Florida's third straight Elite Eight run has brought it to the same precipice that it faced in 2011 and 2012, and a roadblock that isn't too different from the ones set before it in Butler and Louisville the last two seasons: After three games against somewhat overwhelmed foes, the Gators must now beat a very good team for a Final Four berth.
In fact, Michigan might be the best of those three teams: 2011 Butler was no one's idea of a great team entering the NCAA Tournament, then reeled off five wins by eight or fewer points before a horrific final performance; Louisville had a smothering defense for the entirety of 2012, as Rick Pitino's teams usually do, but couldn't score consistently, then turned in one of their finest offensive performances of the year against Florida, scoring at will down the stretch.
Michigan is about as good on offense as Louisville was on defense last year, and about as good at defense — its presumed weakness, and for good reason — as Butler was at both offense and defense in 2011. Michigan is also ensconced in a halo of clutchness, coming off a Louisville-like charge to steal a game against Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen, and will have the most talented player on the floor today in Trey Burke.
But I have thought Michigan would not make it to the Final Four all year, and I think Michigan can be beaten. Here are the four best ways Florida can make that happen today.
1. Scottie Wilbekin can keep Trey Burke in check.
I sing Scottie Wilbekin's praises more than anyone else I have seen on the Internet, and I'm consistently impressed by almost everything he does. He has become a calmer, more competent point guard than I thought possible, is perhaps Florida's best penetrator on a team with two other guards who have been occasionally fantastic at creating, and is a ferocious defender who tends not to give up easy looks even after he's looped around a couple of screens on a possession.
But Burke's better than Wilbekin, and significantly so. Burke might be the best player in college basketball this year, and will have a long NBA future ahead of him. Burke will almost certainly be Wilbekin's biggest challenge this season, and perhaps the biggest one of his entire collegiate career.
I still think Scottie can stalemate him.
Burke's NCAA Tournament, for all his heroics on Friday night, has been underwhelming. He went 2-for-12 against South Dakota State, and 6-for-14 against VCU, with seven turnovers, before going 9-for-21 against Kansas, and he had to make five of his last seven shots to even get to that point. (That spectacular overtime-forcing three? It made Burke 7-for-17 on the night.)
And South Dakota State's no great shakes on defense, and VCU didn't have its best defender for most of that game, and no Kansas guard is Wilbekin's equal. I'm not sure Scottie will be able to hold off Burke, but I'm sure he can.
2. Patric Young can take Mitch McGary as a challenge, and beat him.
Young and McGary are far more similar than two players who look as different as they do would suggest: Both have driven fans and coaches nuts with effort issues, both have limited offensive games (Young has about two post moves; McGary's offense is what happens when a Great Dane learns to play basketball), and both can be absolutely devastating when they're on.
McGary's the better pro prospect, given that he's taller, has been on a tear of late (15.6 points and 11.2 rebounds per game in his last five), and rebounds ferociously (seventh in offensive rebounding rate nationally, 91st in defensive rebounding rate), but Young's the better defender by a significant margin, and has dominated players in the post often this season. The trick with McGary is that he won't just be posting up, but coming off screens and rolling to the hoop, forcing an oft-winded Pat to keep up with him by running around on defense while still setting picks to facilitate Florida's offense.
Again, while I don't know if Young will top McGary, I think he can, especially given that Michigan has McGary and little else inside (Jordan Morgan is shorter than Young; Jon Horford, Al's little brother, will have a hell of a time against Florida's older, bulkier front line), while Pat can rely on Erik Murphy for help, and get spelled by pesky defender Will Yeguete or athletic freak Casey Prather. Young's the key, though, and if he can keep McGary off the offensive glass (as he's done to every other team in this tournament), Florida gets a significant edge.
3. Florida can put on a bravura defensive performance.
My drumbeat about Billy Donovan putting an emphasis on defense this year probably pales in comparison to the constant chorus about defense in practice for the Gators, especially in preparing for Michigan, the nation's No. 1 in adjusted offensive efficiency. But it bears repeating: The 0.90 points per possession bar that Donovan set for the Gators has been magical, as Florida is 24-0 when holding teams under 0.9 PPP and 5-8 when it hasn't.
Michigan's a mirror image of Florida on offense, and will look to avoid bad shots, take threes in bunches, and run efficient offense that tries to get easy points in transition. But Michigan will try to get good shots especially in semi-transition: The Wolverines take 18 percent of their shot attempts within 10 seconds of defensive rebounds, according to Hoop-Math, and shoot 45 percent on threes in that situation.
After allowing 15 points in five minutes to Florida Gulf Coast on Friday night, Florida gave up 35 in the other 35. But the Gators were murderous in the half court all night, and really only got burned FGCU trailer threes and shots at the rim in transition and semi-transition. Michigan will try to do those same things, but with more talent and better shooters, and Florida will probably have to play as well as or better than it did against the Eagles just to keep the Wolverines under 1.0 PPP.
If they can keep Michigan under 0.9, somehow, they're going to win: Michigan's 0-3 when under 0.9 PPP on offense this year, and 1-4 under 1.0. But if Michigan's offense is clicking, Florida is in trouble: Big Blue is 27-1 when at or above 1.1 PPP.
4. Florida can go off.
Florida's NCAA Tournament has been schizophrenic, to say the least, so far: The Gators did a terrible job of defending Northwestern State for almost an entire half, then shut the Demons down completely; they were white-hot against Minnesota for a half, then very cold for another; they dug a huge early hole against Florida Gulf Coast by opening that game even colder than they finished the Minnesota game, then fought back with defense, but never pulled all the way away, and made just four threes on the night.
If Florida plays a complete offensive and defensive game against the Wolverines, it will go to the Final Four.
All the words written about how Florida's the best team in the country by advanced stats users, myself included, have focused on how incredibly good the Gators can be on both offense and defense at their best. Florida has 13 games of 1.2+ PPP on offense (No. 1 offense Michigan also has 13), and 13 games of 0.8 or fewer PPP on defense (No. 1 Louisville has 11); six of those performances have come in the same game, and Florida's beaten its opponents by an average of 37.8 points per game (this isn't a misprint) in those outings.
The catch to that dominance: The best of the opponents beaten by these parameters was Georgia. The caveat to the catch: Florida beat Marquette and Missouri by 30+ by outscoring both by more than 0.43 PPP.
Simply, when Florida is at its absolute best, no bad team is even touching the Gators, and no good team has much of a chance, either. And one of those six especially dominant games happened just nine days ago against Northwestern State despite Florida playing ragged defense for a half, so it's not as if the Gators haven't shown that potential lately.
If they put it all together, the Gators will definitely punch a ticket to Atlanta. I think they can, and just might.