Florida’s sunny season could turn cloudy at the end

For four months, a benevolent deity has — borrowing Steve Spurrier’s line from a different sport — smiled on the Gators. Florida hasn’t lost since Dec. 2, which was 31 games ago. It tore through the SEC unbeaten, won the league tournament and reached the Final Four without undue strain.

In an NCAA tournament where no other No. 1 seed is still playing — and only one of the No. 2’s, and none of the No. 3’s and 4’s – the 36-2 Gators would figure to breeze to their third national championship in nine years. (No other Final Four participant has fewer than seven losses.) But that warm smile has become a wicked grin. To win it all, Florida must beat two teams it has faced, and not just any two teams.

UConn, the Gators’ semifinal opponent, is the last team to beat them, having done the deed when the Huskies’ Shabazz Napier scored six points in the final 34 seconds. Should Florida win Saturday, it could face Wisconsin, which beat the Gators on Nov. 12. All things considered, the Badgers surely would be Florida’s preferred championship opponent.

The alternative is Kentucky, which Florida has beaten three times. The Wildcats lost by 10 points at Rupp Arena and by 19 in Gainesville on a day when they trailed by 21 at the half. The SEC final in the Georgia Dome was rather different.

Again the Gators got way ahead, leading by 16 points two minutes into the second half. But this time Kentucky was in it at the end. With Florida leading by a point inside the final 10 seconds, the Wildcats’ James Young slipped and lost the ball. It remains the last time Kentucky failed with a game on the line, and their past three victories — over unbeaten Wichita State, 2013 champ Louisville and 2013 runner-up Michigan — have been hairbreadth things. They were also historic: Never before had a team ousted three qualifiers from the previous Final Four.

Kentucky is the sixth No. 8 seed to crash a Final Four, but this is the most gifted No. 8 seed ever. Ranked No. 1 in preseason on the strength of another ballyhooed recruiting class, the Wildcats spent the winter looking like raw recruits who wished they hadn’t enlisted. They lost nine regular-season games, tied unassuming Georgia for second in the SEC and arrived in Atlanta having fallen from the Associated Press Top 25. (Harvard and Stephen F. Austin received more votes than the not-so-Big Blue that week.)

Only in the Dome did the Wildcats begin to play with a purpose. Desperation can have that effect. Still, even the most ardent Kentucky fan couldn’t have imagined that a team swept by Arkansas and whipped by wretched South Carolina would morph so abruptly into a fierce and functioning unit.

Going on RPI, the SEC was the nation’s seventh-best conference. Kentucky’s failure to ignite had much to do with that, but the Wildcats’ transformation has left the supposed football conference on a path to pair two teams in the championship game. Such a match has been made only three times in tournament annals, and precedent doesn’t give comfort to the Gators.

In the 1976 final, Indiana beat Michigan for a third time to finish undefeated. In 1985, top-ranked Georgetown watched Villanova — like Kentucky, those Wildcats were a No. 8 seed — make 78.6 percent of its shots after twice losing to the Hoyas in the regular season. In 1988, sixth-seeded Kansas stunned Oklahoma after twice being beaten.

And those were third encounters. In Final Four history, teams have met for a fourth time on three occasions, all in the semifinals. Georgetown defeated St. John’s in 1985 to take the season series 3-1; Duke beat Maryland in 2001 to do likewise. Only Michigan State, which bludgeoned Wisconsin in 2000, has swept a Final Four-caliber opponent 4-0.

Of the three NCAA champions seeded lower than No. 4, two upset conference brethren in the title game. The third was No. 6 North Carolina State, which beat No. 1 Virginia in the 1983 West Region final. That was the teams’ fourth collision, the Wolfpack having lost both regular-season games before winning the ACC final in the Omni.

If Florida and Kentucky win their semis (and both should), the pressure won’t fall on the team that dropped from No. 1 a week before Thanksgiving, but on the crew that has held No. 1 since Feb. 24. The Gators have been better than the Wildcats all season and are probably a bit better still, but Georgetown was better than Villanova and was undone by outrageous shooting and the law of averages. Those basketball gods can be fickle folks.