Monday, February 19, 2018
Sports

These Gators reminiscent of past UF championship teams

The telephone rang, one imagines, about the time the final horn sounded. About the time Al Horford would have answered, Joakim Noah would have shrieked his hello.

And there they would have been, kids once again. At once, all the years would have vanished, and all the millions the two have made in the years since then wouldn't have mattered anymore. In that instant, they would have been Gators again, and the NCAA Tournament would have been about to shape their lives, the way it once did.

"We're back, baby," one imagines Noah, the Bulls center who is entering stardom, saying.

"And who can stop us now?" one imagines Horford, the Hawks' star forward who is injured, responding.

And, again, the two old friends would have shouted together. They would have talked about the old days, and the way they swept through two of these tournaments in a row. They would have talked about the fun they shared, the moments they had, and the games they played. The way one imagines it, the conversation might have gone on for a while.

After all, a lot of people are talking about the current edition of the Gators being the best Florida team since those champions of Noah and Horford and Corey Brewer and the rest of them back in 2006 and 2007. And, as the NCAA Tournament begins to take shape, yes, this team has the best chance since those teams to win the whole thing.

Watch them, and you will love the way they compete. Yes, it would be nice if they could hit a few more free throws down the stretch — sometime before coach Billy Donovan's hair starts to look like Lute Olsen's — but they play hard, and they play together, and they play on both ends of the court. They seem to control the most tense moments, as if they expect to win.

Want to know why this team was able to beat Kentucky on Sunday? In the most important moments of the game, they were grownups, while Kentucky was a group of kids still trying to figure it out. In a tournament, that sort of maturity can go a long way.

Does any of this mean that the Gators will win it all? No, of course not. The overall No. 1 seed has a better chance than anyone, but that chance is still — what? — about 22 percent or so. Over the past five seasons, only five No. 1s have reached the Final Four, and in 2011, none of the four made it. It's still a hard tournament to survive.

Also, there is this: Even given how many games it has won, doubts remain about this Gator team. Yes, Florida swept through the SEC, but to be honest, it didn't take a very big broom to do so. No other SEC team ended the season ranked in the Top 25. In fact, the only muscle the Gators seemed to beat was Kansas and Memphis.

That said, there is something to like about this Florida team, something that the past three UF teams — all of whom made it to the Elite Eight — seemed to lack. A cohesion, perhaps. An air of confidence that reminds you of those championship teams.

No, this team doesn't have that kind of talent. The NBA scouts couldn't wait for the 2006 and 2007 teams to stop playing for T-shirts. But a team like the current one doesn't win 26 games in a row, and 32 overall, without having some ability.

In most years, a national championship team looks a lot like this: It has a proven coach, as the Gators have in Donovan. It has an excellent point guard, as the Gators have in Scottie Wilbekin. It has some toughness inside, as the Gators have with Patric Young. It has a shooter, as the Gators have with Michael Frazier. It has seniors. It plays good defense. It has depth.

In other words, the Gators give you a lot of reasons to believe in them. Ah, but do they have the draw?

The first game? Florida will win that one easily. Oh, they might get off to another slow start, but neither Albany nor Mount St. Mary's have enough athletes to play with the Gators.

The second game? That will be testier. Pitt hung for a long time with ACC champion Virginia, and after the Panthers beat Colorado, they're capable of hanging with the Gators for a while, too. Still, you have to like Florida.

The third game is going to be harder. UCLA, which figures to be the Gators' opponent, is just off beating another No. 1 seed in Arizona. Still, the Bruins seem to be a year away.

The fourth game, the region final, is where the past three Florida seasons have gone to die. And that could happen this year, too. If the seeds hold, then Kansas, and star Andrew Wiggins, will be the opponent. The Gators won that matchup in December in Gainesville, but another victory is a tough assignment.

Get past that, and it could be Virginia in the semis, and perhaps Arizona in the final.

Can even a No. 1 seed survive all of that? We'll see.

For the Gators, however, there are a lot of reasons to believe. If they can get on the right run, and if the bracket falls just so, they might have a chance.

Just a thought, but wouldn't that fire up yesterday's champions?

Everyone else in Gainesville, too?

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