Gators face tough challenge in Round of 32 matchup
Published: Friday, March 21, 2014 at 7:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 21, 2014 at 9:39 p.m.
ORLANDO — What would March Madness be without a million questions? They come in long and short form, at podiums and in locker rooms and media hotels and on the street. And on Thursday night, they came from all directions.
Everyone wanted to know whether they were asking Scottie Wilbekin or yours truly — what was wrong with the Gators against Albany?
Billy Donovan told me Friday afternoon that he thinks there was a lot of that 116-and-oh mentality no matter how he tried to quash it.
“It's my responsibility to keep them grounded,” he said earlier on the podium.
But it doesn't always work. And that 116-0 record by one seeds permeated the very brains that have been poised and focused all year. That can happen in this tournament, no matter your seed or resume.
But the real question that needs to be asked today as Florida tries to reach the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight year is this — which game was more of an aberration Thursday, Pitt's or Florida's?
The quick answer would be UF, because that was the first time we've seen these guys show up with the energy of a narcoleptic slug this season.
Still, Pitt hasn't looked like a team that — on the surface — had a 29-point win as a nine seed in it. This was a team that spent the whole season looking for big wins and had a difficult time finding them. It was a team that struggled to score at times. It was a team that was — incredibly — talked about being on the bubble at one point this year.
“People want to promote games and talk about games and the bubble gets bigger and bigger,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “You're either a one seed or you're on the bubble.”
Bubble teams don't usually clinch games before halftime on neutral courts. Don't get me wrong, a lot of that Pittsburgh win was aided by Colorado's complete disinterest in the game once it got difficult. But those 8-9 games are always difficult to pick and nobody sees blowout.
The truth is that Florida's game today is going to be as difficult as one could imagine in a Round of 32 game against a nine seed that has one win against a top-25 RPI team.
“We're playing good basketball right now,” said Pitt's Lamar Patterson. “We'll know if we're playing our best basketball (today).”
Pitt was one of those early-season darlings back when there were only the hardcore hoops fans paying attention and everyone else was salivating over four-star recruits and NFL playoff games. The Panthers started 15-1, but lost sixth man Durand Johnson to a knee injury Jan. 11.
From there, the team struggled. It went 4-6 during a 10-game stretch and that's why the Panthers are seeded where they are.
“We lost to good teams,” Dixon said. “We didn't panic. And we feel very good about our team and where we're at. It's taken us some time to improve.
“I think we feel like we are playing really good basketball. We think we're playing our best. We feel good about ourselves at this point.”
Teams are seeded based a lot on what they do in the non-conference season, but postseason momentum isn't fueled by games in November and December. Today's game has nothing to do with Pitt's game against Cincinnati or how Florida played against Kansas before Christmas.
You can look at Pitt's season and see a lack of high-quality wins. The Panthers have beaten five teams who are in the tournament — Stanford, North Carolina and play-in teams Albany and Cal Poly along with Colorado on Thursday afternoon.
But if you watched the way they defended and rebounded in that Thursday game, you know this — if Florida is going to advance, the Gators are going to have to play at a high level.
A Kentucky on Senior Day level.
An at-Tennessee level.
A Kansas level.
“Albany was an uncommon game for our team,” Donovan said. “We've got another opportunity to play and I think they're looking forward to it.”
There is no doubt the Florida we saw Thursday was an aberration. There is also no doubt the Gators have to get more out of Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier II if they're going to win this game. We can talk all we want about this game being a physical, no-holds-barred battle, but that's when the 3-point shot can especially be a dagger.
“There will be a lot of defense played,” Wilbekin said. “We just have to be ready to play.”
Otherwise, the end of a special season will come sooner than expected.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at email@example.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.