Florida Gators have a chance to begin move back to elite

If the Florida Gators are going to introduce themselves to the world of college basketball, now seems like a good time.

If they are going to return to the ranks of the programs that matter, here seems like a perfect place.

After all, what else do the Gators have to do this weekend that sounds like more fun?

Frankly, it's about time the Gators were special again. In some ways, it seems as if it has been decades since Florida ruled college basketball. It hasn't been, of course. It was only four tournaments ago since the Gators won their second straight national championship with an athletic, cohesive bunch of athletes who never got tired of running. Or, for that matter, winning.

Since then, however, Florida has been a program unable to measure up to its own success. If you are counting, and it seems that everyone is counting, the Gators haven't won an NCAA Tournament game since beating UCLA for the title back in 2007. For an elite program, and for an elite coach, that's a long time between high-fives.

All of which brings us to this year's players and this year's possibilities.

Once again, the Gators finally have both.

According to NCAA seeding, which has the Gators second in the Southeast, Florida is one of the top eight teams in the country. According to the AP poll, Florida is one of the top 12. According to the SEC tournament, Florida is one of the top two teams in the SEC. According to the SEC regular season, Florida is the best team from its conference.

What that means is this is Billy Donovan's best team since the title years. And, yes, it means the Gators should be able to survive Tampa — a place where they haven't exactly flourished over the years — and make it to at least the Sweet 16.

When you are talking about fair expectations of this Florida team in the NCAA Tournament, that sounds about right. A first- or second-round loss means the Gators have underachieved. A run as far as the Elite Eight or better means they have overachieved.

No, no one is suggesting there is greatness to this Florida team, or that Chandler Parsons should grow a Joakim Noah ponytail at his earliest convenience. The old Gators won two titles; we're talking two games in a row.

With the Gators, there are still too many large, unsettling spaces where the basket location seems like a mystery to them. They could be tougher inside. And, yes, it's hard to forget that Florida found a way to lose to both UCF and Jacksonville this year. (Who knows where the Gators might have been seeded if they had won those games, huh?)

Say this for Donovan. Gathering his team after those embarrassments and finding a way to get his players to mesh down the stretch was one of the fine coaching moments of his career. Admit it: back on Dec. 20, when the Gators lost to Jacksonville three weeks after they lost to UCF, you wouldn't have given 20 cents for the rest of the season, would you?

Lately, however, there has been a lot to like with this Florida team. The Gators run well, the come from behind, they compete. They won 10 of their final 12, with both losses coming against Kentucky.

That said, you know what the players for UC-Santa Barbara are thinking today. They're thinking "UCF?'' They're thinking "Jacksonville?'' They're thinking "Orlando'' as in Orlando Johnson, who has scored 30 points or more six times this year. Most of all, it's thinking upsets. When a team reaches the NCAAs after going 8-8 in the Big West and being 14-13 overall two weeks ago, what else would it be thinking.

Still, it's going to be difficult for the Gauchos to travel across country and upset Florida. If that happens, you may not ever see Billy Donovan in Tampa Bay again.

For Florida, the second round looks testier. Michigan State? UCLA? Not to say those are storied programs, but the Gators have played both in a national championship game. In fact, the last time Florida played Michigan State in an NCAA Tournament game, it was in a second-round game in Tampa when the Gators were a No. 2 seed. Michigan State, seeded 10th back then, too, won that game by 22 points.

This year's Michigan State hasn't been as physical, however. And seventh-seeded UCLA hasn't quite lived up to its history, either. Frankly, both teams should grab their seeds before the NCAA reconsiders its generosity. If Florida deserves its own No. 2 seed, it should be able to get past either.

After that, who knows?

As long as they can avoid playing Jacksonville, maybe these Gators can run for a while.

Florida Gators have a chance to begin move back to elite 03/13/11 [Last modified: Monday, March 14, 2011 12:00am]

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