Gators Have Finally Earned National Respect

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota --- So here we are in the capital city of the American tundra, asking ourselves if it gets any better than Friday night's spine tingler of a win over Georgetown and all too aware that this joy ride of a season --- somewhat of a magical mystery tour since the Gators were off everybody's radar back in November when it all began --- is but a game away from both the ecstasy of a Final Four trip and the agony of a great season coming to an end.

Sunday, one of two things happens. Either the Gators (30-6) extend the season by beating Villanova and moving on to the Final Four, or the great ride that Coach Billy Donovan and his sophomore-dominated team have taken us on skids to an end. It is that time of the year where the highs are the highest and the lows are the lowest. Win and you are one step closer to the summit of the mountain. Lose and tomorrow never comes. It's agony or ecstasy.

Because it's Villanova that the Gators are playing Sunday for the championship of the Minneapolis Region (4 p.m., CBS TV) and because everyone is very aware of what happened last year when these two teams met in the NCAA Tournament, there is widespread expectation among the national media that Florida will be playing its last game of 2006. No, nobody is saying that Florida doesn't have a chance --- they're saying just the opposite and it won't be a surprise to anyone if Florida wins the game --- but because Villanova beat the Gators last year, because the Wildcats are the top seed in the region and because they have maintained their presence in the national top five since the season began back in November, it's natural to place the favorite's hat on Villanova's head.

Yet while Villanova is favored to win Sunday, there is no doubt that the feel good team in this tournament is the Florida Gators. Villanova is right where everybody expected Villanova to be but the Gators have come out of nowhere and that's a story people like. Florida was picked as low as number 75 nationally by one top publication and was considered fodder for the NIT. Teams that rise from such low expectations are good copy. Villanova may have the best guard tandem in the country in Randy Foye and Allen Ray and the Wildcats may be the single most difficult team in the nation to defend, but the talk of Minneapolis is the team chemistry that Florida has found and maintained throughout this season.

In these days of the me-first, millionaire pro athlete and the college athlete that uses sports as a quick ticket to fame and fortune, it's rare to find a team that's about all the things that a team should be. You hear that oft-used cliché that there is no I in team and with these guys, there really isn't.

Rare? Unheard of is more like it.

Joakim Noah's comet-like race across the sky of stardom in recent weeks has captured the national media's attention but in checking out what Florida's effervescent, charismatic 7-footer (yes, he's seven feet tall) is doing and how he burst onto the scene, the national media has also discovered Al Horford, Corey Brewer, Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey along with subs Adrian Moss, Chris Richard and Walter Hodge. They've discovered and reported that these guys really are different --- they're unselfish, caring, hard working, coachable, deserving … you could go on and on and on.

It is because there is such team chemistry the Gators are 30-6, breathing the rarified air of life at the top of the college basketball heap, and changing the perceptions of the program. Until this year and until this team --- that 2000 run to the national championship game notwithstanding --- Florida was pretty much regarded as a Southeastern Conference power, easily capable of winning 20 games a year and making it to the NCAA Tournament for a game or two but not much else.

Now, with this team and particularly after Friday night's win over Georgetown, the perception has changed. That win over Georgetown was like a confirmation that the Gators have finally arrived as a true national program capable of beating anyone in the nation. It's one thing to get an occasional win over a big time program during the regular season but where you earn your stripes in these days and times is on the battlefields of the NCAA Tournament.

Florida's wins over South Alabama and Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the first two rounds of this year's tournament were helpful, but it let's face it. Those two teams aren't anything more than occasional blips on the national radar. You don't change perceptions beating teams from the Sun Belt and Horizon conferences but you do open eyes when you whack a Big East team in the Sweet 16, especially if it's a Big East team with the tradition of Georgetown.

Even though the Gators came into the game with a better record (29-6 to 23-9) than Georgetown, the Hoyas were thought to be tougher and better because of their Big East pedigree and a win over second seeded Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament's second round. Florida was every bit as tough and proved to be better, especially by beating a Big East team in a Big East kind of game. It was grind it out, belly to belly defense all the way. Everyone knew Georgetown could play that way. What they didn't know was that Donovan was confident enough in his team to play a grind it out game almost exclusively in straight man to man defense. Everyone expected zone. What they got was a team that plays fundamental defense as well as anyone in the country.

So with one win, Florida probably changed its national perception once and for all. In reality, the Gators were already there but they needed a signature win of sorts and they got it by beating Georgetown.

And that brings us to Sunday's game against Villanova, less than 48 hours after the win over Georgetown but light years later in terms of perception. It's amazing what one win can do for you. Should the Gators beat Villanova --- and they are certainly more than capable of coming away with a win --- nobody will be calling this trip to the Final Four a fluke. If they lose, nobody will be saying they shouldn't have gotten his far in the first place. That fact alone tells you that the national respect Florida basketball has been yearning has finally been earned.

Just to show you how far the Gators have come in ten years under Billy Donovan and in particular, how far Donovan has taken them in the past year, prominent writers from two national publications have already indicated the Gators will probably be their preseason number one team next year. For that to even merit consideration, it says we've come a long way, baby.

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