You remember the promos for Heroes that ran in 2006, right? "Save the Cheerleader, Save the World" was nebulously about how saving Hayden Panettiere's Claire was crucial to the Heroes universe, but ultimately became shorthand for performing any single task that produced a greater desired outcome.
Florida has that chance today: If the Gators beat the Wildcats, they will save their season.
I think we, as Gators fans, have largely come to terms with the likelihood of Florida falling short of our Final Four hopes, and perhaps even our Sweet Sixteen expectations. Patric Young's injury leading to stagnation and Will Yeguete's injury at the season's least opportune moment have hurt, and probably lowered the Gators' ceiling considerably; the ongoing inability to cobble together an offense that can create more shots than the occasional open three leaves Florida susceptible to the same sort of off night that led to losses early in the NCAA Tournament earlier this decade, to Temple and Manhattan and Creighton. This Florida team is exceedingly unlikely to play for a national title, much less win one, and I don't even think there's a sense that, as currently constructed, they're projected to do anything of the sort.
There's also no way that Florida is expected to upset Kentucky on this Sunday by more than a few irrational partisan loons; I asked about whether Gators fans believed that Florida would top the 'Cats on Twitter last night, and got chortled at repeatedly. Kentucky is simply better than Florida — national championship contenders with size are often in advantageous positions against Billy Donovan's Gators — and proved it in Lexington in February. Florida came out white-hot in that game, and UK simply shrugged off early struggles and threshed the Gators.
It might be harder to do that in the O'Dome and on Erving Walker's Senior Day — the lone remaining member of Florida's star-crossed 2008 recruiting class cannot possibly have a performance that is worse than his 0-for-7, two-turnover, one-assist night at Rupp was, right? — but there's little evidence to suggest that Florida fans should expect anything more than a slightly more entertaining sequel to the first Florida-Kentucky game that follows the same plot.
I want very badly for Florida to beat Kentucky: not because it helps Florida's case for a No. 5 or No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament; not because it changes the SEC Tournament seeding picture; not because the Kentucky return to the SEC penthouse has given the frighteningly fanatical Big Blue Nation more to slobber over than Adolph Rupp's long-buried glories and those folks could use the occasional jolt; not because this is the one rivalry that really matters for Florida men's basketball; not even because wiping the smirk of John Calipari's face is one of the best things any college basketball team can do. I want this because I want the Gators to exceed my expectations in at least one way this year, and leave me with a memory worth having.
For my money, Florida doesn't have that indelible memory yet. The Gators' wins over Florida State and Arizona early in the season were dominant and thrilling, respectively, and their throttlings of Texas A&M and Arkansas were fun, but the team has changed enough since even the Arkansas game that the current iteration of it seems like the most real version. It's going to be easy to take that Tuesday loss at Vanderbilt as the signature result of the year if Florida plays gamely and loses to Kentucky today, and if the Gators go down in flames, that disastrous trip to Lexington, a more high-profile beatdown at the hands of the unibrowed Anthony Davis and his merry band of championship contenders that came with Yeguete in the lineup, is likely to be the truly exasperating outcome of the year. The lone promising stat I can come up with for today? Florida has played Kentucky in its home finale five times under Billy Donovan, and the Gators are 4-1 in those games.
And so I expect something easier to swallow than a beatdown, but nothing less than a loss, and humbly request a confounding of expectations.
Florida taking down Kentucky is the biggest result that remains on the table for the Gators, and yet it's no more or less realistic than an improbable run in the SEC or NCAA Tournaments; if you believe in the power of the Florida crowd and the chances that Walker will play out of his mind in his final home game, you might think it's a lot more realistic. But it's not expected, and thus a win would be an upset to remember. With the very good chance that Kentucky will be raising a trophy at season's end, it might be a win over the eventual national champion.
Wouldn't that be exciting? Wouldn't that be a sweet turn of events? Wouldn't that be a reminder from a team that has been decimated by injury and betrayed by its nature that it is truly good, if only rarely? Wouldn't it be sweet redemption for Young to dominate Davis just once? Wouldn't it be good to recall that Bradley Beal got a big-time pelt in Gainesville before leaving to lay waste to the NBA? Wouldn't it speak well of Donovan's coaching and his team's heart for these Gators to spring this upset? Wouldn't it be a fitting exclamation point for Walker, the ultimate underdog waterbug scoring point guard for a school that has had a few?
Wouldn't it be enough to save Florida's season?
Today, Florida takes to the floor with its best remaining chance of the year to do something that will echo beyond it, and with the Gators looking more likely to give a performance that echoes their nightmarish outing in Lexington than anything else.
But if the Gators beat the Wildcats, they will save their season.