Two weeks ago, before the Florida Gators began play in the SEC Tournament — before we even had an inkling of what the NCAA Tournament would bring — I wrote this:
Yet Mike White is already being lamented for limited-roster losses that very good teams sometimes take at full strength, and I have a sneaking suspicion he is going to get roasted if Florida cannot live up to its lofty national rankings and make at least the Sweet Sixteen.
But I also wrote this:
So when his team will make its first march into madness in 10 days’ time, it will do so with fans expecting the best and ready to rage at any sign of the worst. There is no safety net for White and these Gators, no sense that this year can be more than a failure if it is not a success.
That’s the expectations game, though.
It is fun if you win. It is brutal if you lose.
Since then, Florida has won. And it has won big.
Florida’s combined margin of victory in its two NCAA Tournament games is a massive 41 points, third among teams left in the field — and behind only Kansas (58) and North Carolina (46), No. 1 seeds that played teams outside the KenPom top 200 in their first game and outside the top 35 in the second round. No team left alive had a larger victory in the second round, though Xavier fell only one point short — though it should be noted that No. 3 seed Florida State was and is well behind No. 5 seed Virginia in KenPom. Only Kentucky and Arizona have two wins in this Tourney in games with tempos more different than the 60- and 70-possession games Florida played against the Cavaliers and East Tennessee State, respectively, and both of those squads of Wildcats have one double-digit win, while Florida has two.
Considering that success in the context of what Florida has not done — namely, get even average production from leading scorers KeVaughn Allen or Canyon Barry, or truly turn up their transition game off of steals — is fodder for even more good feeling.
Florida has already met seed-based expectations in this NCAA Tournament by getting to the Sweet Sixteen as a No. 4 seed, and its performance on the floor is beyond even my optimistic-to-bullish forecasting.
But there’s now room for expectations to grow.
When Florida heads to Madison Square Garden for the East Regional later this week, it will be one that features Baylor, South Carolina, and Wisconsin instead of Baylor, Duke, and Villanova. On paper, Florida is the best team left in the East, and by a significant margin: The Gators have been almost three points per 100 possessions better than Baylor on the year, and that gap is almost five points per 100 possessions over Wisconsin, and nearly 10 over South Carolina.
Should the Gators — a stunning 15-4 in their last 19 NCAA Tournament games, with no losses before the Elite Eight — get past Wisconsin in the Sweet Sixteen, they will face either a team that has never been to the Final Four (Baylor) or one that will be playing its first Elite Eight game (South Carolina). And the latter team has lost to Florida this year.
Things are set up for Florida to push for the Final Four, in other words. And while the road before the Gators isn’t an easy one — Wisconsin did beat Villanova; Baylor has a scary post matchup problem in Jonathan Motley and could maul Florida on the boards; South Carolina also beat Florida this year — it certainly seems more passable than the spike-stripped path that I saw last week at this time.
That’s cause for letting expectations for this team run wild.
I just don’t think we should tolerate that.
The NCAA Tournament’s single-elimination nature opens up these roads from time to time, and Florida — more than nearly every other team in the country — knows that well. The Gators have beaten double-digit seeds in the second round, Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, and Final Four over the last 11 years — including No. 15 seeds in both the second round and Sweet Sixteen — and have still only made three Final Fours in that span. Twice, they did so as the No. 1 overall seed, and thus the most likely national semifinalist — and only met one double-digit seed after the first round over both instances combined.
This team was not expected to make the Final Four by the Selection Committee, which is why it was the No. 4 seed fed to the No. 1 overall seed. Florida fans — the skittish ones, anyway — worried about the Gators being upset by East Tennessee State, or being ground to dust by Virginia, especially after a 1-3 crash over their final four pre-Tourney games. John Egbunu’s absence loomed large, despite little to suggest that it was an issue other than Bam Adebayo dunking off of Malik Monk assists at Rupp Arena.
Still, Florida’s in the Sweet Sixteen, and playing at a level above even its best play of the regular season. And expectations can be exceeded without being altered.
If Florida falls to Wisconsin, this was still a successful NCAA Tournament for Florida. The same is true after a loss to Baylor or South Carolina, frustrating as either or both would be. And if Florida does make the Final Four, the Gators’ March Madness is just more successful than it already was.
Seeing the mountaintop from a lofty base camp does not make getting to the base camp any less impressive.