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John Romano: Florida Gators stumble into the field

Florida coach Billy Donovan, right, and guard Kenny Boynton haven’t enjoyed much success vs. tournament-bound teams.

Associated Press

Florida coach Billy Donovan, right, and guard Kenny Boynton haven’t enjoyed much success vs. tournament-bound teams.

Ah, the magic is back for those Florida Gators.

The inspiration. The shrewdness. The last-second heroics.

For the first time since winning back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007, the Gators are back in the NCAA Tournament because they finally figured out how to hit a big shot.

Let Kentucky take it for you.

I'm not saying the Gators backed into the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, but you almost have to look at the season in reverse to understand how precarious their position had become in the 65-team field.

You can begin in the season's final second. Actually the final tenth of a second. Mississippi State was that close to winning the Southeastern Conference tournament — which may very well have ended Florida's at-large bid — when Kentucky's DeMarcus Cousins sent the game to overtime with a shot at the buzzer Sunday. Kentucky eventually won 75-74.

You can go back to the season's final two weeks when the Gators dropped four of their last five games. You can go back a few months and see Florida has one victory against an NCAA Tournament team in its last 28 games.

Finally, if you're willing to go all the way back to November, you can see the Gators beat Florida State and Michigan State in succession, and those two victories somehow trumped all of the unremarkable results that followed.

Woo hoo!

So maybe that's a tad flippant. In a year when North Carolina, Arizona, Indiana, UCLA and Connecticut failed to make the field, the Gators deserve credit for putting together a resume with fewer blemishes than some other big-name schools.

But, my goodness, shouldn't Florida be better than this?

When last seen in the NCAA Tournament, the Gators were dancing under a sky of confetti. They had won back-to-back NCAA titles, a feat matched only by Duke and UCLA in the previous 40 seasons. And how did they capitalize on that success?

With the worst follow-up in the modern era.

Florida was vanquished to the NIT the next two seasons, the first time that happened to a defending champion since the tournament field expanded in 1985. And, on Sunday, the Gators may have come within a second of making it three consecutive NIT appearances.

So, tell me, is this a cause for celebration or concern?

The answer is probably a little bit of both.

The fact that, three years later, Florida is struggling just to make an NCAA appearance is not good. Attendance in Gainesville has nosedived and the basketball program is having budget problems. If the Gators go one-and-done this week, none of that will likely change.

Still, for all of the flaws on this team, it is far better than it was a year ago. The Gators played a tough nonconference schedule and NCAA selection committee members obviously had that in mind when they chose UF ahead of Mississippi State and Virginia Tech.

Florida had a shaky 3-8 record against teams in the NCAA Tournament field but, for the most part, avoided embarrassing losses.

Of course, I've heard better battle cries heading into March Madness.

The truth is, there are plenty of people who will say Florida does not belong in this tournament. They will say Mississippi State was robbed. They will say Rhode Island or Seton Hall had better cases. And, honestly, it's hard to argue with them. The selection committee made it clear it was grading on an entire season of work, but shouldn't recent results carry a little more weight?

And when a team goes 6-6 in February and March — after going 5-6 last season and 6-9 the season before — it suggests there are problems in the program. Maybe the problem is depth. Maybe it is focus. Whatever it is, limping home is not the way to impress recruits.

To be fair, there are legitimate reasons why the Gators have struggled since that remarkable team left the Georgia Dome court with its second championship in 2007. All five starters left after that season, so coach Billy Donovan was practically starting over. And there have been the usual assortment of players leaving early for pro careers, transfers and missed recruits in the three years since.

On the other hand, almost every other school has similar tales of woe. The difference is the great programs usually overcome their problems.

And that's the greatest shame of the past three seasons.

For, after those back-to-back titles, we still don't know if Florida should be considered one of the NCAA's great basketball programs.

John Romano: Florida Gators stumble into the field 03/15/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 15, 2010 8:15am]

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