Florida's gotten its happy ever afters at the expenses of Cinderellas before.
In 2006, Florida ended George Mason's improbable fairy tale in Indianapolis, downing the Patriots in a hail of Lee Humphrey threes. That was after Florida met and mauled Milwaukee — then UW-Milwaukee — in the round of 32.
In 2007, Florida played Butler in the Sweet Sixteen in Todd Lickliter's last season in Indianapolis, and would only pull away late for an eight-point win.
In 2012, Florida met No. 15 seed Norfolk State in the round of 32 after the Spartans' colossal upset of Missouri, and ushered them out of the Big Dance with a 34-point blowout.
In 2013, Florida met two Cinderellas, and left both cindered: The Gators topped No. 11 seed Minnesota, just off an upset of UCLA, in the round of 32, then met one of the greatest Cinderellas of the modern era, No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast, in the Sweet Sixteen. Both teams fell to the Gators by double digits.
It suffices to say that Florida has left Cinderellas crying and slippers smashed over much of the last eight years — if you're trying to only tell one side of the story.
But that's not fair to the Cinderellas that have conked Florida more often than you think.
Florida's history with Cinderellas dates back to 1999, more or less. The Gators were a Cinderella of sorts in 1994, but they were also the SEC champions for that Final Four run; prior to that, they just hadn't made the kind of NCAA Tournament runs necessary to be or see the sparkles.
In the 1999 NCAA Tournament, Florida survived Weber State — and Harold "The Show" Arceneaux — one game after the Wildcats became the first and only team to hand North Carolina a loss in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in the 64-team era, but needed overtime to do so.
And then the Gators gave the world Gonzaga:
Yes, that's Gus Johnson way back when. Yes, that "The slipper STILL FITS!" is a tremendous call. No, that doesn't make Florida losing to Gonzaga in the Sweet Sixteen — forking over what remains the Zags' only Sweet Sixteen win — any less painful for the fans of the team that did it.
In 2000, Florida used Butler, one of the quintessential Cinderellas, to propel itself to the NCAA Tournament final. The Gators' scare against the Bulldogs wouldn't be repeated from there on in, as Florida knocked off Illinois, Duke, Oklahoma State, and North Carolina on the way to its first title game appearance.
Between that and the 2007 loss, though, Butler was due for revenge, and got it in 2011, storming back from a big deficit in the second half to shock Florida in the Elite Eight and make its second straight Final Four at the Gators' expense.
And between 2000's NCAA Tournament final run and 2006's NCAA Tournament title, Florida donated a lot of losses to Cinderellas. One went to Temple in 2001, as the Elite Eight-bound Owls held Florida to the program's worst scoring day in an NCAA Tournament game in a round of 32 win. Another went to Creighton, which got its only pre-Doug McDermott NCAA Tournament win of the 21st century over the Gators in 2002, behind Terrell Taylor's 28 points and game-winning three in double overtime. A third went to Manhattan, and Luis Flores, which got its only NCAA Tournament win this century against the Gators in 2004.
By 2005, it was a bit of a relief to lose to Villanova: At least it wasn't a big upset, we thought.
Florida's run against mid-majors — the true Cinderellas — since that blip is either one of two things: 1) Florida's karma coming back around to help the Gators, except in the case of Butler or 2) Florida being the better-funded, better-coached, more talented, and better team in those games. I'd lean toward the latter, but it's clear that Florida's had its share of bad days against mid-majors and its share of good ones, something a phrase like #WeSmashSlippers doesn't really convey.
And that phrase — arrogant like Florida is at its eviscerating best — doesn't convey the deep respect I have for mid-major programs that survive on relative scraps and scrap to get here. Kyle Whelliston, proprietor of The Mid-Majority and erstwhile best sportswriter working, has been the bard and troubador teacher for scores of mid-majors over the last decade, and made an improbable return to the Internet this week to chronicle Dayton's run. When I asked him for his thoughts on Florida, he gave the perfect vulgar response:
@AndyHutchins Honestly, I don’t give enough of a fuck about Florida to do that.— The Dayton-Majority (@midmajority) March 28, 2014
Vulgar, the word, is misunderstood and misused: It, yes, means "offensive in language," but it derives from the Latin vulgaris, meaning "of the mob" — things that are "vulgar" aren't bad, just common. The Vulgate, or the first Bible in Latin, was the definitive text of Christianity for about a thousand years.
Whelliston was both "vulgar" and vulgar — and he should have been, as the voice of the people who root for teams with purse strings tied as tightly as their players' arms on the sidelines are locked in the final seconds of a nail-biter.
Florida's probably going to beat Dayton, because Florida is a better team than Dayton, and matches up well with a smallish squad that has done an excellent job of forcing other teams to try to shoot it down; Florida is, in a lot of ways, the grown-up, moneyed version of Dayton.
Whelliston and The Mid-Majority have long and rightly decried "sportz" and "the Sports Bubble" — terms for the growing creep of ESPN-driven sensationalism that distracts from the games being played, and the bubble built on the ever-growing popularity of sports, and ever-rising costs of participating in the sports-industrial complex — and Florida is what Davids sling stones at, hoping they fell the Nike-clad, ESPN-beloved, money-soaked giant.
Florida, too, has seniors who have given their lives to basketball, who have suffered heartbreaks on courts and heartaches on the road back to the Elite Eight year after year. Florida's players have put in work beyond lifting silver spoons to mouths, and the Gators have earned much of what they have done — especially this year, in what has been the best season in school history.
And it wasn't that long ago, before Billy Donovan, before Lon Kruger, even before Norm Sloan, that Florida was just an also-ran program in a league run by Kentucky. Before football ruled all, and Florida occasionally ruled football, the Gators were not Goliath.
But there's no escaping today's truth: Florida, with an eight-figure budget and a seven-figure coach, is Goliath. Dayton, with a double-digit seed and a seven-figure budget, is David. No one but Goliath's own family roots for Goliath — and even I'm a little conflicted today.
Can you cheer for Goliath when he is family? Can you cheer for Goliath when Cinderella feels like family? Can you cheer for Goliath when you know that smashing glass slippers is impossible, because the slippers were fur in the first place?
Today, we will. But I won't be yelling "GO GATORS" with a totally clear conscience.