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SEC quarterfinal game against Auburn is key for Florida Gators' basketball season

TAMPA — The coach is fond of saying an entire season cannot be judged by a few weeks in March. If it makes Billy Donovan feel any better, we kind of agree. For in this case, a season may be judged entirely by one night.

I know what the NCAA Tournament selection committee says. It insists that it looks at the landscape of a season, and that a team's fortunes in a conference tournament are not to be overestimated.

Still, it is hard to look at Florida's quarterfinal game against Auburn in the Southeastern Conference tournament tonight and not wonder whether it will be the difference between the Gators being one of this year's haves or have-NITs.

It's not that a conference tournament means that much. It's that UF's margin for error is that slim.

"I'd be lying to you if I said we didn't think about it," said junior forward Dan Werner. "There's so much talk about it on TV, and we're all obviously sports fans. You turn on the TV and all you hear is, 'This team just lost, they're out of it.' Or, 'This team is on the bubble and needs to win this game.'

"The best thing for us is to let it go in one ear and out the other, and take care of our own business. If we win the conference tournament, then it doesn't matter if we're on the bubble right now because we're going to be going."

A 73-58 victory against Arkansas on Thursday night was the first step. Or maybe the second. The Gators got themselves back on the NCAA Tournament radar by beating Kentucky 60-53 in their regular-season finale.

And now that they've returned to the conversation, the Gators cannot afford to slip up against Auburn.

"The last two games we've played really well," said guard Nick Calathes. "Obviously, we can't change the past; we can't change the games we lost. We've just got to learn from it and take care of our business right now.

"We control our destiny."

There are two basic arguments against Florida making the NCAA Tournament: a weak schedule and a weaker finish.

At this point, the Gators can do little about the schedule. Even a couple of victories in this tournament won't make Florida's strength of schedule rise appreciably, because the SEC has been hopelessly unimpressive this season.

However, the Gators can change the perception of a team stumbling down the stretch. Beat Auburn tonight and UF will have gone from a three-game losing streak to a three-game winning streak.

If you go by RPI projections, one more victory looks like it could be enough to get the Gators in the tournament, particularly with Miami and Arizona falling Thursday.

Officially, the tournament has 34 at-large bids. Realistically, most have been claimed. Going into Thursday's games, probably two dozen teams were hoping to squeeze into the last eight to 10 spots.

So, as a fan, you wait. You watch. You worry. You want upsets, but only in the correct games.

When Cleveland State upset Butler on Tuesday, it meant one more at-large bid was off the books because the Horizon League will likely get two teams in the tournament. That's bad news for a bubble team such as Florida.

Yet, when none of the Big Ten teams could pull an upset Thursday, it meant Michigan, Penn State and Minnesota remained as candidates for at-large bids. That, too, was bad news.

"That's going to happen. You can't look at it like, 'Oh, my gosh, there goes a spot,' " said Calathes. "If we take care of our business, then it will come."

It has always been Donovan's belief that too much emphasis is placed on the results of March. In a philosophical sense, he is right. It is grossly unfair to ignore four months of work and turn the season's end into a pass-fail test.

But considering the way a pair of championship runs forever have elevated his stature, Donovan has no room to complain. He took UF to new heights, and there is no graceful way back down that hill.

Which is why this weekend is so critical to Florida's fortunes. One season out of the NCAA Tournament can be written off a as a fluke. A temporary restocking of the shelves. Two seasons out is not so easily explained.

There are explanations, of course. Seven Florida starters have departed in the past two seasons. Assistant coaches have left for promotions. There have been injuries, and there are just bad breaks.

But elite programs manage to overcome their problems. And for the Gators, time is running out.

If they consider themselves an NCAA Tournament team, they had better win tonight.

SEC quarterfinal game against Auburn is key for Florida Gators' basketball season 03/13/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 13, 2009 7:14am]
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