Florida fans have endured a Florida basketball season that has taken a path of peaks followed by valleys. Every big Florida win or winning streak has been followed by a loss — to Arizona, or Arkansas, or Kentucky, or Ole Miss — that smashes Florida's momentum.
And the way in which those losses — close, away from home, to inferior competition, with late-game woes — have come makes a lot of loyalists and observers skeptical about Florida, especially because they seem endemic to this core of players.
Despite all that, though, Florida has been very, very good this year. And its South Regional bracket is not terrifying. And the Gators have been to two straight Elite Eights. And, most of all, the numbers really favor Florida.
Let's go point by point with that.
Florida has been very, very good
You know this well: Florida is 26-1 in games decided by double digits, with the only loss coming on the road to Arkansas on a perfect storm night for the Razorbacks. (It's also 0-6 in games decided by single digits.) Two of those wins are over No. 3 seed Marquette and No. 5 seed Wisconsin (which Florida beat without Scottie Wilbekin or Casey Prather), two likely Sweet Sixteen teams; three more are over NCAA Tournament squads.
And four of the seven losses are to NCAA Tournament squads, with two others to teams just on the outside looking in, so Florida's a respectable 5-4 against NCAA Tournament teams, 1-0 against teams on the top three lines (and led Georgetown at the half without Wilbekin or Prather), 1-1 against the top four lines, 2-1 against the top five, and so on.
And three of the losses came without Will Yeguete, two since Yeguete's return as a diminished player, one without Michael Frazier, and one with Erik Murphy and Kenny Boynton both running to the locker room with injuries. (Yesterday was really weird, and Florida lost by three.)
Call the losses inexplicable (they're not) or inexcusable (they're not) if you want, but understand that Florida's are not the only ones that would completely befuddle a picker if she was looking at losses alone. And the wins are very good.
The South Region is not terrifying
Kansas is the No. 1 seed I am personally least scared of, because Kansas lost to TCU in the midst of a three-game losing streak and then got blown out by Baylor after getting its game together. Kansas' half of the bracket is also very difficult: Western Kentucky is not a good No. 16 seed, but North Carolina could definitely stress the Jayhawks, and the Sweet Sixteen matchup is rough, too: VCU has the system to stress anyone, much less a Kansas team with no true point guard, and Michigan's a fantastic offensive team. If Florida reaches the Elite Eight, it might not even be running into the South's top seed there, and though Florida would obviously face the same VCU or Michigan troubles, Kansas is the best team in the top half of the bracket.
Florida reaching the Elite Eight might not be that hard, either: Northwestern State has one prevailing skill, its nation-leading pace (72.9 possessions per game), and Florida is as well-equipped to shut down a running game or score with the Demons as anyone in the country. It's also worth noting that Stephen F. Austin, a very slow and very good defensive-minded team that is a) still not quite in Florida's weight class on defense and b) not in Florida's galaxy offensively, slowed down the Demons both in their three games and progressively over the course of the year, holding them to 70, 65, and 61 possessions — that last number even lower than Florida's average pace of 62.5 possessions per game.
If Florida wins that game, it gets either a wounded, Jordan Adams-less UCLA team that was lackadaisical even at full health or a Minnesota team that is 5-11 in its last 16 games, 7-11 in 2013, and a much better example of the "beats bad teams to a pulp, loses close to good teams" phenomenon that many fear in regards to Florida. I think Florida's a heavy favorite over both teams, and think Minnesota's more likely to advance, but I would much rather the Gators face Minnesota (or UCLA) than the murderers' row of Florida foes (Butler, Arizona, Middle Tennessee State) in No. 6 vs. No. 11 matchups elsewhere.
And then the prospective Sweet Sixteen matchup with Georgetown — and the Hoyas would have to collapse, which is possible but unlikely, to not make the Sweet Sixteen — is with a team Florida spent months or so scouting, one it was beating by four points despite an awful shooting environment. And the Gators did that without Wilbekin and Prather, while Georgetown has the same personnel (and a much better Otto Porter), so Georgetown's scouting advantage gets dulled a bit.
I'll take that road to the Final Four over every other No. 3 seed's path. And I might take it over every other No. 2 seed's route, too.
The Gators have been to two straight Elite Eights
Don't discount how much experience plays a role in some estimators' eyes. Kenny Boynton and Erik Murphy have each played in nine NCAA Tournament games; Patric Young and Scottie Wilbekin have played in eight. Casey Prather's been in five, Mike Rosario four, and Will Yeguete three (and, without an injury, would have been in four more last year). This is not a young team, or an inexperienced one, and the core has been part of Florida teams that have beaten a lot of different teams (plodding 2012 Virginia, talented 2011 UCLA, Jimmer-led 2011 BYU) in March.
You could make the argument, in fact, that Florida's more ready for the NCAA Tournament than any other team, considering how well these Gators know that it is their most important test, and how well they know the pain of losing in it.
The numbers (and thus, Vegas) love Florida
I've written this again and again, but I'm not the only one writing it: Florida's the best team in the country if you look at efficiency, which, for most people familiar with advanced basketball stats, is the best way to look at performance. ESPN's John Gasaway wrote this again yesterday; SI.com's Luke Winn makes note of it in his tourney preview; if you honestly choose teams using The Wall Street Journal's awesome blind bracket predictor, you're going to have a hard time not advancing Florida deep into the Tournament.
Honest probabilistic estimations of Florida's chances, though, will also find the Gators winning their way to Atlanta more often than not: The log5 chances of Florida making the Final Four are very good, and famed statistician Nate Silver has Florida with great Final Four odds...
South Final 4 Odds: Florida 37%, Kansas 32%, Michigan 13%, Georgetown 7%, VCU 3%, Minnesota 2%, UNC 2%— Nate Silver (@fivethirtyeight) March 18, 2013
... and the third-best chance of winning it all. And Las Vegas agrees, with Florida sitting with short 8-1 or 10-1 odds to win the national title at many books.
If you don't think people should pay attention to "math guys", you might have an argument, especially pertaining to Florida. If you think people don't look at advanced stats or Vegas odds, you're just wrong: KenPom.com wouldn't have crashed on Sunday night if it hadn't had a ton of traffic coming in.
You may have friends who aren't part of Gator Nation, and you may thus be put in the unenviable position of talking people out of putting Florida in the Final Four. I'll give you good reasons to do that later this week.
But, for now: You can see why they have those questions in the first place, right?