Just because you might be the best team in the NCAA Tournament doesn’t guarantee you’ll cut down the nets. The list is long of teams that came in as the favorite, only to get upset and sent home without a title (Houston ’83, Georgetown ’85, UNLV ’91, Illinois ’05, UConn ’06, Louisville ’09 just to name a few). Florida comes in as the Tournament’s top-seed and No. 1 ranked team – the typical bullseye-on-their-back favorite – but I see Gator Nation coming away as the national champs.
There are teams with better talent than Florida. There are teams with better coaches. And there are schools that have faced better competition. But there isn’t a better team than the Gators, coached by one of the best coaches in the nation and good enough to win 26-straight heading into the Big Dance.
Experience goes such a long way in the NCAA Tournament. Guys that have “survived-and-advanced.” Guys that have played both from behind and with the lead on the sport’s biggest stage. And guys that not only have expectations, but deliver on those expectations. The Gators start four seniors and all average double-figures. Which means they don’t have to rely on one guy to carry them every night (see Creighton’s Doug McDermott, NC State’s T.J. Warren). Plus, defense and rebounding wins games in March and the Gators were fifth in the nation at 58.5 ppg allowed and 25th in the nation in rebounding margin (+5.3).
It’s hard to believe Billy Donovan has been in Gainesville 18 years now (except for the one day in June ‘07 when he was the head coach of the Orlando Magic). Hired away from Marshall at age 30, Donovan has delivered two national titles, three Final Fours, 31 NCAA Tournament wins, four SEC Tournament championships and six SEC regular season titles. I’ll put that that resume up against anyone not named Krzyzewski, Boeheim and Pitino.
The Gators enter the NCAA Tournament battle tested too. Even though the SEC was down, their perfect 18-0 league record (including three wins over Kentucky) is still quite impressive. And Florida doesn’t duck anyone in the non-conference either. Facing Wisconsin, UConn, Kansas and Memphis in November and December has prepared them well to make a deep run.
Albany will be the first of many victims the Gators will run through over the next three weeks. They can play down on the post or on the perimeter or uptempo or slowdown. Some might call them the chameleon of this NCAA Tournament. When it’s all said and done, I’ll think everyone will be calling them the champs.