Having seen Florida play a couple of times during the regular season, when they showed up in Jacksonville for the first and second round I wondered, “what’d they do with the Gators?” They played OK during the regular season, starting with seventeen straight wins but going 7-6 in the next thirteen games to become an afterthought when it came to the post season.
But along the way, the Gators became a team, defined by that philosophy, especially with their potential stars rejecting individual accolades. They played better and closer in the SEC tournament and became a big media darling in the tournament. Beating South Alabama was a given, and getting past UW-Milwaukee was a test of resolve based on the Panthers senior-laden team. All of the sudden, they were a team to be reckoned with and Georgetown and Villanova posed no threat to the Gators’ run to the Final Four.
Now they’re the favorite.
Seriously, when was the last time a team starting four sophomores and a junior was a favorite in the Final Four?
I’ve been here in Indianapolis for a couple of days and have been impressed with the Gators demeanor since arriving on Thursday afternoon. “People say we’re a youthful team,” Joakim Noah noted when asked about team play. “But we’ve been through a lot together. We’re not young as a team any more. We might be young in years, but not as a team.”
As I’ve said before, he’s the most improved athlete in one year I’ve seen in my entire reporting career. But he also is one of the most settled “young” athletes I’ve been around. He’s rejected his rock star status in favor of creating a “team” concept. He accepts his duties to work with the media and be a team leader, but says all of the attention “doesn’t help us win basketball games.”
His answers are polite and thoughtful and set the tone for the rest of the team. In fact, this team is fun to cover. They make it easy with their genuine answers and willingness to be a part of the process. A lot of credit for that goes to Noah who doesn’t separate himself from his teammates and never utters the word “me.” The rest of the credit goes to Billy Donovan for creating an atmosphere where Noah and the rest of the team can flourish.
Nobody’s talking about Florida here except as the team that George Mason has to beat to continue their Cinderella run. The Gators are the villains, not an unfamiliar role for them, but with all of the attention on Mason, Florida’s not the central focus they could be. In fact, if Mason weren’t here, the Gators would be the Cinderella story.
But I think the carriage will turn into a pumpkin before midnight tonight for the Patriots. Florida’s play against Villanova, especially on defense showed they can defend the three-point line without giving up a lot of easy drives to the basket.
One thing’s for sure; they won’t be awed by the situation.