game back when the team was still not back to its fluid rotation. Princeton defense or not, Florida simply will be able to score more than 60 points on Georgetown. They have more ways to score than the Hoyas do, and they will use them. Florida could not have played any worse in the second half against Ole Miss, only scoring 25 points, and they still broke the 60-point barrier. Georgetown’s offense was held to less than 60 points in nine games this year (“Niiiiine games, Mrs Bueller”), held under 50 points four times, and as mentioned before, even held under 40 points once. And the defenses shutting them down included South Florida and Towson. Florida advances to the Elite Eight for the third-straight year.
That is where they will find Number 1 seed Kansas waiting. Both the Gators and Jayhawks are experienced tourney teams and this should be one of the best games of the tournament. Patric Young needs to have his best game inside in this matchup. If the Gators do get to the Elite Eight, I think they will have the focus and drive not to be stopped again at this point. Kansas has improved since they dropped three in a row a little over a month ago and looked on their way out of the Top 10 to stay. But if Florida gets this far, the train will not be making a stop at this station. In the tourney, it is all about matchups, coaching adjustments, momentum and sheer will power. I think if they get this far they will have the momentum and they will tap into the will power to do it. Billy D will take care of the rest with his game prep and in-game adjustments.
Miami has a decided advantage on Florida in the paint, but the Kadji-Murphy battle will be the key to the game. Both will be very motivated and both will be very familiar with each other having practiced against one another during Kadji’s time with the Gators. The problem with this premise, however is that this Final Four matchup will never happen.
I simply don’t think Miami is as good as everyone thinks they are. They struggled terribly against a lot of really bad teams in the last month and a half of the season. Frankly, I think the ACC was a 2-team conference this year – and the other one (Duke) I think is also very overrated. I am a little surprised that so many people have Miami going to the Final Four, and even more so the number who have them winning it all. They must think getting to the Final Four or winning the tournament is a pretty easy thing to do on the first try. Not a single player on the ‘Cane team has ever played in an NCAA tournament game. None. Conversely, Florida has been to 3-straight NCAA tourneys and 2-straight Elite Eights. Kenny Boynton is the only player who was a significant contributor four years ago when the Gators last had to settle for the NIT. That’s when they reached the quarter finals by slapping the Miami Hurricanes around by 14 points. Meanwhile the current Miami roster can only draw upon last year’s 2-and-thru NIT appearance and the 2011 NIT effort that reached the third round. Only one player – Julian Gamble – played on that 2009 team that was bounced from the NIT by the Gators. I don’t see Miami getting to the Final Four, but if they take advantage of being placed in the weakest bracket in the tourney and make it that far, I just don’t see them having the experience in the giant spotlight to carry them any further against a team that knows nothing but NCAA tournaments the last three years and has been knocking at the door of the Final Four the last two consecutive seasons.
And I am not taking the Hoosiers either. They are very, very good but they have not been a 1-seed since 1993. That was twenty years ago when the members of the current Indiana team were in diapers or not born yet. They are capable of being upset and the team in this bracket most likely to do it other than Florida is Marquette, and that is who I am picking as Florida’s Semifinals opponent. The Gators beat the co-Big East champion by 33 points at the end of November. They’ll beat them by half that much this time.
In the title game, student faces mentor. A re-match of the game that bounced Florida from punching its Final Four ticket. Florida’s Final Four this year will in fact be a repeat of Florida’s Regional Finals weekend last year: Marquette then Louisville. Billy D has never beaten Rick Pitino, and he is due. I will break down the matchups of the Final Four games (especially if any of my projections actually come to pass), but for now I’ll leave it as Florida cutting down the nets in Atlanta one more time.
Why So Confident?
I am not actually confident but if I were putting down my own money, this is how I would call it. Sure the team has flaws, but so does every team this year. Even if there were a couple flawless teams, flawless teams can always be beat in the tourney when they have an off night and play a team playing their best game.
The nature of any playoff is that the best team does not always win, and in fact seldom wins in some stretches. The SEC tourney is the perfect proof of that. UF proved over the course of the year that they are the best in the SEC, but when only one game can send you home, the best team doesn’t always win a tournament. Sometimes the team fighting for an NCAA berth wins against a team whose only motivation is bolstering seeding.
The nature of tournament play is that whatever team is hot at the time wins. The best team(s) have the best chance, because they have the most resources, but again an off-night can end even the most talented of teams’ season. The Gators have been trending up since Yeguete returned. They are not back to where they were before he got injured, but they are still headed that direction. If they continue to follow this trend, they should continue to get stronger as the tourney goes along, thus rising to the increased level of competition with each new step into the bracket. If they keep winning, of course.
It would have been great to win the SEC Tournament as part of this rise, but it was not necessary to continue the improvement and go deep into the NCAA tourney. In point of fact, it may very well benefit Florida to have that terrible taste of loss in their mouths. Had they won as expected, they may start to believe they are all the way back. And as soon as you think you’re done working, that’s when you get beat. Case in point the SEC Tourney title game itself. Florida was putting Ole Miss away in businesslike fashion without working up much of a sweat. By the time Murphy’s goal-tended shot put them up by 10 points in the second half, in their minds the outcome was a foregone conclusion. They were just killing time until the trophy ceremony.
But the officials corruptly ignored the goal tend, the team made the mistake of hesitating to react in disbelief at the non-call which allowed the most classless player in college sports to hit a run-out three, completing a 5-point turnaround and putting Ole Miss back in a game from which Florida had already mentally clocked out from.
It may turn out that Florida will be retrospectively glad they lost that game, and lost it in that fashion. That loss was far more than just a bitter title game loss. The unsportsmanlike display of taunting and classless heckling the Rebels did to the Gator fans during and after the game was something I’ve never seen in college basketball before, and frankly I am still literally shocked that the refs never called a technical. This was a post-game rub-it-in, ridicule and mockery of the Gator program and fans that the team has obviously never witnessed in their lives.
If this doesn’t ignite the passion the Gators need to win the NCAA tourney, and play like they did in the first half of the season, nothing will. I believe it will restore that passion and focus them like they’ve never been focused before. That won’t guarantee anything when the tournament starts, because NCAA tournaments are maybe 60% talent, 20% circumstantial developments in the brackets and 20% pure luck, but it puts them in a position where they *can* win it all. It cleans up that 60% and gives them an edge to overcome much of that first 20%. The 20% that is blind luck, nobody knows. We do know that Florida will always be on the losing side of any discretion or imbalance from the officials, and we know that the Gators will almost certainly be on the losing side of the crowd noise at any of the venues they will play in.
As for the rest, the Gators must try to make their own luck.