The most maligned organization in sports the past couple weeks might be the NCAA tournament selection committee. Not so much for the snubs — though SMU fans had a fair beef — but for the seedings. Louisville got a No. 4 seed? A rolling Kentucky got an 8 seed while a stumbling Saint Louis got a 5 seed? Wichita State got royally screwed by its unfair placement in the Region of Doom?
But after Florida’s 29th straight win Thursday, a methodical 79-68 dismantling of an excellent UCLA team, it should be noted that the selection committee absolutely, beyond a doubt got this one right: Florida deserves the No. 1 overall seed.
In a season where no single elite team has emerged as head-and-shoulders above the rest, Florida proved itself just a smidge better than everyone else. Point-in-time arguments could be made for Arizona, Wichita State, Virginia and Michigan State, but make no mistake: Florida is this tournament’s team to beat.
There’s no Louisville from a year back, a team that steamrolled through February and March. There’s no Kentucky from two years ago, a historic collection of NBA-level talent playing as a team.
Instead, we have Florida, going against the grain and winning because of it. The Gators are a team that starts four seniors in the age of one-and-dones, a team that’s continuing its trademark pressing, punishing defense despite new NCAA basketball rules that allow offenses more freedom of movement, a team without a single transcendent star in a time when we love to brand teams via their star player.
As coach Billy Donovan rolls into his fourth Elite Eight in four years, he has done it the old-school way.
Florida controlled the game for 40 minutes despite getting a streaking UCLA’s very best shot. Four Gators scored 10 or more points, with leading scorer Michael Frazier scoring only 19 on 5-of-8 shooting from 3. Scottie Wilbekin, this team’s emotional leader, wasn’t shooting particularly well (2 of 8 from 3) but delivered in crunch time. The team’s most productive freshman, Kasey Hill, played with the maturity of a senior, dropping 10 dimes against only two turnovers. The team’s only one-and-done possibility, long and athletic big man Chris Walker, played only six minutes, but they were a vital six minutes, contributing seven points, three rebounds and a block when Casey Prather and Patric Young were in foul trouble.
Freshman flash might get you magazine covers, but it’s old-school team basketball that makes you the best team in the nation.
"We knew it wasn’t going to be easy," Wilbekin said. "They’re capable of going on runs, just like we are. I think there was runs by both teams in the game."
And that defense that’s ranked second in the nation in defensive efficiency? Florida absolutely smothered UCLA’s ball movement, allowing only 12 assists to one of the top assist teams in the nation. Florida dominated the boards, as well. Afterward, I asked UCLA’s Jordan Adams if he could boil the game down to one key. He said it was all about Florida’s strong, athletic big men — emphasis on the word "men" — getting offensive rebounds.
"We’ve been in this position four times already, and I just can’t believe (that) this team is where it’s at again," Young said in the locker room afterward. "It’s not that I didn’t believe we would, but it’s just crazy that it’s here already. You never want to take it for granted because you never know if you’ll be a team that can make it to that point again.
"Hopefully, we can go farther this time."
That’s really the only smudge on the résumé of this team’s four starting seniors. They’ve made it this far four times, never further.
The advantage this year, as Donovan’s men face a deep, upstart Cinderella Dayton team in Saturday’s Elite Eight game, is this: They’ve been here before.
And that matters more than ever in the age of one-and-dones.
"It definitely helps," Donovan said after the win. "A lot of times, you don’t know how long your guys are going to be there. Certainly, for our four seniors coming in together and going through this together, there’s a lot of different experiences they gained through that process. I think for them, they’ve learned a lot and they’ve grown a lot, both as players and as people.
"They’re totally different today than they were three, four years ago."