The Florida Gators have earned respect throughout the college basketball community with a 17-2 record heading into the homestretch of the regular season. They checked in at No. 3 in the most recent AP poll and are starting to be taken seriously as a national championship contender.
But there's still a lot of time between now and March, and it's likely that the basketball world falls in love with other teams throughout the country, putting Florida somewhere on the back burner. However, it'd be a mistake to ignore the Gators. They have everything you should look for in a championship-quality team, and it wouldn't be surprising if a third title made its way to Gainesville.
Forget February and the SEC championship—Florida should have its eyes set on the ultimate prize. With one of the top coaches in the country and a well-balanced team, the Gators certainly have what it takes to go down in the history books.
All of the cupcakes have been eaten. All of the lousy teams have been tucked into bed, and only the best of the best have been invited to the big-boy table. But only the strongest survive in the NCAA tournament, and to prove your strength, you must play the best during the regular season.
Florida has been able to flex its muscles over the last couple of months.
It's played Wisconsin and Connecticut on the road. It's beaten quality opponents such as Kansas, Memphis and an underrated Arkansas squad in Fayetteville. That doesn't even include the two upcoming matchups against Kentucky.
The Gators have played several teams that will qualify for the tournament and have either beaten them or given them a fight until the very end. There are some teams out there that have taken advantage of an awful conference schedule and will be in for a shock when they run into the big boys.
Battle-tested teams usually end up going a long way in the tournament, and it's safe to say Florida has had one of the tougher schedules in the country this season. It won't be anything new when it runs into Arizona, Syracuse, Michigan State and the rest of the gang.
A team has to have a star player if it hopes to be crowned national champions. Anthony Davis, Kemba Walker, Tyler Hansbrough—it doesn't matter. A title-winning team needs a player who can take over a game during crunch time and lead his troops to the Promised Land.
Florida is still trying to figure out exactly who that player is, but the good thing is there are plenty of candidates on the roster.
Scottie Wilbekin wants the ball in his hands when the team needs a big play. He answered the bell against Arkansas to send the game into overtime. He played his heart out against Connecticut and simply wouldn't let his team lose in a dogfight of a game against Kansas.
Michael Frazier II is hitting more and more timely shots and seems to have ice water running through his veins. He's shooting an unbelievable 45.6 percent from beyond the arc and has scored in double figures in four of his last five games.
Casey Prather, the senior leader of the bunch, has drastically improved his game and leads the team with an average of 16.8 points per contest.
As for Patric Young, we'll get to him in a minute.
The point is the Gators have several guys who want the ball down the stretch and aren't afraid to have the game lie in their hands. Championship teams need guys who thrive under pressure. Close games are a certainty in the tournament, and you have to like Florida's chances when they take place.
Ah, the X-factor of the championship run: Patric Young.
The senior center had all the potential in the world, but there was always something missing. He looked out of shape, couldn't stay out of foul trouble, had issues finishing at the rim and sometimes was just a big-for-nothing player better off riding the bench.
This year has been a different story. Young is finally blossoming into the player he was capable of becoming years ago. He's trimmed down his chiseled frame, is a lot quicker in the post and is having a bigger impact than ever before. Sure, his 54.4 field-goal percentage is the lowest it's ever been, but he's improved his points-per-game average to 10.6 and is winning more times than not in the paint.
Young is built like a brick house at 6'9", 240 pounds, and is easily the strongest player on the floor at all times. He's the last line of defense for Florida and must continue contesting every shot, along with winning those loose balls.
With what Young has showed through most of the season, he's the glue to making this championship run a real possibility.
Different styles of play are what make the NCAA tournament so tricky. It features teams from across the country, and unfamiliarity can really trip an opponent up.
What happens when a team has never faced the defensive pressure of VCU? What if a team isn't prepared to defend the floor spacing of Creighton? There are a plethora of teams that aren't familiar with the athletic, lengthy Syracuse 2-3 zone defense. It's impossible to get comfortable against these different styles of play in a day or two, so teams usually just stick to their guns and hope for the best.
Yeah, good luck with that.
Teams must be able to adapt to their opponents' strengths and weaknesses, which means they have to be able to play different ways. Florida not only shoots a high percentage at 46.3 percent, but it also plays terrific defense, holding teams to only 58.8 points per game. It can play the up-tempo style UCLA likes, or it can slow things down and play at a boring pace with San Diego State.
Florida is a balanced team that's more than comfortable beating you at your own game. That makes it an extremely dangerous team come tournament time.
Crazily enough, while there are tons of teams that join the tournament each year and many that have a puncher's chance of winning the title, big-name coaches have dominated in recent years.
The current Florida coach has actually won two titles within the last decade, both which occurred in back-to-back seasons. But all of those names are Hall of Fame-caliber coaches and have boatloads of experience in the NCAA tournament.
None of those championships were by accident, which proves that coaching really does make a difference in the tournament. You could have an extremely talented team, but if your coach is still wet behind the ears in big games, odds aren't in said team's favor to win it all.
Florida has a two-time NCAA champion and three-time SEC champion on its bench to go along with a loaded roster. Donovan has also reached three Final Fours in the last 15 years, providing him with more than enough experience to make sure his team is ready each night.
The Gators have what it takes to become this year's NCAA champs.