St. Petersburg Times
Special report
Video report
  • For their own good
    Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
  • More video reports
Multimedia report
Print Email this storyEmail story Comment Email editor
Fill out this form to email this article to a friend
Your name Your email
Friend's name Friend's email
Your message

Only exam that matters starts now for UF

Published March 13, 2006

Today, they walk tall. They walk proud and unhurried. They are champions once again, and for the Gators there are only good times to be considered.

It isn't until tomorrow that they may pause.

And the day after, begin to worry.

It is that time of the year for the University of Florida basketball team. Those heady moments between hope and reality. Between everything a team might be, and what it will eventually become.

You may say that is true of every team in the NCAA Tournament, but that wouldn't be doing justice to the disparities of Florida's recent past.

Look, this is a (nearly) great team. A (practically) terrific success story. This is a program with back-to-back championships in the Southeastern Conference tournament. A university with NBA first-round draft picks on its resume. A team that has climbed to the top of the polls.

The past five years, the Gators have done it all.

Except succeed in March.

Granted, it is a harsh way to grade. Sort of like turning in every homework assignment and passing every pop quiz, but flunking because of a final exam.

But the truth is the NCAA Tournament is the sole measure of a season in the minds of many. Particularly among those capable of winning.

UF is in the NCAA Tournament for the eighth consecutive season, which is no small feat. It's a longer streak than North Carolina currently enjoys. Longer than UCLA and Indiana. Longer than Connecticut and every other team in the Big East. It's the type of streak that could have elevated Florida among the very best in the country, but the Gators have not capitalized.

Moral victories are for weaker programs. Interim accomplishments are for those who have little chance of something greater near the end.

The bottom line for the Gators is they have failed to survive the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament in five consecutive seasons. Among the 14 teams that have been invited all five seasons, Florida is the lone slacker to have failed to reach the Sweet 16 at least once.

This is Billy Donovan's curse. It is also his triumph. He took a university with no expectations for basketball, and he turned it into a living, breathing beast. Twenty-win seasons used to be rare. Now they're automatic. NCAA berths used to be as common as comets. Now they're circled on the calendar.

Donovan wanted to turn Florida into a program that could compete with Kentucky. With teams such as Maryland and Michigan, too. Now he has it. He also has the pressure that's inevitable when success is shy of anticipation.

And he might as well admit it, instead of insisting first- and second-round losses are no different than losing in the region finals or semifinals.

"If it's the first round or the Elite Eight, to me it still hurts as much," Donovan said. "I understand (the perception). But you know what? If you went to three straight Sweet 16s, it would always be, "Gee, they can never get to the Elite Eight.' It's always the next thing."

Well, yes.

That's how you tell the difference between the bad and the mediocre. Between the mediocre and the good. Between the good and the great.

If we didn't always keep score, than the Royals would be as popular as the Yankees. Southside Johnny would sell as many records as Bruce Springsteen.

You're darned right Florida is expected to take the next step. What's the sense in coming all this way if you're only going to ease off the gas now?

Whether he wants to admit it or not, part of Donovan's success at Florida was built upon a Sweet 16 appearance in 1999 and the Final Four in 2000.

Those tournaments gave Florida visibility. They gave Donovan credibility. And to suggest the past five seasons haven't chipped away at the program's prestige seems disingenuous.

It is Donovan's right to see it differently. After all, he is the one who is sweating and fretting with the team from October through March.

But, whether he admits it or not, it is hard to ignore five consecutive seasons with losses to lower-seeded teams.

"I'll tell you the one tournament I was really upset about - upset with myself and the team - was Manhattan (in 2004)," Donovan said. "But when we don't make shots and our kids compete, play hard and we lose to a team that's really, really good on a neutral site, it's hard for me to say, "Gosh, the year is disappointing."'

Is it fair to lump this roster in with the teams that preceded it? Probably not. For one thing, these Gators appear more workmanlike than flashy. They are tougher inside. They seem to care more about the score than their stats.

For all we know, these players are a different breed. A more cohesive unit. Unafraid to fail, and unwilling to give up. They could very well win more tournament games this month than the previous five seasons combined.

But, until they do, the past is their burden to carry.

[Last modified March 13, 2006, 00:59:12]

Share your thoughts on this story

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Subscribe to the Times
Click here for daily delivery
of the St. Petersburg Times.

Email Newsletters