This is probably where it ends for the Florida Gators.
This game against Michigan (5:15 p.m., CBS or March Madness Live or CBS All-Access) pits the Gators’ scrappy team, the one that compiled a 20-15 record by taking a lot of great teams’ best shots and occasionally giving one back, against the Wolverines’ machine, which just about ran over every team not coached by Tom Izzo this year.
John Beilein has long been hailed as a genius of offense, but his team is merely great on that end this year; on the defensive end, the Wolverines are spectacular, allowing foes to shoot microscopic percentages both inside and outside the arc, rarely fouling, corralling defensive rebounds, and generally doing everything great defensive teams do except block shots at an elevated rate. Michigan has given up a point per possession in eight games this year, and has played 35; Florida, which can go cold for no reason whatsoever, would be forgiven for shivering at the prospect of a cold spell against this team.
And then there’s Michigan’s offense, which still has many of the contributors to last year’s national runner-up — Charles Matthews, Jordan Poole, Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske — and has added to them Swiss Army forward Ignas Brazdeikis, a future pro whose inside-out game has made him Michigan’s go-to player as a freshman. Michigan plays slowly, almost as slowly as Florida, but the Wolverines also score about 1.15 point per trip, doing efficiently that which Florida frequently flails to do.
But, hell, what is Florida supposed to do but flail and try?
These Gators have not lost heart all year despite a dozen or more opportunities to do so. Close losses, frustrating fades, baffling upsets, and elusive success have made this a vexatious season for even the most patient Florida fans; how painful must it have been for the Gators themselves, knowing their talent level and acumen were beyond their achievements? This is a team that has suffered quietly, players pressing their noses to the grindstone rather than complaining — as a mid-NCAA Tournament revelation that Jalen Hudson’s multi-month swoon might have familial reasons behind it helpfully demonstrates — and it is a team that has made Florida just one of 10 men’s basketball programs to win an NCAA Tournament game in each of the last three years.
Michigan is one of the other nine, of course, and a fantastic program. Michigan aerated Florida when last Beilein met a stout Gators defense, with Nik Stauskas raining threes on Florida in the 2013 NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight. Michigan is as good as the other national title contenders that Florida has gone toe-to-toe and eye-to-eye with for at least long stretches of play, ones that have mostly dispatched the game Gators.
It would not be surprising for Michigan to beat Florida on this Saturday.
But the surprise on the other side would be sweet, indeed.