It wasn't always pretty, but it did the job: The Florida Gators are still dancing.
After a scrappy, stifling 61-45 win over Pittsburgh, Florida is back into the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive year. The victory increased Florida's winning streak to 28 straight games and allowed the team to continue its quest for a third national title and first in seven years.
The Gators might not be the trendy pick for the title—that would be Michigan State, thanks to Nate Silver and President Barack Obama—but they reminded the nation on Saturday why they were the top-ranked team in the country during the regular season and why they are still the odds-on favorite to win the national championship.
The No. 1 overall seed hasn't been the flashiest team during the NCAA tournament's first three rounds, but the Gators are winning games on their own terms. When they're as focused as they were against the Panthers on Saturday, Florida's ruthless style leaves opponents scrambling.
Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated examined the heart of Florida's intensity:
When the Gators are engaged – not as disinterested as they seemed in a too-close win against No. 16 seed Albany on Thursday – they’re relentless. They swarm. Then they run their offense, and no matter what happens around the basket, they swarm again. Head coach Billy Donovan makes them practice that way, valuing sprinting, transition pressure and suffocating half-court defense over baskets. Donovan’s reasoning? If they do the first three correctly, the fourth will come.
Donovan has been the coach of the Gators since 1996. With Donovan at the helm, Florida has won seven regular-season SEC titles and four SEC tournament championships. In the NCAA tournament, Donovan and the Gators have made it to three national championships, winning back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007.
But the Gators haven't been back to the final weekend of college basketball since. In 2008 and 2009, the team didn't even make it to the Big Dance. In 2010 they were upset in the first round by BYU. The last three years, they have fallen in the Elite Eight.
This year's Florida team is different, though. A couple of years ago, a frustrated Donovan decided to focus on improving his team's defense using advanced metrics. This year, that work has certainly paid off. Florida is the third-best scoring defense in the nation.
It has been a banner season for the Florida Gators. They've gone 34-2 and were the first team to ever go undefeated in the SEC, 18-0 including the regular season and conference title—a stat that seems even more impressive after the SEC started out the NCAA tournament 5-0.
The leader of this Gators team is Scottie Wilbekin, a formerly troubled star who was suspended from the Gators twice last season. Under Donovan's tutelage, Wilbekin has moved back home with his family, gotten his act together and become the leader that his team needed. Along the way, he has formed a very special bond with his head coach.
"Listen, for me, it's the greatest experience I've ever gone through as a coach, the relationship between he (Wilbekin) and I." - Donovan— Trevor Sikkema (@TampaBayTre) March 22, 2014
Wilbekin had 21 points against Pitt, including clutch shots at the end of both halves to keep Florida in firm control of the game. "We just wanted to come out and not let them play harder than us or not play as hard as we can," Wilbekin told reporters, including The Associated Press (via ESPN), after the game.
As Matt Zemek of Run the Floor notes, Florida's biggest strength is how hard it is willing to work out on the basketball court:
It's still not coming easily for Florida, but that's part of the point -- the Gators' *hard* work is what makes them so tough.— Matt Zemek (@MattZemek) March 22, 2014
Other teams might score more points and have bigger stars and highlight reels, but since Dec. 2, Florida's grit and tenacity has allowed the Gators to get through even those games where their shots aren't falling. If the team keeps up its energy and determination, it's hard to see it going home in the second weekend of the tournament like it has the last three years.
Florida will play either No. 4 UCLA or No. 12 Stephen F. Austin next Thursday in the Sweet 16. They will be the favorites in either game, although UCLA's offense would be one of the best that the Gators have faced all season.
But this group isn't getting ahead of itself. Florida has overcome every challenge it's faced this season, and the team has done it by working together and concentrating on the task at hand. This year, the Gators have their eyes on the prize and they are ready to win the national championship once again.