Today, Florida will either make its first Final Four in six years, finally reaching the goal a team has strived for three years to achieve, or lose its third straight Elite Eight game, and join the ranks of sports' biggest almosts. Those are the cold truths of the two poles of possibility for these Gators, and neither is fair.
Kenny Boynton will make his 13th NCAA Tournament start today, and claim sole possession of that record, which he previously shared with Lee Humphrey. Boynton and Humphrey are not so different, except for what they were expected to be. Humphrey was the fifth-best player on a team that had its four other starters selected in the 2007 NBA Draft, three in the first 10 picks, and needed only to be a deadeye shooter; Boynton was the savior for a team that had fallen on hard times after it, a one-and-done prospect who morphed into Florida's career leader in minutes played and just the third Gator to top 2,000 points in a career over his four years in Gainesville. Boynton's career is not a failure if he and Florida lose today; it will only seem like it.
Erik Murphy and Patric Young will make their eighth starts in NCAA Tournament games today, and took divergent roads to get to this point. Murphy is the tall, slender stretch forward who has added one tool after another to his repertoire on the court and played his way into being an NBA prospect; Young is the super-athletic center with focus problems and a limited offensive game who has likely played his way out of the lottery. Both of them will be looking to redeem themselves after last year's debacle against Louisville, in which Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan ate up the Gators inside with little resistance from the only frontcourt players Florida had. Neither would have failed in his career if Florida loses today; it'll only seem like it.
Florida wouldn't even be here if it weren't for Mike Rosario, making his fourth NCAA Tournament start today. Rosario helped Florida build its enormous lead against Minnesota, one that the Gators needed when things went awry in the second half, and helped steady the ship against Florida Gulf Coast. He is Florida's go-to scorer, the one who takes a modified set shot on his threes, and yet he is not the scorer he was when he emerged from high school as the future of Rutgers basketball, nor the player he was when he came to Florida with the same roguish approach he tried in Piscataway. Rosario's changed, and for the better, and now talks about "accountability" and sits with Billy Donovan for interviews to give coach-approved quotes and plays defense about as hard as anyone on his great defensive team. The mischief hasn't been fully managed, but it's been channeled, into plays like the game-sealing trick he pulled against Florida Gulf Coast on Friday. Rosario's career won't be a failure if Florida loses today, no matter how hard some try to paint it as such.
Scottie Wilbekin will be making his fourth NCAA Tournament start today, while Will Yeguete will play in his sixth game, and Casey Prather his ninth. None of them will end their careers today, and that's good, but none of them will have this team and this core, which is making a third straight deep run into the NCAA Tournament in an era when great teams don't have cores for more than a year and programs generally don't produce consistent success in the NCAA Tournament without that model. And that's a good thing for them, because all three have improved, and all will likely continue to improve as seniors in 2013-14, and get to play on a team with more great talent than this Florida outfit has. But, even if the final judgment on their careers isn't issued today, the questions about their fortitude will only grow louder if they stay on the outside looking in at Atlanta.
Michael Frazier's too young to have been here before. He's the guy who doesn't know the pressure of the last game of a career or the Elite Eight just yet. He's lucky; every other Gator is unlucky.
Florida is, I believe, one of the best two or three college basketball teams in the country, and wasn't in 2012 or 2011. Florida's playing a better Elite Eight foe today in Michigan than it did in those years, but the improvement of Florida's defense, so excellent this season, likely outweighs the upgrade in opponent. Were I not a Florida fan, I would have no problem whatsoever picking Florida to win this game.
But I am a Florida fan, and so not only am I worried about this game, I'm worried about our players.
Two weeks ago, ESPN's Jay Bilas talked to Dan Le Batard on his Dan Le Batard is Highly Questionable, and talked about being a failure.
Bilas' most important observation was this:
I could've done better. And it's just ... I don't feel regret, you know — I mean, I'll never let go of the loss we had in the NCAA championship game. That'll never go away. It's still as sharp now as it was when we lost.
Every time I go to the Final Four, the feeling of walking off that floor having lost the championship game is really sharp. It's really sharp.
I don't think I'll ever get used to the idea that we lost that game. ... I don't think the pain of losing ever goes away.
Bilas has gone on to have tremendous success in and around basketball, as a coach and a broadcaster. He was later part of titles at Duke, and has now written a best-selling book. He has had, by virtually any standard, a fantastic life.
And 30 years after one of the saddest moments of his life, he still hasn't come to terms with it.
This is what faces Florida today, the prospect of an inconsolable moment that becomes an unforgettable one. Young and Yeguete looked shattered after losing the SEC Tournament final to Mississippi two Sundays ago; surely, they would take a loss here hard. Boynton slumped in his locker after 2012's loss, and no amount of Young Jeezy could make him hard enough to take this punch and roll with it. Murphy and Rosario have worked so hard to become who they are today that it wouldn't surprise me if either or both cries with a loss.
Reaching the Elite Eight ain't enough to salve the wounds of the past. Checking out at the Elite Eight would only make them deeper.
So Florida has one option today that will prevent psychic scars: Don't settle for this.
I don't think these Gators will.