By slotting Florida as a 3-seed, the NCAA selection committee believed it was one of the best 8-12 teams in the nation. In a year where there is no runaway favorite to capture the title, any team in the top dozen or so should believe it has a chance. After losing star freshman Bradley Beal to the NBA and starting point guard Erving Walker to graduation of last year’s Elite 8 team, there were plenty of reasons to doubt that Donovan could steer the Gators back to that tier.
“It’s a complete testament to the kind of coach he is,” said Mike Hill, UF’s associate athletic director who oversees the program. “He’s had teams that are loaded with NBA talent and then he’s had teams like this, and he can get here either way. He has an ability to put people in the right positions and push the right buttons.”
Florida’s trek toward a title begins here in Austin, Texas, where it must avoid a spirited upset bid by Northwestern State (23-8). The Demons have done it as a No. 14 seed before, knocking out No. 3 seed Iowa in 2006.
If the Gators move on, they will face sixth-seeded UCLA or 11th-seeded Minnesota on Sunday to advance to the South regional semifinals in nearby Arlington. Kansas (first) and Georgetown (second) are seeded higher, but neither is out of Florida’s reach.
They are unlikely to get there by riding Erik Murphy, Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario, Young or any other individual. That is not how they arrived here.
“We’re not a team that just flips the ball and puts a guy in a one-on-one,” Donovan said. “We can’t play like that. Listen, there are no lottery picks on our team and we’ve been a top-10 team all year long. And you look at these other top-10 teams and there’s lottery picks all over the place.”
Seven different players have been the Gators’ top scorer in a game. Murphy leads the team with 12.6 points per game, though he only led them eight times. Furthermore, among the seven other teams at this site, six have a player with a higher scoring average.
The togetherness is even more vital on defense, where Florida ranks No. 1 among major-conference teams in fewest points allowed and fourth in opponent shooting percentage. It takes rare cohesion and familiarity to be that good, and it helps that seven of the Gators’ eight regular players are juniors or seniors.
“What’s made our team really good is defending collectively and running offense collectively,” Donovan said. “When we do those things we are as good as anybody out there. When we don’t we’re very mediocre because our talent is not such that we’re going to overwhelm you. We’ve got to get it done together.”