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Gators had no case for NCAA bid

The disappointment is not that the Florida Gators are not in the NCAA Tournament.

The disappointment is that they are not even in the conversation.

Here it is, National Snub-and-Snit Week, and the Gators cannot even muster a loud protest. Not a whimper. Not a whisper. Let's face it: If the regular season had gone on for two more weeks, the Gators might not even have made the NIT.

It's a shame. At this point, you would love to be able to embrace the delusion that, somehow, the Gators deserved better. After all, they are the two-time defending champions. After all, they did win 21 games, although about 15 of those seemed to come from assorted glee clubs passing through on their way to spring break.

Still, it would be good, grand even, to imagine the Gators as one of those nose-out-of-joint programs that always litter the landscape in the days after Selection Sunday. It is quite delicious, really, to watch coaches sprint from one camera to another protesting a selection committee that could not see the greatness of a program that has spent all season proving that it lacks it.

This year, the voices belong to those who follow Virginia Tech or Arizona State or Dayton. Maybe Virginia Commonwealth or Ole Miss or Illinois State. None of them was swindled the way their coaches would have you believe, but at least they have an argument.

But, no, not Florida. These days, there are more analysts talking about basketball than there are lawyers on TV commercials, and not one of them wants to take Florida's case. You get the feeling the Gators would be lucky to get in if the NCAA expanded to 81 teams and a fifth region.

Given the successes of the past, and the losses, most people were prepared to give the Gators a pass no matter what happened this season. After all, the players of the past two years are now scattered across the NBA. Another trip to the NCAA's seemed like a lot to ask.

It was fair, however, to expect the Gators to be a passionate team (they weren't) that would improve as the season progressed (they didn't) and that they might finish with a late run (by the end, they were running the wrong way).

No, this was not a great Florida team. But the Gators were better than LSU, and they lost a key game to the Tigers at home down the stretch. They were better than Alabama, and they were waxed by the Tide in their SEC tournament game. They were better than Georgia, yet it was the Bulldogs who were hungry enough to make a great dash through the SEC tournament. It was not merely the ability of their predecessors they lacked; it was their passion.

If you are disappointed in the Gators, then it would appear that coach Billy Donovan agrees with you. On Monday, for instance, he refused to let his team into the Florida locker room or the practice facility.

The point: Just because a player moves into the castle doesn't make him a king.

On Monday, Donovan talked about the trappings of a big-time program, about how a new player walks into the facilities and a massage therapist and a private plane. He tossed around words such as "entitlement" and "complacency."

His message seemed clear: For the Gators, a little more earning is in order.

"We don't deserve to be in the penthouse," Florida guard Jai Lucas said. "We haven't earned the penthouse."

Looking back, perhaps that was the problem. Perhaps the luxuries of the program made life too easy. Perhaps the schedule in the early portion of the season was too easy. Perhaps it would have done this team some good to see, early on, how difficult college basketball could be.

You get the feeling Donovan is trying desperately to get his players' attention. From here, the important task seems to be to decide if this season was spent rebuilding or regressing. Yes, the Gators should be better next year. They'll be deeper. They'll be more experienced.

Donovan, however, will tell you that an older player is not necessarily a better one. That, too, has to be earned.

"We haven't been able to get through to them to get them to understand where they've got to get to," Donovan said. "There's a team element part of it they have got to totally understand."

Perhaps that starts with the locker room being closed. Perhaps it starts with the JV tournament that is the NIT. Perhaps it starts with a lot of basketball conversations that do not include the Gators.

When it comes to the NCAA Tournament, you have to earn that, too.

Gators had no case for NCAA bid 03/17/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 19, 2008 11:44am]
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