PHOENIX, AZ - MARCH 22: Mike Rosario #3 of the Florida Gators reacts with teammates Casey Prather #24 and Patric Young #4 in the first half while taking on the Marquette Golden Eagles during the 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball West Regional Semifinal game at US Airways Center on March 22, 2012 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Florida has come so far in two weeks.
Two weeks ago today, I was home for the tail end spring break, home for the first time since the break between the fall and spring semesters, and Florida was preparing for its first game of the SEC Tournament and its first game since getting shellacked by Kentucky while playing well in Gainesville, a loss that inspired me to lament the Gators' ultimately flawed roster and unsatisfying season with Ke$ha lyrics, and I told my parents that I kind of wanted Florida to bow out early in the SEC Tournament to make my break a bit less stressful. (I'm not proud of this, but it's true.)
Now, after a 68-58 win over Marquette, Florida is right where last year's team was, and one game from going back to the Final Four for the first time since the Oh-Fours went back to the Final Four in 2007. I will be counting the seconds until Florida plays Louisville in the Elite Eight on Saturday, and I couldn't imagine a better stress to deal with.
Again: Florida has come so far in two weeks.
In its last five games, Florida's made 42 threes, and they were spread equally over two SEC Tournament games against Alabama and Kentucky (21-for-52) and three NCAA Tournament games against Virginia, Norfolk State, and Marquette (21-for-78).
Patric Young had 21 points and nine rebounds in that game against Kentucky in Gainesville. He's had 42 points total since, and only matched the nine rebounds against Marquette.
Erik Murphy has pulled down 18 rebounds in his last two games, a new career high for rebounds in two consecutive games. He'll almost certainly establish a new career high for rebounds in three consecutive games against Louisville: his current mark is 22 rebounds, established in December.
Kenny Boynton, Florida's leading scorer, averages 16 points per game. He's topped that mark once, with 20 points against Norfolk State, since then.
Casey Prather exists now. He did not exist then, I believe. And he did this against Marquette:
Mike Rosario had a career-high two blocks against Marquette. He also did this:
Erving Walker has been maybe the most consistent Gator in that span. He has made three field goals in each of those games — no more, no less — and has taken from seven to 10 shots in them. And his three-pointer late against Marquette inspired the Florida bench to do this:
But it's Bradley Beal who is most important to this Florida team, because he's the best player on this roster — which has other NBA players, and maybe two of the top 20 players in Florida history — by a dizzying degree. His postseason stats, compiled by the Orlando Sentinel's Rachel George, are insane: 17 points per game, 8.2 rebounds per game, 53.8 percent shooting, 43.3 percent three-point shooting, and a 2.0 assist-to-turnover ratio.
I'm almost sure that Beal is the most talented player to ever don a Florida jersey, and I may well end up arguing that he's also the best. He does almost everything brilliantly, and what he doesn't do brilliantly, he does well.
The Alligator's Greg Luca is right that Beal is almost certainly NBA-bound, and Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy is right that Florida will go as far as Beal can carry it, and somewhere between those two views is the path to the sort of immortality no one but Carmelo Anthony has achieved, the road that leads Beal's Gators to a title.
Florida's playing very, very well, but it's not playing the brand of basketball we had grown accustomed to seeing the Gators play. These Gators gnash their teeth and run, scrap for rebounds, play defense like they value almost every possession, and have cut down on the lapses and silly errors and bad shots — and few of their good shots are even falling. There's significant room above the current water level here, and, after feeling like Florida had tapped its potential, I have seen the Gators play much better — but I still think Florida hasn't put it all together, and still believe the Gators are legitimate national championship contenders as is.
If I said this was anything other than enthralling, I'd be lying.
We've got a little more than 36 hours to wait until the most fascinating Florida team of the modern era continues emerging from the primordial muck. The Gators will probably either continue rounding into form against Louisville on Saturday or flame out at the Elite Eight stage for the second straight year.
But something is telling me that, for these Gators, the Elite Eight is not enough.