The Florida Gators women’s basketball team had its best season in more than half a decade in 2021-22, emerging from the tenure of a coach whose alleged abuses made his time at the reins in Gainesville sound more like a reign of petty terrors to win 20 games, slay several ranked foes, and generate enough goodwill for interim head coach Kelly Rae Finley to get her interim tag removed.
Their reward for all that? A mere No. 10 seed in the 2022 NCAA Tournament, a date with in-state foe UCF in the first round, and the looming threat of playing a resurgent and hungry UConn team on its home floor for the second time in just three March Madness trips.
Florida’s No. 10 seed is in the Bridgeport Regional, which will contest its Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games in Albany, New York — prime UConn territory, and surely the Huskies’ desired regional in a year in which the other options were Greensboro, North Carolina; Wichita, Kansas; and Spokane, Washington, which likely makes their No. 2 seed feel as good as the No. 1 seed N.C. State earned in the same regional does not for the Wolfpack.
And if Florida gets past UCF, it will almost certainly meet UConn in the second round: The Huskies have not lost a first round game in the NCAA Tournament since 1992-93, prior to breaking through for their first national title.
But the Gators have to deal with the Knights first, in one of the tournament’s two matchups of Sunshine State teams in the first round. No. 8 seed Miami and No. 9 seed USF will meet in the first round of the Greensboro Regional; in the Spokane Regional, No. 11 seed Florida State will face fellow No. 11 seed Missouri State in one of the inaugural First Four games for the women’s NCAA Tournament, newly expanded to 68 teams this year, and No. 12 seed Florida Gulf Coast, one of the country’s best mid-major teams, will meet No. 5 seed Virginia Tech.
The six teams from Florida is the most from any state in the 2022 NCAA Tournament — and an all-time record for the state, which has never produced a Final Four squad despite Florida and Florida State having four combined Elite Eight appearances. But FSU’s play-in status means it might not make the field of 64 teams, and the two intra-state first round games means no more than four Florida teams can advance to the second round.
In contrast, all five teams from Texas, the only state within one team of Florida’s flotilla, play teams from outside Texas in their first matchups — as do all three teams from each of Georgia, Indiana, and North Carolina, the only other states to produce more than two Tournament squads. And maybe most amusingly, IUPUI — the Indiana University-Pudue University Indianapolis campus that befuddles whenver it makes the NCAA Tournament — slots in as the No. 13 seed in the Bridgeport Regional ... just one seed line removed from matching up with either No. 3 seed Indiana or No. 5 seed Notre Dame.
If setting up Sunshine State-on-Sunshine State crime wasn’t bad enough, Florida’s seeding is maybe the snub of the entire Tournament.
Florida finished fifth in an SEC that produced eight Tournament teams, and won games over No. 3 seed LSU, No. 4 seed Tennessee, No. 6 seed Kentucky, and No. 10 seed Arkansas in league play, also knocking off a then-ranked Texas A&M team. Its wins over LSU and Kentucky came on the road; its wins over Tennessee and Kentucky were emphatic thumpings.
Yet the Gators’ No. 10 seed puts them on a line with Arkansas, which finished with a losing record in SEC play, scored just one win over the SEC teams seeded No. 1 to No. 6 in the NCAA Tournament field (No. 1 South Carolina and No. 6 Georgia, along with the above), and lost to No. 10 seeds Creighton and Florida; Creighton, which did not defeat a team seeded in the single digits this season; and South Dakota, which both has its own argument for being underseeded (the Coyotes won 23 games, including one over a ranked UCLA team) and for being overseeded (losses to Creighton and in all of its other non-conference meetings with Power Five opponents).
Sure, Florida has been dragging non-conference losses to Towson and George Mason around since early this season. Yes, Florida lost four of its last five games and needed a spirited comeback to beat Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament and avert a skid of four straight losses entering NCAA Tournament play. Sadly, Florida did lose Kiki Smith for the season in that game, and may also be without Jordyn Merritt.
But even with some adjustment for losing Smith and/or Merritt, Florida achieved too much this season to be shunted to the No. 10 line — and making the Gators play UCF, which has never won a game against Florida in 25 tries but will now wear home jerseys against the Gators in the damn NCAA Tournament, is adding insult to (literal) injury.
And if the Gators do get past the Knights in Saturday’s game, which will take place in Storrs, Connecticut, on UConn’s campus, they will be overwhelmingly likely to face another thrashing at UConn’s hands in NCAA Tournament play. In 2009, Florida met the eventual national champion Huskies in Storrs as a No. 8 seed, and absorbed an 87-59 loss that remains the Gators’ second-worst in NCAA Tournament play.
Since then? Well, Buffalo got within 12 in 2019 — but every other second round opponent that UConn has faced has lost by at least 24 points. And if this season’s Huskies had an uncharacteristically uneven start to their year, that’s largely been ironed out: They’ve won their last 10 games by double digits, scoring 69 or better and allowing 60 or fewer in all of the wins, and they have been able to bring back superstar sophomore Paige Bueckers slowly rather than rushing her onto the court.
For persevering after an abusive coach and through an injury-marred schedule and recording its best season in several years, the NCAA Tournament has rewarded Florida’s women’s basketball program with a no-win game against an in-state foe and an essentially impassible path to the Sweet Sixteen.
In other words: Welcome back to the dance, Gators. Just don’t expect to stay.