ARLINGTON, Texas -- This time, it was different. There was no nervous anticipation on the bench, no late leads to try to protect, no shocking disappointment as Florida watched a Final Four berth get snatched away. This time, at the same stage at which the Gators had stumbled the last two seasons, they were manhandled from start to finish.
The way it happened may ease the immediate pain of the defeat -- it's always easier to stomach a rout than a buzzer-beater -- but the game, and the Gators' NCAA tournament run, may have been the perfect epitaph on this particular Florida team.
Florida won 29 games this season. The Gators won every single one of them by double-digits. Now, there were a few cases this season, particularly in the final two meetings with Alabama, where the Gators showed their composure and their chops, laying the anvil down so hard down the stretch that a close game became a double-figure win. But those performances helped fuel the overall meme, which was mostly true, that this particular team couldn't close the deal when things got tough.
In this particular NCAA tournament run, the Gators ended up beating a 14-seed from the Southland Conference, an 11-seed that fired its coach in the aftermath, and a 15-seed from the Atlantic Sun with an epic new nickname but, ultimately, inferior talent. It's easy to prescribe those associations after the fact, as obviously Minnesota and (especially) Florida Gulf Coast notched some significant victims in this event, but that's also the truth. Florida mostly manhandled inferior teams all season. This run was no different.
Today, the Gators ran into Michigan, not your run-of-the-mill 4-seed, one loaded with NBA-level talent, young or not. All the experience in the world Florida had -- upperclassmen who had been to this point before -- didn't matter one whit. Much like the Fab Five 21 years ago, who had so much swagger with their talent that they forced then head coach Steve Fisher to start them in tandem after they badly outplayed their older teammates in workouts, this crop of the Wolverines' first-years (plus Trey Burke, the likely national player of the year) simply took what they thought was theirs and ran with it. Florida couldn't -- and didn't -- do a thing about it. After a season-long debate about how good this Gators team was, the way this NCAA run unfolded made perfect sense. When things were easy, Florida looked invincible. Sunday was anything but easy, and the Gators were anything but a Final Four contender.