In the wonderful world of college basketball, the situation for the Florida Gators is this: win four straight games, and they will forever call themselves SEC Champions, and an NCAA Tournament participant.
Easier said than done, of course. This is probably Billy Donovan’s worst team ever. That includes his first team at Florida that finished 13-17, that includes his two teams at Marshall and that includes the 2008-09 team that greatly underwhelmed despite high expectations.
The overall theme of the entire year is this: the Gators have repeatedly lost games they should have won. They blew double digit leads against Miami, Kansas, Connecticut and Mississippi (the first game), and blew a nine point lead against Kentucky (this alone would be somewhat forgivable). They also blew seven point leads against FSU, Missouri, Mississippi (the second game) and Texas A&M. Now, that’s not to say that seven point leads at just about any point in the game should guarantee a victory, but it goes to show how many games the Gators have had chances to win this year. That’s not even counting the game they lost in the Bahamas to Georgetown on a last second shot by D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, a game that neither team really dominated and went back and forth the entire way. Just think: Billy Donovan’s club is 15-16 right now. If Florida even wins half those aforementioned games, they’re an NCAA Tournament lock; a 20-11 overall record with one of the nation’s toughest non-conference schedules has 9/10 seed written all over it. If Florida wins eight of those ten winnable games that they lost, we’re talking a 4 or 5 seed.
Of course, reality is not based on hypotheticals- but just look at how good this team could have been. This team is not far off from being 20-11 and a cinch for the Big Dance. The end result shows a team with a losing record, and let’s face it, this team deserves to lose pretty much every time they actually do lose, but with even half the luck that last year’s team had, we’re talking about how the SEC Tournament is a mere tuneup for the Big Dance.
That’s my point. This team’s results may qualify it as Donovan’s worst- and I’d even argue that they do- but when fully healthy, this team is capable of inflicting some serious damage. And if they can inflict that damage four straight times this weekend, they’ll be going dancing.
Kasey Hill and Chris Walker, the two sophomores who were really counted on to step into leadership roles, have majorly disappointed all in all, but there are moments when they appear to deserve all the hype they got. Yes, Hill is reckless with the ball at times, can’t finish and plays defense only when he feels like it, but every now and then he’ll get the ball in transition, slash through the entire defense and either hit a layup or find someone who will. No, Chris Walker doesn’t appear to have the faintest idea of where to go or what to do on offense, but just when Donovan appears to be on the brink of giving up on him for the day, he’ll jump over three opponents and grab a rebound and slam it down. Even Michael Frazier is having a down year, shooting a career low from three point land, but now and then he’ll tell himself to trust his shot over the course of a game and go off for 25+ points. See, the pieces for an NCAA Tournament team are there. It’s just a matter of putting those pieces together in each of the next four games. And as the 2008 Georgia Bulldogs showed us, it’s not too late.
Georgia in 2008 was a team that went 4-12 in SEC play, but ran through the SEC Tournament with only eight scholarship players to secure the SEC’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid. The Bulldogs were immediately bounced by Xavier in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but they had succeeded in proving the point the NCAA wants to make with these conference tournaments- anything is possible. They erased all the memories of past failures that year by playing their best basketball and winning four straight games, and made those four games all that mattered. And this Florida team is better than that Georgia team was- they play better defense, and have a far better coach running the team.
So again: the Gators can do it. It’s not like I’m asking for a 2008 Georgia type run this weekend. This Gators team has already beaten Alabama in Tuscaloosa, played Kentucky extremely tough on two different occasions, and beaten Arkansas, the favorite to reach the SEC Championship game on the other side of the bracket. They have shown flashes of promise. Now it’s just a matter of playing at their top level on a consistent basis, and turning promise into four straight wins.
And should they do so, the Gators can erase all the sadness and frustration that this season has brought. There are very few opportunities in life for anyone or anything to completely undo and make up for past mistakes and tragedies, but this is one of them. Take a second to think about all the miserable losses Florida has suffered. Miami. Georgetown. Kansas. FSU. UConn. Vanderbilt. Missouri. Mississippi twice. Texas A&M. All of those losses can be rendered insignificant with four wins this weekend.
It’s Florida’s last chance to make something out of nothing. It’s Florida’s last chance to give fans something positive to remember about them. It’s Florida’s last chance to salvage something from what may otherwise go down as one of Billy Donovan’s worst team’s ever.
It’s Florida’s last chance to dance.