Posted: 11:32 a.m. Wednesday, March 20, 2013
By Neil Shulman
Picking brackets is never easy, which is what makes it fun. Picking your own team in a bracket is, in my experience, less easy and not fun. Picking this year's NCAA Tournament bracket when this year's Florida team is in it? It's basically impossible.
Teams go through ebbs and flows each year, and that is often what people go by when making their picks: who's hot in March, and who's not. A team that starts out 21-3 could fall and wind up with a No. 4 seed; that sort of team is always going to be a popular upset pick. On the flip side, a team could be around .500, but then run through their conference tourney and receive a No. 10 seed, and that team may get some people to put them in their Sweet Sixteen.
Unfortunately, Florida is in that first column. That doesn't necessarily mean you should pick them to lose early, but it's likely many will be very wary of them. If I wasn't a Florida fan, and didn't know any better, I would have them losing to UCLA in the round of 32 (and yes, I know they're banged up).
Of course, I am, I do, and I don't.
At the beginning of the year, the Florida Gators appeared to be among the best in the nation. Blasting non-SEC NCAA Tournament-bound teams Marquette, Wisconsin, and Middle Tennessee by an average of 23 points is as good a way to build confidence in a fan base by the middle of January as there is. Losses to Arizona and Kansas State on the road were frustrating, but not faith-shattering.
Then the Gators proceeded to beat the living hell out of of everybody who crossed their path in SEC play, too. It didn't matter how good said SEC opponent was (Missouri) or how bad (South Carolina), or anywhere in between (Georgia, LSU, Mississippi State, or Texas A&M;): If you played the Florida Gators in the month of January, you lost, usually by more than 20 points, and sometimes more than 30.
The Gators then beat Ole Miss by "only" 14 points to kick off February. That was followed by a humiliating defeat in Bud Walton Arena to a solid Arkansas team (only Syracuse beat them at home, and barely) that didn't hurt nearly as much once you woke up the next morning and realized that this sort of thing happens to every team at some point, and it means absolutely nothing. That appeared to be the case as Florida blew out Mississippi State, Auburn and Kentucky in consecutive games.
Then the problems started.
First, Florida blew a 49-36 lead with 10 minutes to go against Missouri, a team they had beaten by 31 points just a few weeks earlier, and lost. That collapse could have been viewed by Billy Donovan as a warning sign of things to come, and a teaching moment for the veteran coach to get the message across to his players that in college basketball, no lead is ever safe, and to keep pushing for 40 minutes.
He didn't, and it happened again a week later, this time in Knoxville. After getting revenge on Arkansas, Florida opened the Tennessee game on a 10-2 run ... and collapsed repeatedly from there, watching Jordan McRae take over the game and guide the Vols to a big win.
At that point, Billy D must have seen enough, and appeared to finally instill some toughness into his team that showed by erasing an eight-point deficit in the second half to beat Alabama, and then fighting off a tough Vanderbilt team to clinch the SEC. The regular season finale against Kentucky didn't really mean anything to Florida and meant everything to Kentucky, so I didn't really expect a whole lot out of the Gators, but I was nonetheless highly disturbed by the Gators going 0 for 7:36 seconds to end the game. No matter how much more the other team wants to win, how can any Division I team possibly go 7:36 without scoring a single point?
Florida went into the SEC Tournament knowing it already had a Tourney bid locked up. The Gators blew out LSU, and overcame a 10-point deficit to Alabama to win by 10. That seemed like a good enough showing in the SEC Tournament to me; the Gators proved they could blow out the inferior teams, and that they could come from behind.
Of course, as soon as I thought that, the SEC final against Mississippi became the latest episode of the Gator Collapse Show. This time, the lead was 14, but Marshall Henderson led a big comeback, and when it was all over, Florida players could only shake their heads as the SEC Championship Game joined the ranks of Arizona, Missouri and Kentucky in the Games to Forget file.
We've all gone into the logistics of how each collapse happened, and it hurts too much to go through again. I could sit here and talk about the Gators' poor shot selection, the lack of depth in some of the earlier games caused by injuries, or whatever you want to blame for the losses, but now, they're over. That's all the past now.
More importantly, I believe Florida can prove that by making a deep run in the Big Dance. If they're going to do it, though, they need to play much more like the team they showed themselves to be in November and January, not December and February.
To me, that appears to be easier than it seems.
In each of their losses, Florida was either playing on the road, or the game didn't "matter." In the NCAA Tournament, there is no home team, and every game does matter.
Preparing your NCAA Tournament résumé is almost like a teacher giving you 10 questions to answer, and telling you she'll grade your best six. You don't have to put forth your best effort in on all the questions to get an A; rather, you can do the absolute best you can on six or seven, just to be safe, and with the remainders, you get a tendency to mess around and think, "Maybe I'll get it right, but, who cares, because I only need six?"
Such was the regular season for these Gators.
Florida didn't waste any time building their résumé. Within the first month of the season, Donovan's club had avoided bad losses (read: they blew out some bad teams), and had notched big wins over Wisconsin, Middle Tennessee and Marquette, and a road win over Florida State. (I think we all knew FSU was going to drop off a bit from last year, but nobody knew just how much at the time Florida ripped them to shreds; that was potentially an NCAA Tournament team at that point.)
But with the majority of the pieces needed for an acceptable resume already in place within a few weeks, the Gators slacked and lost a couple of non-conference games. Those were more chances to impress the selection committee, but the Gators already had several big wins in their pocket, so they didn't need those.
After the second loss, to Kansas State, the pattern sort of repeated. Florida didn't lose any games it really shouldn't have in the SEC, and beat a few good teams: Missouri and Mississippi both eventually made the NCAA Tournament, Texas A&M; was 12-3 and off a win at Rupp heading into its game with Florida, and Kentucky was NCAA Tournament-bound and playing well before Nerlens Noel's injury.
From that point on, all the Gators had to do to secure a spot in the Big Dance was not lose to terrible teams, which it accomplished. Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee are not awful teams, so it didn't mean a whole lot to the Gators to lose to those teams in the grand scheme of things.
These Gators do a great job, I think, when they're at the beginning of something. So if you're considering picking against the Gators in the NCAA Tournament, think before you pick. I can understand picking them to go out to Georgetown in the Sweet Sixteen (I wouldn't do it), but having them lose any earlier is simply an action made out of anger or frustration, or an attempt at reverse psychology that won't work unless you think Patric Young is looking at your bracket.
The bottom line is this: When pondering how far Florida can and will go, consider the entire body of work, and not the seven disappointing losses. Last year's Kentucky team was an anomaly. Nine of of 10 teams that win it all do not exactly have the best regular season imaginable. In fact, most of the teams in the NCAA Tournament had some pretty upsetting losses in the regular season.
Just look at the South Region: Kansas lost three straight games to teams that weren't even ranked, including a TCU team that went 11-21; Georgetown fell at South Florida; Michigan collapsed at Penn State; and VCU got absolutely skunked in overtime by Richmond. Those teams have all, in fact, not played well at some point in the season, and yet few are going to have problems picking them to win games.
The title of this post is deceiving: It was never really "magic" when Florida was winning. Sure, it looked like it when Florida was hammering opponents by staggering proportions, but it wasn't mystifying, just an experienced team beating up on younger or less talented teams. The Gators need to rediscover that edge and ride it, because that's the only way they're going to win.
They know they can't screw up anymore, and I don't think they will, because as I said earlier, the upcoming games mean literally everything to them, and they aren't playing on anybody else's home court. They have no reason to save players or work on a rotation, no reason not to blow the other team out. (It worked on Wisconsin and Marquette.) I don't feel particularly confident about the Gators in a tie game with four minutes to go, but the easy way to avoid that is to stomp on teams early, and then hold on for the duration of the game.
Florida has proven it can do against top notch competition, and should probably try to do that for the next six games.
If you'd like, you can join a pool I've set up on Yahoo!, just for fun. The group ID is 102231, and the password is secregseasonchamps, all one word. The winner gets a very special prize: I'm interviewing a certain former Gator football player about his career as soon as March Madness is over, and I'm going to let the winner ask him a question of his or her own (as long as it's relevant). So choose wisely, and enjoy!