College Basketball and the Final Four Moves On, With or Without the Florida Gators

The hangover has ended. The college basketball world has moved on from the Florida Gators’ loss and so must we. We may not want to completely, but it has to happen eventually, so we might as well pull off the band-aid and realize that for the third-consecutive season, the Gators fell just one game short of the Final Four.

2013 Final Four

Without the Gators to spark our interest over the final few days of the 2012-13 college basketball season, we might as well turn our attention to those remaining in the field for an NCAA March Madness update.

Michigan – We’ll start with the Wolverines for no other reason than they were the team that took down our beloved Florida. It was an ugly game during which the Gators never seemed to have any chance of pulling out a victory. Now Michigan moves on with Trey Burke – the Wooden Award winner – and a roster full of big names. There’s a part of me that wants the Wolverines to win it all; sort of that you-beat-us-now-you-might-as-well-keep-winning feeling. Take note, that feeling doesn’t apply to a handful of schools we’d classify as rivals, and as always Ohio State.

Wichita State – Then there’s the underdog. It’s hard not to cheer for the little guy that wasn’t supposed to be here. Ultimately though, the little guy exits without the trophy. Butler came close not once, but twice, but we haven’t had that true Cinderella finish the story with a happy ending. So with the Shockers comes that part of me that hopes they knock off the big bad schools and “shock the world.” It doesn’t seem likely, but don’t you want to see it happen just once?

Louisville – We move on to the Cardinals and the team that knocked the Gators out of the NCAA Tournament just one year ago. We don’t have a burning desire to want Louisville to win. After all, we still feel the sting of last season and the Sugar Bowl just a few months ago. And there has to be some rule written somewhere about being a Florida fan and not cheering for Rick Pitino, even if he did help Billy Donovan become the coach he is today. In the end though, would we be all that disappointed if they won it for Kevin Ware? Probably not.

Syracuse – And finally we get to the Orange. Hmm. No real reason to cheer for Syracuse from the mindset of a Gators’ fan. Florida last played the Orange on December 2, 2011 and lost. There is no lingering pain from another sport, but also no feel-good story we have a real reason to gravitate to. They are the Orange; we like the color orange. Nope. Not enough. They don’t get a cheering section from this Florida fan and I can’t imagine they do from many others.

Many have made their picks; now it’s your turn. There are three games left. Make your selection.

Who will win the 2013 NCAA Tournament?

    Louisville (80%, 4 Votes)

    Michigan (20%, 1 Votes)

    Syracuse (0%, 0 Votes)

    Wichita State (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 5

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Michigan Wolverines 79 – Florida Gators 59: Gators Season Comes to a Painful End

The end hurt. It was as painful as a loss could be. The Michigan Wolverines came sprinting out of the gate and never looked back, defeating the Florida Gators 79-59 in the process. For the Wolverines, the Final Four awaits. For the Gators, the 2012-13 season has come to a close, the third-straight that has ended in the Elite Eight. That’s an accomplishment to be proud of, but not now and not for some time. For now, it was an embarrassing showing by a team that had the talent and ability to put up more of a fight.

Florida Gators - Michigan Wolverines

We saw dominance against Northwestern State. We saw a big lead held on to if barely and then turned into an impressive win against Minnesota. We saw a comeback against Florida Gulf Coast. And we saw little of anything against Michigan. Florida was overwhelmed from the start and lost almost every battle–shooting percentages across the board, assists, steals and turnovers. Even when the Gators marched back in an attempt to make a game out of it, the Wolverines were too much and too steady to be overtaken. One team didn’t play it’s best while the other looked very good. What could have been one for the ages, ended up being a 20-point margin in a game that was decided early.

Now we have the time to ponder it all. Over the months to come, we’ll talk about Erik Murphy’s 0-for-11 performance. We may discuss how the Gators went 2-for-10 from behind the three-point line. We’ll wonder why in 15 minutes of game time, Florida’s leading shooter from behind the arc–Michael Frazier II–didn’t attempt a single three. We’ll wonder how the outcome would have been affected if at the 16:57 mark of the first half the score hadn’t been 13-0 in Michigan’s favor. We have a lot of time on our hands and a lot to wonder. Most important of all how it all ended in a 20-point loss in the Elite Eight.

Eventually, we’ll feel excitement toward next season. It will be quite some time from now, but it will come. We wish it would come sooner for obvious reasons. We want to erase Sunday and will painfully watch the Final Four for the third-straight year wishing the Gators were a part of it. But for now, we mourn the disappointing end to what had become a relatively good season.

Florida Gators vs. Michigan Wolverines: For a Trip to the Final Four

The Florida Gators have been here before. In fact, the Gators have become a frequent Elite Eight attendee in recent years. Sunday’s game will mark the fifth time in the last eight seasons that head coach Billy Donovan has led Florida to the Elite Eight. The first two ended very well; the most recent two not so much. It’s anyone’s guess what this season’s trip will bring.

Billy Donovan - Florida Gators

We’re hoping it isn’t a repeat of the last two seasons. In 2011, Florida was leading Butler by 11 with less than 10 minutes to play. The Bulldogs overcame the deficit to force overtime where they disposed of the Gators. In 2012, the Gators led by 11 late again, only to watch that lead also evaporate. Louisville marched back to send Florida packing that season. A repeat of those outcomes would be a nightmare for the Gators and Florida fans everywhere. To have the Final Four so close and then watch it be taken away in a few minutes is, well, heartbreaking.

The opponent this time around is Michigan. The same Michigan that gave us the Fab Four in the early 1990s. (WARNING! FOOTBALL MENTION COMING! And an Outback Bowl defeat none of us want to remember.) This Wolverines’ squad has some of that flashy feel to it too, while also feeling a little like the Gators’ 04s. They have links to the NBA–Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III are both stars. And there’s the biggest link of them all–Al Horford’s younger brother Jon is a redshirt sophomore forward. Hopefully, this Michigan team doesn’t have the same end to their season that those Florida teams did. We’d all like their run to end here and now.

Few like the Gators in this one, despite the fact that Florida is favored. They feel Michigan may be a team of destiny, while Florida is a team on the brink off running out of steam. The Gators have had moments that almost make those feelings warranted, but there’s something about this team that keeps us believing. A 21-point lead against Minnesota was almost gone when the Gators turned the pressure back up and won easily. Against Florida Gulf Coast, Florida found itself deep in a hole early, only to bounce back and dominate the Eagles over the final 25 minutes. Three games, three wins by at least 12. Again, there’s just something about this team.

It may not be the Hardaways and Robinsons and Horfords that Florida has to worry about most. All good players and contributors (even if Horford is seeing less time), the two hot hands come from elsewhere. Trey Burke only scored six points in the Wolverines’ opening win over South Dakota State, then exploded for 18 and 23 against VCU and Kansas. He’s also averaging eight assists per game in the tournament. Then there’s freshman fan favorite Mitch McGary. Averaging 18.9 minutes per game over the course of the season, McGary has played 25, 34 and 35 in Michigan’s three tournament games. He’s also the Wolverines’ leading scorer in the tourney with 19.7 points per game to go along with 12.3 rebounds. If there’s any one player the Gators need to stop, it might just be McGary.

Donovan will have the Gators ready, but the question is whether they can play at their best for a full 40 minutes. Against Minnesota and Florida Gulf Coast, it may not have been needed. Against Michigan, it’s a must. The Wolverines will take advantage of any misstep by the Gators and it will be that much harder for Florida to hang on. This should be a fun one to watch, but with a Final Four appearance on the line, it’s all business for both teams.

Florida Gators 62 – Florida Gulf Coast Eagles 50: Gators Put an End to Cinderella’s Dream

With 5:16 left in the first half of Saturday’s Sweet Sixteen matchup between the Florida Gators and the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles, the Cinderella Eagles led the Gators 24-14. The nation was on its feet cheering on the little team that could, the first 15-seed to ever reach the Sweet Sixteen. We were all witnessing history and it was getting even better. Those of us in orange and blue land were shell shocked, wondering if this was all really happening. And just like that it wasn’t and order was restored.

Casey Prather - Florida Gators

For the first 15 minutes, the Eagles controlled the game as the Gators seemed to unravel before our very eyes. The next 25 minutes would be an entirely different story. Over the final five minutes of the first half and the entire second half, Florida would outscore Florida Gulf Coast 48-26 on route to a 62-50 Gators’ victory and a third-straight Elite Eight appearance. The Eagles performance in the 2013 NCAA Tournament was admirable, but it all came crashing to an end when, for 25 minutes, the Gators showed the world what a talent gap truly is.

From time to time, games like this come down to numbers. Realistically, this one came down to the aforementioned talent, but there were numbers to factor in as well. The Eagles out-shot the Gators to the tune of 45.5% to 38.6%. That was the only statistic Florida Gulf Coast would win that mattered.

20 is another important one. The Eagles connected on 20 of their field-goal attempts. They would also commit 20 turnovers. When those numbers match, there’s a better than good chance you’ll end up on the losing side of things. The Gators’ ratio? 22-to-10.

The Eagles had less rebounds, assists and steals and nearly double the personal fouls. They shot better from behind the three-point line, but also had 12 less attempts at the charity stripe. Those 12 more attempts were critical as the Gators made eight of them. Eight more made free throws and a 12-point margin of victory; there’s a link there.

When all nearly looking lost in the first half, Billy Donovan altered his strategy. He leaned on Michael Frazier II and Casey Prather to provide sparks. Frazier was only on the court for 13 minutes, but had two critical threes as the Gators mounted their comeback. And then there was the dunk pictured above from Prather, who would end with 11 points on 4-for-6 shooting. Sometimes a picture really is worth a million words.

We could beat the Cinderella angle to death, and we probably should with how much we heard about it over the past week, but we won’t. We’ll let Florida Gulf Coast slump off into the night. They should be proud of what they accomplished this season, but David doesn’t always slay Goliath. No, David is going home and Goliath has a date with a pack of nasty wolverines. Florida vs. Michigan, 2:20 PM, Sunday.

Florida Gators vs. Florida Gulf Coast Eagles: When the Underdog is the Heavy Favorite

Watch the news, pick up a paper, or browse the internet and you might not know who the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles’ opponent in the Sweet Sixteen of the 2013 NCAA Tournament is. You’d read about the little team that could; the school that is less than 25 years old and was known by few outside of the state of Florida’s borders until about one week ago. You might not see much about their opponent because you’d be reading about their head coach’s wife or about how the Eagles will most definitely advance to the Elite Eight. You would hear all about this underdog that has suddenly become the heavy favorite. And that makes the Florida Gators and their fans very happy.

Florida Gulf Coast Eagles Basketball

No one wants to talk about the Gators. No, the focus is instead squarely on Florida Gulf Coast and a wonderment of just how far the Eagles can go. It’s not so much whether they can beat the Gators, but what will happen when they do beat the Gators. Oh, Florida is favored and you’d be hard pressed to find someone to argue that the Gators are the squad with less talent, but you wouldn’t know that this week. All you know is that Florida Gulf Coast is on a collision course with a national championship.

Well folks, that’s not going to happen. The Eagles are not going to win it all. By the time we all wake up on Saturday morning, Florida Gulf Coast could be out of the tournament altogether. Of course, the other side of that is that the Gators could be done. And that’s very true. I’m not guaranteeing a Florida win; that’s not like me in the least. I’m not saying Cinderella’s run is definitely over. I’m just wondering aloud if those out there are truly looking at the matchup, and I’m happy that many aren’t.

The Eagles’ advantage is their energy and athleticism. If you’ve only watched a small handful of Florida games this year, you know the Gators come out of the gate to start the second half with a speed of roughly half of what they normally play. In the third round, Florida saw a 21-point lead over Minnesota nearly evaporate. Once the Gators found their rhythm (a little too deep into the second half for my liking), they disposed of the Gophers and moved on. But there’s a red flag staring us all in the face and that’s that Florida could have lost that game and has lost others like it. I can’t say it will catch up with the Gators because it already has in the past. But it can’t happen against the little team that could. Can it?

Oh it can, but again that’s where planning and experience comes into play. The Gators need to make the game theirs early. They need to control the flow of the game and work to expose the Eagles’ weaknesses while not allowing Florida Gulf Coast to run for 40 minutes. Get the ball down low and allow Patric Young to control the basket. Get the ball to Erik Murphy and force his defender to come out to guard him. Florida can (and dare I say should) win this game and end Cinderella’s run.

The Gators have ended the dreams of more than one Cinderella in the past. Just one season ago, 15-seed Norfolk State upset 2-seed Missouri only to fall to the Gators in the next round by a staggering 34 points. In 2006, George Mason upset 6-seed Michigan State, 3-seed North Carolina, 7-seed Wichita State and 1-seed Connecticut on its way to the school’s first Final Four appearance. The Gators beat them by 15 in the national semifinals. Teams on rides like this tend to run out of stream. The wave they are riding dies and they become little more than a good story that had an expected end.

There are many out there that don’t want Florida Gulf Coast’s story to end just yet. The entire nation seems to be cheering for the Eagles. But there’s a group of us that aren’t. We are Florida fans and are fully behind the orange and blue. We’ve seen our own team win their first two games in the tourney by a combined 46 points. We know the Gators are the better team and hope they prove it on Friday night. We aren’t enamored by the hype and have even become angered by the ego. One week ago, we enjoyed Dunk City. Now, we’re glad the Gators are suddenly flying under the radar. Our team is the favorite that has become the underdog. And we’re all okay with that.

Florida Gators vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers: Not Time to Look Ahead

The Florida Gators made it to the third round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament with little resistance. They arrive in that round facing a Minnesota Golden Gophers team they can’t look past. The Sweet Sixteen is within reach, but it’s not guaranteed; just ask Gonzaga and St. Louis.

Patric Young - Florida Gators

Billy Donovan faces a familiar foe in Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith. As you recall, Donovan and Smith were on the Kentucky staff together. Smith left in 1991 for the top spot at Tulsa. Donovan left in 1994 for Marshall. The two would cross paths again when Smith took the Kentucky job just one season after Donovan began his stretch at Florida. From 1997-2007, the two were the talk of the SEC and forged a rivalry that produced epic games for many years. Since that time, Smith has fallen off of the radar for many Florida fans. Heading north to Minnesota, Smith was largely forgotten in Southeastern Conference land. On Sunday, that changes.

The Gators meet Smith’s Gophers on Sunday with a trip to the Sweet Sixteen on the line. Florida should move on; Minnesota should not. That’s not the bias inside of me creeping up. No, that’s what most would tell you. That’s what should happen. You know what else should have happened? Georgetown should still be playing, Gonzaga should be proving they are worthy of their No. 1 ranking, and Ohio State shouldn’t have needed a last second shot to beat Iowa State. (Still cursing that last one under my breath). So forgive me for being nervous. Then again, I’m always nervous. I find it hard to sit during most Florida-related sporting events, especially when an entire season is on the line. As much as I want to watch the game, a little piece of me wishes I could hibernate through it and be told the outcome later.

I won’t though. I’ll be watching. I’m a good Florida fan. I will be wearing too much orange and blue to count and yelling things at my television under my breath because the second half will begin right as my son goes to bed. It’ll be a good night for college basketball and hopefully a great one for our beloved coach and team. One game at a time. No looking ahead. Just win. Go Gators.

Florida Gators 79 – Northwestern State Demons 47: Gators Open NCAA Tournament with Big Win

The Florida Gators overcame a flurry of energy from the Northwestern State Demons to cruise to a 79-47 victory in the second round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament. The Gators advance to the third round where they’ll face the Minnesota Golden Gophers on Sunday, March 24 at 6:10 PM.

Florida Gators

The Demons gave the Gators all they had for the first 20 minutes, but it wouldn’t be nearly enough. Northwestern State employed a line-change strategy that kept the Gators on their toes early and kept the game close. But Florida’s talent and ability to withstand Northwestern State’s 10-man rotation, helped the Gators pull away in the second half. And it was definitely a story that went that way–a tale of two halves to an extent. Florida took a 40-32 lead into the locker room at the break, but blew that wide open outscoring the Demons 39-15 in the second half.

The Gators took advantage of a shooting advantage throughout the second half. For the game, Florida made 47.5% of it’s attempts from the floor while holding Northwestern State to only 36%. Early, it appeared as if the Gators would fight for a victory like many other of the second round winners (we won’t even get into those that lost–HI GEORGETOWN!). Once Florida found it’s grove though, it was over. The Demons had no answer to the Gators second-half onslaught and Florida easily advanced.

The stars for Florida were senior forward Erik Murphy and junior center Patric Young. The two combined for 34 points on 14-for-21 shooting and grabbed 17 rebounds. As usual, as went Murphy, so went the Gators. The senior has scored 15 or more points in 13 games this season and Florida is 11-2 in those contests. And going one better, the Gators are 12-1 when he shoots 60% or better from the field. In that one loss (to Kansas State who bowed out of the tourney in a second-round upset), he shot exactly 60%. When he goes over that number, Florida is undefeated. So in summary, get Murphy open and let him shoot.

The Gators move on to the Gophers, who didn’t just upset UCLA on Saturday, but embarrassed the Bruins. It could be another case for getting the ball to Murphy and Young. Minnesota has only two players taller than 6’8″ on their roster and those two combine for only 20.5 minutes per game. Murphy and Young combine for 53.3. It could be another good one for the big men depending on what strategy head coach Billy Donovan employs.

On to the next round and a chance to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

The Florida Gators Will [FILL IN 2013 NCAA TOURNAMENT FINISH]

The title isn’t a mistake. I didn’t forget to go back and fill in my thoughts once I was done with the post. I really don’t know. You don’t know. The experts don’t know. President Obama doesn’t know. I’m basically trying to tell you that no one knows where the Florida Gators will exit the 2013 NCAA Tournament. We’re all guessing based on what we’ve seen over the past 33 games. What we shouldn’t be doing is making our pick based on Billy Donovan’s career.

Billy Donovan - Florida Gators

Before going further, I should put a disclaimer out there. That disclaimer would say something to the effect of the fact that I like Donovan. I’m beyond happy that he’s the Florida head coach and was ecstatic when he did an about-face and decided the Orlando Magic were not going to be his employer. There are no current basketball coaches I would rather have guiding the Gators year after year. He won at a football school and did so more than once. Billy Donovan is the Florida Gators. I hope this is the job he one day retires from (you know, a real retirement, not an Urban Meyer resigning/retiring/quitting/whatever situation).

What I meant was that Donovan-coached Florida teams can finish their season anywhere. We have two losing records, but we can throw those out because they were during his first two seasons at the helm. We have three NIT appearances, one of which was during the second of those first two seasons. The other two followed the back-to-back national championships, so we give those a bit of a pass. Then we have first round NCAA Tournament exits, second round exits, a Sweet Sixteen exit, Elite Eight exits, a national title game loss, and those two championships. Oddly, the one thing we don’t have is a Final Four exit. The three times the Gators made it to the Final Four under Donovan, they advanced to the title game. Like I said, any finish is possible.

So where do we have the Gators finishing this year? Well that’s even harder to say because of the season we just watched. Florida got all the way to a No. 2 ranking and had an 18-2 record at the time to go along with it. Since then, the Gators have gone 8-5. 18-2 is the record of a team with its eye on nothing less than the Final Four. 8-5 is that of one with a dream scenario of the Sweet Sixteen. What we need to see is which Florida team shows up.

I’d be happy to be able to predict an Elite Eight appearance for a third-consecutive year. It’s a definite possibility and one that wouldn’t surprise us as Florida fans because we’re aware that this can be a very good Gators team. Then I look at some of the losses and wonder if even that’s a stretch. Not that I don’t have confidence in Donovan or the talent on the roster, but because we’ve seen big leads evaporate and become losses quickly.

Could this team experience a letdown in an early game? Yes. I don’t wish for it, but it could happen. But it’s more likely that we really are looking at worst at a Sweet Sixteen team and at best at a Final Four participant. That’s up to the players as much as it is to Donovan and how they attack each opponent.

In a few short hours, we’ll see just how prepared the Gators are. Florida is favored by 21 points over Northwestern State. The Gators have beaten teams by that many and more. The first 20 minutes is important, but as no lead is safe, the final 20 is more so. We’re not nervous about the possibility of a one-and-done performance, but how Florida comes out will tell us a lot. Preparation is on Donovan, performance is on the players.

The NCAA Tournament Starts Tomorrow; How Excited Are You?

It’s been a while since I’ve been this excited for the NCAA Tournament. As a Florida fan, I’m always excited for the Gators as they make their way to the big dance, but my overall excitement for the tourney as a whole has leveled off in recent years. Call it an overwhelming obsession with one team, too many other sports on my mind at one time, or whatever you want. Whatever it is, it has put the tournament in a place of muted thrill for me.

Florida Gators - National Champions

That doesn’t mean I don’t watch, but I’ve been a halfhearted tourney follower at best. My brackets were completed with little thought and venture too far out of the SEC and I may give you a line similar to “er…uh…yeah…sure they can pull off the upset…they have that guy, don’t they…no, the tall one…you know who I mean.” I was a sports fan that needed a slap on the wrist, or better yet a smack across the back of the head.

For whatever reason, that period of my life has since passed. I’ve become more involved in the college basketball season and more excited for what March brings than in other recent years (and not just because yours truly has a birthday on the horizon). I’ve watched games, I’ve followed the latest stories, and I’ve even found myself fretting over 8-9 matchups. Basically, I’m back.

Just the other day, Mrs. TBG (not much of a basketball fan) said from her spot on the couch “the Florida game ended, we’re still watching basketball?” Yes. Yes we were. And we still are. I’m excited. Overly so.

I printed out my bracket early this morning and it has more corrections, fixes, and edits than I remember it having in five years. March is here and I’m ready. I’m ready too watch the orange and blue try to win a close game. I’m ready to cheer on those other schools I’ve always liked for reasons I can’t understand (North Carolina) and reasons I can (Wisconsin) should something drastic happen to the Gators too early. And I’m ready to be consumed by all that is college basketball for the next three weeks.