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.
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.