Oh, how times have changed for Florida basketball.
This Gators team has gone from being a trendy national championship pick to little more than an afterthought for most within a month. Going 1-4 in your last five road games will do that to you, especially when none of those opponents were even ranked. For whatever reason, the Gators just couldn't keep up the same level of success that they enjoyed throughout the first two thirds of the season at its end.
Of course, the same could be said about both of Florida's national championship teams.
Those UF teams were simply dispatching their opponents left and right (though not as badly as this year's team did) when they suddenly stalled and stumbled to the finish line. In particular, the 2005-06 team really tanked. That team was 17-0 before they forgot how to win a game. They fell into a 5-6 slump before recovering to win their last two regular season games, sweep through the SEC Tournament, and eventually the NCAA Tournament.
If those teams fell apart at the end of the regular season and won the SEC Championship, so can this year's team. The question is, does it really matter?
In terms of confidence, winning the SEC Championship means everything. Both national championship teams won their SEC Tournaments, which goes to show how confident they were for the big stages. It's a great chance to practice their plays and techniques, and get one more game of experience with their teammates against decent teams, especially in the later rounds.
But there's a different, even more important kind of practice the Gators are going to get.
There's no sugar coating this: The vast majority of the SEC's teams this year suck. Plain and simple. The SEC has five teams with losing records. Not even the Missouri Valley has that many (granted, there are fewer teams in the MVC, but still), and it's quite a shocking decline in SEC basketball from just a few short years ago.
However, of the 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament, about half of them "suck." too. Nobody in his or her right mind would argue that Liberty or Western Kentucky has any chance at winning the same prestigious championship that traditional powerhouses Kentucky, UConn, UCLA, Michigan State (and more recently, Florida) fight for every year. But that's the way it is, and while most of the masqueraders are weeded out in the first round or two, some pull off the upsets.
Upsets are what makes March Madness tick. Not even the 2012 Final Four could generate the buzz that Norfolk State and Lehigh did when they, as No. 15 seeds, defeated No. 2 seeds Missouri and Duke, respectively.
These were upsets for a reason: Lehigh and Norfolk State were not as talented, nor did they have as impressive of a regular season as their upset victims. Norfolk State had losses to a Division II team, Elizabeth City College, a Virginia Tech team that had a losing record, and a 18-15 Morehead State team, and got swept by a 15-14 Delaware State team. By comparison, Missouri was 30-4 in the powerful Big 12.
But in the NCAA Tournament, anything can happen on any given day. No. 15 seeds have a chance of winning their first round game as a No. 2 seed. Those little guys from the off-the-map conferences are just as much alive for a national championship as the big boys are, technically. Missouri and Duke must have forgotten that, and they were bounced in perhaps the two greatest first round upsets in NCAA Tournament history.
Since the winner of every conference tournament gets an automatic NCAA Tournament bid, each and every team in the SEC (and every conference) is very much alive for a national championship, which is why the favored team or the top seed rarely wins, because an underdog playing for its life knocks them off.
Despite this year's late collapse, Florida still figures to be a high seed. Barring a first round SEC Tourney exit, the Gators should be a No. 3 or a No. 4 seed. That means they would draw a No. 13 or No. 14 seed, likely from one of those aforementioned conferences. The profiles of those low seeds and the SEC's worst teams are nearly identical: Not particularly talented, or flashy, but good on guts and pride, and the refusal to give up or slow down when the favored team makes its run.
Florida, as the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament, will play the winner of the No. 8/No. 9 matchup, Georgia-LSU. Since neither of those teams are going to get at large bids, whichever team plays Florida will scratch and claw for 40 minutes against the Gators to keep their slim national championship hopes alive ... much like Iona or Belmont would in the NCAA Tournament.
Don't laugh it off. Florida could have very easily lost to Georgia in Athens, when the Bulldogs already knew they weren't going to get an at large berth in the Big Dance. What do you think would happen if the Gators sleepwalked like that again in the NCAA Tournament, where their first round opponent is dying to become the next Cinderella?
Don't even think for a second that Billy Donovan is immune to these early round upsets. In the five years between the Gators' appearance in the 2000 national championship game and the 2006 national championship, Florida made the tournament five times, and not once did they make it past the opening weekend. Think about that: Five straight NCAA Tournament bids, zero trips to the Sweet 16, and two first round losses to double-digit seeds. That's a history that's been papered over by the titles, but it's still part of Donovan's Florida tenure.
Make no mistake: This SEC Tournament means everything to Donovan in terms of building confidence in his players, and getting some practice in fending off modestly talented but feisty teams.
As he can attest to, it could mean the difference in losing in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament and winning it all. As a No. 3 seed, Florida has done both. It just so happens that the year in which they accomplished the latter as a three seed, they also won their conference tourney.
Let's hope that history repeats.