By Tim Letcher
SEC Digital Network
It's hard to believe that a college basketball program that has made Elite Eight appearances in the NCAA Tournament in each of the last two seasons, and that won back-to-back national titles only six seasons ago, could fly under the radar. But that's exactly what the Florida Gators have been able to do over the past two campaigns.
Some of the credit to Florida's anonymity goes to the Gators' SEC East rival Kentucky, which has overshadowed Florida by going to two straight Final Fours and winning the national title in 2012. But the Gators could easily have joined the Wildcats in back-to-back Final Fours. In fact, if you ask head coach Billy Donovan and the returning Gator players, they would probably say they should have played in both of those Final Fours.
Flash back to 2011, when Florida won the SEC regular season title and advanced to the Elite Eight, where they would face the defending national runner-up, Butler. Florida dominated the first half of that game, and appeared to be headed back to the Final Four for the first time since winning its second straight national championship in 2007. The Gators had a 51-40 lead with 9:26 left in the national quarterfinal matchup, but Butler assembled a 17-6 run to tie the game at 57 with 3:03 left.
The game was tied again, this time at 60-60, with 30 seconds remaining and Florida in possession of the ball. Florida’s Erving Walker tried a three-pointer as time was running out, and the shot rimmed out, sending the teams to overtime.
In the extra stanza, Florida fell behind and trailed until Walker hit a three-pointer with 1:41 left, giving the Gators a 70-69 lead. Just 20 seconds later, Butler’s Ronald Nored answered Walker’s trey with a long-distance shot of his own, giving Butler a 72-70 lead, a lead they would not relinquish. The Bulldogs prevailed 74-71 to make a return trip to the Final Four and to deny Florida’s hopes.
In 2012, the Gators tied for second in the SEC regular season, and again advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, where head coach Billy Donovan matched up with his mentor and college coach, Rick Pitino of Louisville. Ironically, this matchup came 25 years after Pitino took underdog Providence to an unlikely trip to the Final Four, led by Donovan.
In the 2012 national quarterfinal game, the Gators came out on fire, jumping out to a 7-0 lead less than three minutes into the game. Florida led by as many as 10 points in the first half while hitting 66.7 percent (14-for-21) of their shots, including 72.7 percent (8-for-11) from three-point range. However, the Gators only managed to hold an eight-point lead, 41-33, at the half, due to Louisville's ability to turn Florida turnovers into points (six turnovers turned into seven points).
In the second half, Florida was able to extend its lead, aided by a technical foul on Pitino. Walker hit four straight free throws to give Florida an 11-point lead with 10:56 left in the game.
With just over eight minutes left, Patric Young caught Walker's lob pass and slammed it home to give Florida a 65-54 lead with 8:16 remaining. At that point, it appeared that the student might get the best of the pupil with Donovan’s team clearly outplaying Pitino’s.
However, at that point in the game, the Gators went ice cold while Louisville cranked up the defensive pressure. Florida would score only three more points in the game, and none after a Kenny Boynton layup gave the Gators a 68-66 lead with 2:39 left. In the meantime, Louisville assembled an 18-3 run to steal the game, 72-68. Florida missed its last six shots, and ultimately lost the game, narrowly missing out on a Final Four appearance for the second straight season.
This season, Florida would love to take the next step and return to the Final Four for the first time since 2007. The Gators, ranked 10th nationally in both major preseason polls, return three starters, as well as several key reserves from last year's team that finished 26-11, earning the school's 14th straight 20-win season.
Boynton, Young and Erik Murphy are the returning starters. Boynton, a 6-2 junior this season, averaged 15.9 points per contest last year. Young, a 6-9 sophomore who progressed nicely last year, averaged 10.2 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. Murphy, a 6-10 forward, scored 10.5 points per game.
Mike Rosario (6.6 ppg), Scottie Wilbekin (2.6) and Will Yeguete (4.4), key substitutes on last year’s squad, also return this year for Donovan's club.
Donovan also added a pair of Top 100 recruits in the offseason. Braxton Ogbueze is a 6-0 point guard from Charlotte who will likely fill the point guard role vacated by Walker upon his graduation. Michael Frazier, another freshman brought in by Donovan, is a 6-4 shooting guard from Tampa who averaged 17 points per game as a high school senior. Both should see plenty of playing time for the 2012-13 Gators.
Donovan's teams have come so close the past two seasons, and the returning players will definitely use those shortcomings as motivation. The addition of talent at key spots could be enough to push Florida over the top and get Donovan to his fourth Final Four appearance. And if that happens, Florida will no longer be off the college basketball radar for the average college basketball fan.