By the numbers, there may never be an easier ride to the Elite Eight than Florida’s bracketed appointments so far with a No. 14 seed (Northwestern State), a No. 11 (Minnesota) and on Friday a No. 15 (Florida Gulf Coast).
Of course, the Gators will have to play the villain against Gulf Coast, the runt that roared, but it was the same in the 2006 Final Four against George Mason. When it’s single-elimination, you can’t afford a single hesitation.
Can’t look to one player all the time, either. Makes it too easy for opponents to bottle up the magic. Remember how Joakim Noah blew up on the Gators’ first national championship team as the Final Four Most Outstanding Player? The next year, on the second title team, Corey Brewer won that award and Noah was a much smaller factor.
This is how Billy Donovan prefers it, and with a career NCAA tournament winning percentage of .750 he might just be onto something here.
Look at Sunday’s 78-64 win over Minnesota in the Round of 32. Mike Rosario, who scored an inconsequential eight points in the tournament opener against Northwestern State, lit the Gophers up for 25.
Erik Murphy went from Florida’s leading scorer in the opener to sitting the bench with foul trouble for most of the second half against Minnesota.
Patrick Young, a beast in the post against Northwestern State, shot only twice against the Gophers, and not at all in the first half, which just happened to be when Florida was racing out to a 48-27 advantage.
What happens when Kenny Boynton, Florida’s all-time leader in three-pointers made, finally gets going? The Gators become a real threat to win this tournament, that’s what.
This shared responsibility is the secret to Donovan’s many deep runs into the tournament, and to the maintenance of a program that is going to the Sweet 16 for the third year in a row. Kansas and Marquette are currently on the same kind of run, for comparison’s sake, and Ohio State is going to its fourth straight Sweet 16.
That’s the kind of continuity Jim Larranaga craves at Miami. It won’t come overnight, especially when this NCAA tournament ends and most of his best players are gone overnight, but Larranaga has a much better chance of making it happen with the Hurricanes than Andy Enfield does at Florida Gulf Coast.
That’s because the curse of shocking the world during the national festival of March Madness is that somebody else, somebody with better resources, quickly snaps up the head coach who made it happen.
How do you think Larranaga got the precious opportunity to coach in the ACC? He was George Mason’s guru before Miami. He had to be the mid-major darling of the NCAA tournament before he got the chance to beat up on Duke and North Carolina and dominate the most storied conference of all.
Now Larranaga is the target, a No. 2 seed with great senior leadership and a sophomore star named Shane Larkin who looks like he’s not long for the college game. Larkin’s three-pointer with about 1:00 to play in Sunday’s 63-59 win over Illinois was a thing of beauty. Marquette’s already had a couple of close calls in this tournament, however, so they’ve got this particular drill down.
Makes me think twice about Miami outlasting Florida in this tournament, which was the original prediction here, but it doesn’t stop me from thinking it altogether.
The numbers stack up worse against the Hurricanes, with No. 3 seed Marquette in the way now and either No. 1 Indiana or No. 4 Syracuse in the East Regional finals, if it comes to that. There’s a toughness about Larranaga’s guys, though, that resonates. They didn’t have to win the ACC tournament, but they did. They don’t have to go past their current school record 29 wins to make this the greatest Miami season ever, but they probably will.
As for Gulf Coast, it seems there are goosebumps enough to go around.
“For us, Florida and Florida Gulf Coast to be in the Sweet 16 is a great feeling,” said Larkin, “and it just proves that Florida has great basketball teams just like everybody else in the country.”
Well, not quite everybody. As was noted frequently over the weekend in Austin and will be noted again at the South Regional in Arlington, not one team from the enormous state of Texas even made the NCAA tournament field this year.
Weird but true, much like March Madness itself.