Florida and Florida Gulf Coast are both good basketball teams. I'd even argue that both are very good, at least on their good days. But Florida is better than FGCU.
And the Gators are going to win their Sweet Sixteen matchup with the Eagles on Friday night, and move on to the Elite Eight for the third consecutive year. Here are 16 reasons why.
1. Scottie Wilbekin will be hell on Brett Comer.
Wilbekin's prowess as a defender is no secret to Florida fans, the lucky few who have seen him up close (myself included) especially, but he's underappreciated nationally because Aaron Craft exists. No matter: Wilbekin's been incredible against good point guards this year, shutting down Marquette's Junior Cadougan, Missouri's Phil Pressey, and Tennessee's Trae Golden, and limiting Middle Tennessee's backcourt and Kentucky's Archie Goodwin.
Those point guards aren't great, but neither is Comer: His fantastic 44.9 percent Assist Rate, second nationally, is tempered by a massive 29.4 Turnover Rate. To his credit, Comer's had 24 assists and just five turnovers in FGCU's last two games, but he's turned it over repeatedly in the Eagles' losses (six to VCU, five to Duke, 11 in two losses to Lipscomb) and helped make game after game close with them. He's more likely to cough up four turnovers than two, especially against Wilbekin, and a bad night from him likely clips the Eagles' wings early.
2. There's no go-to trouble producer for Florida Gulf Coast.
Florida has struggled with a certain kind of scoring guard — Kansas State's Rodney McGruder, Arkansas' B.J. Young, Tennessee's Jordan McRae, Missouri's Jabari Brown, Mississippi's Marshall Henderson — this year, because there's a dearth of good defenders for tall wings on this team. Casey Prather is probably the best tall wing defender, but he is still not used on wings very often; Wilbekin is an excellent wing defender, but is 6'2" and not particularly long-limbed, and though he did well against Texas A&M's Elston Turner, Henderson's quick release and McRae's athleticism helped them get their points.
Sherwood Brown is FGCU's closest facsimile, at 6'4", but 83 percent of his threes are assisted (82 percent of Mike Rosario's are), suggesting he's mostly coming off screens, though he's dropped a couple of isolation bombs lately. Wilbekin will likely be on Comer most of the night, leaving Brown to either Rosario or Kenny Boynton, but Wilbekin could start on Brown and leave Boynton and Rosario to Comer and Bernard Thompson, and the three could switch assignments all night, because none of those FGCU guards is a clear mismatch for a Florida player. And none is likely to repeat Andre Hollins' barrage of threes.
And the lack of a terrifying possibility is a good thing.
3. Erik Murphy is going to make a mismatch happen.
Florida has a walking mismatch in every game, however, in Murphy. Florida opponents have done a good job of limiting him from deep, forcing him to burn Northwestern State and Minnesota inside (33 points in 52 minutes on 18 shots combined despite just seven threes attempted), but Northwestern State was more than fast enough to limit transition and trailer threes, and Minnesota left Rodney Williams on him in the first half and didn't have to guard him in the second half because of foul trouble.
Chase Fieler's probably going to be on Murphy much of the night, and while he has the athleticism to worry his threes, he gives up two inches and about 40 pounds, and could well be bullied inside. If FGCU tries the taller Eric McKnight on Murphy, Patric Young has a huge advantage on Fieler or Eddie Murray. There's going to be a weakness to exploit somewhere up front for most of the night.
4. Dunk City should be limited in transition.
With all due respect to Georgetown, the Hoyas looked lost against Florida Gulf Coast, especially in transition. Comer threw up alleys from odd angles that got ooped by unchecked rim-runners. Brown and Thompson got easy threes. San Diego State played better transition defense, but gave up 17 turnovers, fodder for easy buckets, and didn't stop many easy baskets, allowing FGCU to make 26 of 41 two-pointers and put in a combined 12 layups, dunks, and tip shots in a 47-point second half.
Florida doesn't really go for that.
The Gators typically get back in transition very well, even on live-ball turnovers: According to Hoop-Math, in the first 10 seconds after a defensive rebound, opponents take just 35 percent of their shot attempts at the rim; in the first 10 seconds after a steal, or on live-ball turnovers, the figure's just 62 percent. FGCU's offensive numbers in those two situations are 46 and 77 percent. And those shot types make up 25 percent of FGCU's attempts; they're just 20 percent of the shots Florida concedes.
Add in Florida having a week of practices stressing the importance of getting back in transition and a week of hearing nothing but references to Dunk City, and I'll bet the Gators beat feet while setting their defense.
5. Florida was excellent on offense again last weekend — and in a new way.
Florida scored better than 1.2 points per possession against both Northwestern State and Minnesota last weekend (especially impressive given all four halves had very different rhythms, if you ask me), topping that 1.2 mark in back-to-back games after topping it just once since February. And the Gators did it with Boynton being quiet in both games, Young being invisible (just two shots!) against Minnesota, and Michael Frazier scoring zero points in those two games.
Rosario probably won't go off for 25 points against FGCU like he did against Minnesota. Murphy probably won't be quite as efficient without taking more threes. Florida is very unlikely to take 36 free throws, its total against the Gophers, again, and might not even get the 23 it got against Northwestern State — but playing with better officials calling a tighter game has produced two of Florida's nine best Free Throw Rate performances in two tries.
Adding new things during the NCAA Tournament has become a Florida habit — drawing free throws this year, Prather going off last year, Alex Tyus being suddenly awesome at basketball two years ago — and the best thing about it is that doing so does not invalidate previous ways to win, but instead adds more things for opponents to worry about.
6. Florida Gulf Coast has played above its head to get here.
It is a great thing that the two finest and most exciting games of Florida Gulf Coast's season have come in their last two games. That is worth praising, especially because the key to winning the NCAA Tournament is playing really well on a consistent basis; for two games, the Eagles have been consistently very good.
Going beyond a two-game sample size suggests that FGCU's consistency might not last.
Its nonconference schedule provides a handful of good indications of this: VCU spanked the Eagles by 23 in Richmond one game before they beat Miami by 12 at home. (Miami shot a tiny bit worse in that game than NAIA Ave Maria did in the game immediately after it, and was without Durand Scott, too.) FGCU played respectably on offense and terribly on defense against Duke in a 21-point loss at Cameron, then made 18 of 52 shots against Alcorn State in its next game ... and got a two-point home win. One game after allowing Loyola's smallest Offensive Efficiency of the year, the Eagles got whacked by 11 at Iowa State. And FGCU lost to an 11-19 Maine team in nonconference play, too.
It's also not like FGCU remedied all those problems in Atlantic Sun play. Over an eight-game stretch in January, the Eagles allowed, in order, Offensive Efficiencies of 76.2, 108.5, 94.0, 129.2, 109.2, 85.1, 83.9, and 108.9. Six of those games were wins; the two losses were to East Tennessee State, the second-worst A-Sun team, and to Lipscomb at home. After losing to ETSU on the road, FGCU hammered the Buccaneers by 24 at home; after beating South Carolina Upstate by a point on the road, the Eagles skunked them by 25 at home. Both of the two Lipscomb losses came with 31 free throws for the Bisons.
Florida Gulf Coast came into the NCAA Tournament after beating up on a weak conference despite inconsistency. That isn't the profile of a consistently very good team; it's the profile of a talented that that can play very good basketball on an irregular basis. So far, for two games, the Eagles have done that. That is not necessarily a guarantee they will do so in the third, and I would feel way more confident in thinking they will if they had done that regularly this year.
7. Billy Donovan doesn't lose with rest in March.
A quick word about conference tournaments: They make little sense to me as determinants of champions, even if they're a ton of fun. College basketball teams play, at most, five or six games with less than 30 hours' rest in a typical season, in an early nonconference tournament and then not again until March. Florida won three in a row with good teams from 2005 to 2007, but hasn't won one since, and didn't even play in the final as a result of the SEC's seeding rules because it had to see the best team in the country in the second round. (That best team in the country, Kentucky, would then lose the final, its first SEC loss in 19 games against SEC teams. The automatic bid going to Vanderbilt didn't matter last year, because both teams were safely in the NCAA Tournament ... but Mississippi probably stole a spot with its win this year. My head hurts.)
But in the NCAA Tournament, which allows and rewards preparation on more normal turnarounds, Billy Donovan's teams have been exceptional.
Florida is 18-4 in round of 64, Sweet Sixteen, and Final Four games (the ones that don't come on 48-hour turnarounds) under Donovan, and none with a Florida team that had better than a No. 5 seed. (Donovan's losses on extra prep: Gonzaga in the Sweet Sixteen as a No. 6 seed in 1999; Creighton in the first round as a No. 5 in 2002; Manhattan in the first round as a No. 5 in 2004; BYU as a No. 10 in 2010.) And its five Sweet Sixteen victories under Donovan are over a staggering list of excellent programs: Duke in 2000, Georgetown in 2006, Butler (pre-Brad Stevens, but still) in 2007, BYU (with Jimmer Fredette at full Jimmer) in 2011, and Marquette in 2012.
Florida Gulf Coast may give Florida a game on Friday night, but it's a really safe bet that Florida's not underestimating or poorly prepping for the Eagles, given that Donovan history.
8. Florida has been focused. What about Florida Gulf Coast?
This is probably far more important than we think, though there's no good way of quantifying how having to take just a three-hour bus ride from subregional to regional site on the Monday helps. We just know that Florida was where it needed to be under 24 hours after beating Minnesota on Sunday, while Florida Gulf Coast took Monday off, had a "just okay" practice on Tuesday, and didn't get to Dallas until Wednesday. Here's Chase Fieler on FGCU's week:
It was a busy week, just with the attention and the media being around. And the students were excited about what's going on and talking to us. We know we'll miss a lot of school, and trying to catch up on that, trying to catch up from before. Between with the schoolwork and the media and everyone trying to talk to us, it was very exciting.
When I made the argument for Florida Gulf Coast enjoying this week, I was making it in sincerity, but I selfishly want a team that is just happy to be on a stage that proves too big for it across the field from Florida in every important game. I want the Eagles cognizant of the fact that they've made history, not desperate to move on.
Florida didn't have ESPN cutting into a pep rally this week. Donovan didn't have to answer questions about his contract or his wife. Every one of the Gators who is likely to play, with the exception of Frazier, has been to the Sweet Sixteen twice before. They know this stage, and what it takes to get to the next one, and they're probably more than a little peeved about little brother coming along and stealing some of their sunshine, and they definitely know that a Sweet Sixteen loss makes this season unsuccessful.
I think that favors Florida. Heavily.