During this time of the year the best teams in the country separate themselves from the rest of the pack in college basketball. Last year it was the Louisville Cardinals who went on a 16-game winning streak en route to a national championship that began on Feb. 14, 2013, after suffering a five-overtime defeat at Notre Dame. Before them, the 2011-12 Kentucky Wildcats won 30 of their final 31 games and ending in as national champions. It happened again before that with the Connecticut Huskies and the Duke Blue Devils before that and so on.
The truly great teams know what’s at stake and how to handle themselves under high-pressure situations. It’s those same teams that work best as a collective unit rather than having one player do all the work. This year there have been two standout teams that have used this formula to great success so far: Syracuse and Florida.
Syracuse has a history of being a high-quality team. Year after year the Orange lose great players to the NBA and reload with new ones, go on to have a great season but come up just a bit short in their search for a national championship. The last time Syracuse was a No. 1 seed going into the NCAA tournament in 2010, the Orange lost in the regional semifinal.
That team and the current one have a few similarities. The 2009-10 squad had a sharpshooter from 3-point range in Andy Rautins. Trevor Cooney is this year’s version. The former also had a high-profile freshman point guard (Brandon Triche), as does this year’s team (Tyler Ennis). And the kicker, the 2010 squad also had a star upperclassman (Wesley Johnson) that is great in college, but most aren’t sure about his NBA future and that tends to disappear in crucial situations (C.J. Fair). Just by looking at the two teams one can see the similarities that quite possibly strike fear in Syracuse fans.
One other team that has some similarities to their past is Florida. Most people will tell you about how the Gators’ current 17-game winning streak happened only two other times in program history: during their national championship runs in 2006 and 2007. While true, there are some other similarities to those squads that should make Florida fans giddy for the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
Much like those two championship teams the current Gator squad has a dominant inside presence. In the past it was Joakim Noah and Al Horford. Now it is Casey Prather and Patric Young. Prather and Young currently combine to average of more than 25 points per game, the same average Noah and Horford had combined in both of their championship runs.
In each of the 2005-06 and 06-07 seasons that Gators had five players average in double-digit scoring (Noah, Horford, Corey Brewer, Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey). This season Florida has four players with double-digit scoring numbers (Young, Prather, Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier II) and have one averaging just less than 10 points per game (Dorian Finney-Smith at 9.3).
Just like the current Florida team, the two championship teams weren’t great at shooting free throws either. While the first title team shot 74 percent from the charity stripe, the second team shot only 69 percent compared to 67 percent for the 2013-14 squad. Three-point shooting was also suspect for the two title teams (39 percent in 2005-06; 40 percent in 2006-07) as it is for the current Gators (34 percent).
Facts and figures are good and all, but that doesn’t indicate that the 2013-14 Florida Gators should be a favorite to win the national championship in April. No, that comes from the experience factor. There are three seniors on this team (Wilbekin, Young and Prather), each of whom has been part of three straight Elite Eight appearances. Some would be thrilled to have that in their resumè, but that also means it’s three straight years they were one game away from a Final Four appearance and two more games away from a national championship opportunity.
Things like that eat away at a player. It sits in the back of their minds on every possession, on every shot and every second of every game. They won’t admit it, but those three players would like nothing more than to overcome their failures the past three years and end their careers on top of the college basketball landscape.
Florida has separated itself from the rest of the pack by exuding pure effort and aggressiveness each and every game. They showed on Saturday night in their comeback effort against Kentucky on the road that they are the team to beat. Statements like that come around once in a great while for a team. Florida has made theirs and now they’ll just wait until another team decides to be the next contestant.
Billy Donovan has experience on the big stage, winning two national championships and competing in a third. He has a roster full of supremely talented players and three of those players want to end their collegiate careers on the grandest stage of them all. History is on their side and it may just be a matter of time until another NCAA tournament champions banner is raised in Gator territory.