Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Florida Gators face hurdles to prove greatness in NCAA Tournament

It isn’t fair to wonder how good the Florida Gators are. The question alone might be evidence of insanity, considering they are the No. 1 men’s college basketball team in the country and just won a 27th consecutive game here Thursday to begin their NCAA Tournament run.

It continues to be fair, though, to wonder how great the Gators might be. Are they history-making, championship-getting great?

That question still hangs in reasonable doubt, answer to be determined, and a 67-55 victory over the 16th-seeded Albany Great Danes didn’t exactly make the case for a UF waltz into the Final Four as any sort of foregone conclusion.

“This isn’t going to be enough to keep our season going.”

Those were some of coach Billy Donovan’s first words to his Gators after the game. The winning locker room was quiet, almost somber. It felt almost like a losing room, which the Gators haven’t experienced since Dec. 2. Florida didn’t take the lead for good Thursday until 42-39 well into the second half at the downtown arena the NBA’s Magic call home.

The Gators had better be better on Saturday in facing Pittsburgh, which dominated Colorado earlier Thursday, or else UF’s bid to add a third national title to its 2006-07 crowns may be short-lived.

Don’t get this wrong.

Thursday was wrapped in no peril. Even as Albany hung close, the outcome never seemed in real doubt. The inevitability of it was always present.

Albany played the sandcastle on the beach. You can build it and build it and dig a moat around it, but you know what’s going to happen.

Florida played the crashing wave. It was just a matter of when the sandcastle would dissolve, not if.

Not ever has a No. 16 seed beaten a No. 1 seed — the ultimate underdogs were 0-116 all-time entering this year’s March Madness — and Florida wasn’t about to play the victim and let Albany play the ultimate Cinderella.

“Crazier things have been done, I think, in the course of history,” said Albany center John Puk of a 16 beating a 1.

Or, not.

Teams here to play Cinderella get disproportionate attention in the NCAA Tournament. They lend the serendipity, the charm. Most times, though, there is somebody like the Florida Gators playing Darth Vader and slamming a big boot onto that shattering glass slipper.

The only moment a shocking upset even seemed fleetingly possible Thursday was when the scoreboard read 39-39 and as Florida brought the ball upcourt you could hear a different sound from the heavily partisan Gators crowd. There was a sudden higher pitch, an urgency, like, “C’mon. Seriously.”

Young steps up

That was when 6-9, 240-pound center Patric Young dunked, was fouled, converted the three-point play and the Gators never looked back.

Albany had no answers for Young. At one point during a timeout the Danes’ Puk told his coach, Will Brown, “I can’t move him.” To which the coach replied, “Well, try!”

Brown, after the game, on Young: “If he doesn’t make it in the NBA, he should try the NFL. If he doesn’t make it in the NFL, then maybe the WWE. Or UFC.”

The perfunctory nature of Florida’s win was no surprise, either.

Teams on 26-game winning streaks facing 16th-seeded opponents may be forgiven for not bringing their A-games no matter how much their coach tries to warn them how dangerous a team nicknamed Great Danes, from the little American East conference, might truly be.

“I’m dealing with human beings,” as Donovan put it.

Florida, now 33-2, is capable of playing great defense, but the coach may have been right Thursday to note, “Our margin of error as a team is not great.”

That gets back to my initial point about wondering if the Gators will prove themselves truly great over the next couple of weeks.

They are not seen as a scary, dominant No. 1 overall seed. Some college hoops experts say as many as a dozen teams have a legitimate chance to win the national title this spring, and that isn’t just parity, that’s the absence of a clear favorite or unquestioned power.

Florida stormed through the Southeastern Conference unbeaten, but the SEC was seen as having a down season. And the Gators barely survived Kentucky in the conference tournament.

Precarious perch

The sum of all that is that Florida, even perched at No. 1 and even on a 27-game winning streak, is hardly conceded the ladder and scissors for an April net-cutting by anybody outside the hopeful estimation of its orange-and-blue clad fans.

As a far greater challenge in Pitt awaits Saturday, Donovan’s warning and truth about Thursday should be echoing from Orlando to Gainesville and back:

“This isn’t going to be enough to keep our season going.”

Gators guard Scottie Wilbekin had been asked before this game about the pressure on his team, about the “specter” of being No. 1.

“The specter?” he replied. “What does that mean?”

Maybe Thursday brought a little bit of answer.

Maybe Saturday will bring a little bit more.

Related stories from Miami Herald