Florida is looking for its fourth straight trip to the Sweet Sixteen in Saturday's first game of 2014 NCAA Tournament action. To get it, the Gators will need to get past the toughest test they have seen in the round of 32 since the last time they won a national title, one that begins bright and early at 12:15 p.m. on CBS.
Florida's remarkable run of recent NCAA Tournament success has been aided significantly by victories from some iffy teams. 2010-11 UCLA was a No. 7 seed, and met the No. 2-seeded Gators in Tampa, but it had 10 losses coming into that game, finished with 11, and ended up outside the top 50 in the final KenPom rankings of 2011. 2011-12 Norfolk State was a No. 15 seed, through to the round of 32 to see No. 7 Florida after a monumental upset of No. 2 Missouri, and the Trojans were bad, and played poorly, getting pasted by 34. 2012-13 Florida saw No. 11 Minnesota thanks to the Gophers' win over UCLA in the round of 64 — a game so bad that both coaches would end up getting fired — and took Tubby Smith's team apart in the back ends of both halves.
So Pittsburgh will be the first single-digit seed Florida has seen before the Sweet Sixteen in three years. It will also be the most dangerous round of 32 opponent this team's core of seniors has ever seen.
The Panthers looked mighty impressive in their game against Colorado on Thursday, and especially in the first half. They made everything while the Buffs made nothing, turned over Colorado's hapless guards repeatedly, and stormed out to a 46-18 lead that made the entire second half an exercise in playing out the string; I was there, and the second 20 minutes of that game could not possibly have felt more airless.
The Panthers have been capable of performances like that all year, and don't rank No. 14 in KenPom through March 21 for nothing. Their offense is 17th nationally in adjusted efficiency, and their defense is 26th, and they thrashed decent teams in non-conference play before beginning a streak of close losses against NCAA Tournament teams that began with a 44-43 loss to Cincinnati in the early game of a Madison Square Garden doubleheader that also featured the Gators beating Memphis, got its lone exception in ACC play with a win over N.C. State, and was studded with six losses to NCAA Tournament-bound teams, only one by more than double digits.
But Pitt finally got a signature win in an ACC Tournament quarterfinal against North Carolina last Friday, then played Virginia — a No. 1 seed like Florida, if not quite as good as the Gators — tight in an ACC Tournament semifinal loss, before plastering Colorado. The Panthers are now both "hot" and "battle-tested" in various senses that have made them a trendy upset pick over the last 44 hours, or since Albany scared Florida with hot shooting and smart execution of a great gameplan, resulting in "just" a 12-point win for the Gators.
Since that upset bid fell well short of the mark, three other teams with Pythagorean ratings above .9400 have been in dogfights — Louisville with Manhattan, Arizona with Weber State, Virginia for a half against lowly Coastal Carolina — which has helped get the Gators to No. 1 in KenPom for the first time this season.
But Florida struggled in that win over Albany, though, I thought. pic.twitter.com/o5kfIxYeJz— Alligator Army (@AlligatorArmy) March 22, 2014
And Florida's coaches and players looked all sorts of displeased with how close that Albany game was — you know, the one that wasn't really as close as the final margin indicates. They knew in the moment that their defense was subpar because of subpar effort, and that their offense was not as efficient or as balanced as it could have been; they know enough to have worked on all that over the last 36 hours, and to have retuned their gears for a faster start against the Panthers than their first few minutes of somnambulence against Albany.
Florida will have to worry about Lamar Patterson, Pitt's fringe ACC Player of the Year candidate, who can slash and finish, drive and kick, and shoot with equal efficiency. It will have to guard against the larcenous Cameron Wright, 30th nationally in Steal Percentage, and off a three-steal day against Colorado. It will be tasked with hemming up point guard James Robinson, who avoids turnovers well, and shadowing Josh Newkirk, the only Panthers player shooting better than 40 percent from three, and battling Talib Zanna, a rugged forward who batters most frontcourts.
But the Gators need to play better for themselves and for each other, mostly, and have done so after close calls this season, notably throttling LSU after a near-loss at Vanderbilt and crushing Georgia after a close win at Arkansas. With a Florida-favoring crowd that should be at or near full throat, the Gators have a chance to say goodbye to the Sunshine State on the floor in one final hurrah in Orlando on Saturday.
I think they will fare well in their farewell.
Once again, I'm going to be out of pocket during the game, because I'll be at it, and tweeting plenty of updates. But I will have a recap up today.
Feel free to use this as an open thread for the entire day.
|South||Pittsburgh Panthers (9) vs. Florida Gators (1)||Amway Center (Orlando, FL)||12:15 p.m.||CBS||Brian Anderson/Dan Bonner//Kristine Leahy|
|MidWest||Saint Louis Billikens (5) vs. Louisville Cardinals (4)||Amway Center (Orlando, FL)||2:45 p.m.||CBS||Anderson/Bonner//Leahy)|
|MidWest||Texas Longhorns (7) vs. Michigan Wolverines (2)||BMO Harris Bradley Center (Milwaukee, WI)||5:15 p.m.||CBS||Ian Eagle/Jim Spanarkel//Lewis Johnson|
|West||North Dakota State Bison (12) vs. New Mexico State Aggies (13) / San Diego State Aztecs (4)||Spokane Memorial Arena (Spokane, WA)||6:10 p.m.||TNT||Spero Dedes/Doug Gottlieb//Jaime Maggio|
|South||Dayton Flyers (11) vs. Syracuse Orange (3)||First Niagara Center (Buffalo, NY)||7:10 p.m.||TBS||Verne Lundquist/Bill Raftery//Allie LaForce|
|West||Oregon Ducks (7) vs. Wisconsin Badgers (2)||BMO Harris Bradley Center (Milwaukee, WI)||7:45 p.m.||CBS||Ian Eagle/Jim Spanarkel//Lewis Johnson|
|East||Harvard Crimson (12) vs. Michigan State Spartans (4)||Spokane Memorial Arena (Spokane, WA)||8:40 p.m.||TNT||Spero Dedes/Doug Gottlieb//Jaime Maggio|
|East||Connecticut Huskies (7) vs. Villanova Wildcats (2)||First Niagara Center (Buffalo, NY)||9:40 p.m.||TBS||Verne Lundquist/Bill Raftery//Allie LaForce|