For the Florida Gators, the double-digit seeds are in the rearview mirror in the NCAA Tournament.
But the double-digit dilemma remains.
Heading into Sunday’s matchup against Michigan in the South Regional final at Cowboys Stadium, third-seeded Florida (29-7) is the lone remaining team in the NCAA Tournament that has been a blowout-or-bust proposition on gameday this season.
The Gators, who lead the nation in scoring margin (plus-18.1 per game), have recorded all 29 of their victories by double-digit margins.
Included are three consecutive NCAA Tournament pastings of double-digit seeds from Northwestern (La.) State (No. 14), Minnesota (No. 11) and Florida Gulf Coast (No. 15) by a combined 58 points. But the Gators are 0-6 this season in games decided by single-digit margins.
With Michigan (29-7), a No. 4 seed, standing as the final obstacle between Florida and the school’s first Final Four appearance since 2007, the unanswered question for these Gators is a simple but important one:
Does Florida have what it takes to win a close game in crunch time?
“I think we’re capable,” guard Kenny Boynton said Saturday. “You’d much rather win huge. But there’s going to come a time where we’re going to have to close out a tight game. Why not have it happen in the NCAA Tournament?”
Boynton said the Gators’ defense-first mindset, as well as its veteran nucleus (three seniors, two juniors in the starting lineup), should serve the team well if pushed in crunch time by Michigan. The Wolverines reinforced their crunch-time mettle by erasing a 14-point second-half deficit in Friday’s 87-85 overtime victory over top-seeded Kansas.
“They definitely did a great job of closing out that Kansas game,” Boynton said. “We can do that, too. It’s a matter of us trusting each other. When we trust each other and focus on the moment, it’ll take care of itself.”
Maybe it will. The Gators, after all, have made it to the Elite Eight for three consecutive seasons. But Florida has lost all six games it has played this season decided by six points or fewer, including a 66-63 decision to Ole Miss in the championship game of the SEC tournament.
Because of an inconsistent offense, the Gators rely heavily on a suffocating defense. Florida ranks third nationally in scoring defense (53.7 avg.), the best mark of any remaining tournament team, and is seventh nationally in field-goal percentage defense (37.9).
That defensive domination has resulted in Florida’s narrowest victory being a 61-51 triumph over Alabama in the SEC tournament. Guard Scottie Wilbekin, the Gators’ top defender, who will spend much of Sunday shadowing Wolverines’ point guard Trey Burke, considers Florida a battle-tested team in tight situations despite its lengthy list of lopsided scores.
“In my opinion, the last two games that we’ve played have been tough games,” Wilbekin said, referring to victories over Minnesota (78-64) and Florida Gulf Coast (62-50). “We pulled it out and won by double digits. But they were still not easy games. We’re not going to have any easy games from here on out. The only thing that matters is moving on at this point.”
Michigan managed to do so in dramatic fashion against Kansas, with Burke (23 points, 10 assists) hitting a 3-pointer in the final four seconds of regulation before the Wolverines took control in overtime. Wilbekin shook off the significance of such dramatics.
“Anybody can hit a buzzer-beater on any given night,” Wilbekin said. “It comes down to defense and, against Michigan, we just have to make sure we are locked in and we take it one possession at a time. I would say that I like our chances.”
Florida coach Billy Donovan echoed Wilbekin’s confidence in the Gators’ defense but referred to Michigan as “maybe the best offensive team in the country.” He acknowledged Florida will be taking a significant step up in level of competition from previous tournament games, a challenge that guard Michael Frazier is ready to embrace.
Frazier agreed that Florida must start winning close games, perhaps as soon as Sunday, to earn its first national title since 2007. Considering the lack of evidence, are there doubts about that happening?
“No, we’re not concerned,” Frazier said. “We’re a very connected group on the floor. As long we stay together defensively and offensively, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
The key, said center Patric Young, rests on the defensive end. It was stellar defense that allowed Florida to erase a 19-9 deficit against FGCU with a game-turning, 21-7 closing surge in Friday’s first half. As long as that continues, Young said the Gators can prevail by any margin, close or otherwise, in its remaining NCAA games.
“It’s going to come down to our toughness and togetherness,” Young said. “We can’t control if the ball goes in or out. But we can control our effort on the defensive end. ... Just really fighting through the adversity and embracing it. That’s what great teams do.”
Typically, great teams also win close games. Florida has yet to do that this season. But a high-profile opportunity beckons Sunday in Cowboys Stadium.