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With final shot at Final Four, these Gators can extend Donovan's legacy

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

ARLINGTON, TEXAS -- What was always inevitable for Florida is now less than 24 hours away.

Here's how this third straight Elite Eight sets up for these eager Gators. You've got this seriously good team with a seriously strange flaw. It's the most unusual of statistical quirks. UF only wins big. Twenty-nine victories for Billy Donovan's boys, all of them by 10 points or more. And six of their seven losses have been by single digits.

65-64 to Arizona
67-61 to Kansas State
63-60 to Missouri
64-58 to Tennessee
61-57 to Kentucky
66-63 to Ole Miss

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There's also an 11-point fall to Arkansas from earlier in the year. But such a divergence between wins and losses, it's just weird. In the stats world this gulf in differential between wins and losses is called being "unlucky." Others would say Florida isn't clutch. Dub it whatever you want. Sunday afternoon, Florida will play Michigan -- and the game's getting decided by fewer than 10 points, everybody. It has to.

The teams are too good for this one not to be in some doubt with two minutes to go. The No. 2 points-per-possession Gators defense facing the No. 1 points-per-possession Wolverines offense. And Michigan is still riding off one of the most impressive and dramatic comebacks this NCAA tournament has seen over the past 10 years.

"There is fear of a repeat of last year," Patric Young said Saturday. "There is also hope with experience that we have as a team, we are going to come out, we are going to fight against that to give it all we have for 40 minutes to not experience last year again."

I think it had to narrow to this. The Gators could not go so far into the bracket without finally facing such a team. It just so happens that Michigan is the perfect/worst foe for Florida to face. They'll either buck the funky trend or lose the same way they have lost all year long. And if that happens, Florida's senior class will have failed to make a Final Four for the third straight year.

So beyond the bizarre double-digit victory barrier, there is some legacy on the line as well. It's there for the three seniors (Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario, Erik Murphy) who will play in their 13th NCAA tournament game Sunday. The players are sick of talking about the past two years, about what went wrong against Butler two years ago and the collapse against Louisville last March. On Saturday, Scottie Wilbekin was asked if they are over all that talk. He gave a pause, a look to the reporter that asked the question and let out a calm but firm "yeah."

The legacy really lies with Donovan, though, of course. He's now undoubtedly erected a top-tier program in his time in Gainesville, having built a basketball empire inside the comfort and columns that football provides. Three Final Fours, two national titles, 13 tournament appearances in 17 seasons. Since he got there, you cannot argue there are five more successful schools in college hoops than the Gators.

This is his seventh Elite Eight trip. If it turns into another Final Four run, that would make his third "group," as it were, to get to the biggest stage in the sport. It's an accomplishment few other coaches in the history of this game could discuss with Donovan over dinner. Plenty of guys reach a Final Four. A good chunk have made two, and many have gone to three or four, but they've done it with either one or two cores/classes, or they've done it at different places.

To sustain excellence, to nurture different classes and reach the Final Four three times over elongated spans -- it has always been rare in college basketball and it seems to be getting tougher in this era.

Think about the men who have made at least three Final Fours and which ones have done it three times -- at the same program -- in three different periods, with different players. Who's been able to space out their success over the span of a decade, two, three? Here's the list. You've got Wooden. Rupp. Phog Allen. Denny Crum. Tark. Coach K. Bob Knight. Izzo. Dean Smith. Lute Olsen. Calhoun. Boeheim. And that's it.

Roy Williams hasn't achieved that yet at UNC ('05 and '08-09; Kansas in '91 and '93 had roster crossover, as did '02 and '03). Bill Self is stuck at two Final Fours at KU. Ohio State's Thad Matta is on the doorstep of making his third Final Four -- and second straight -- but if OSU wins this year, it's an extension of last season. So it's still just two eras of players getting him there. Pitino is in the same spot right now with Louisville.

Donovan had that surprise trip in 2000 as a No. 5 seed, then the "oh-fours" class that won it all in '06/07, and now this one. To get there three times in three mini eras -- tough doesn't describe it. Lucky can't, either. If he doesn't get the berth Sunday, his legacy isn't hurt a bit. But he has to want it. So bad. A return trip would then have to move him into the conversation of being one of the 20 best coaches in the history of the game. If that sounds like an overreaction, perhaps you need to look again at those names above one more time.

I don't intend to put so much on one game, but it's the fact of the matter. When it comes to weight and meaning between one game and the next, the only thing wider in achievement between an Elite Eight and a Final Four is the conference title game and a Super Bowl in the NFL.

"I think this game stands on itself," Donovan said. "It's got its own separate identity as itself. It's in the moment. It's now. It's here. It's present."

Donovan loves coaching and living for the moment. He's not one for big reflection or talk of his accomplishments. But outside the previous trips to the Final Four and games with the national title on the line, seems to me no game has meant more to how we'll perceive Billy Donovan than the one he'll coach against Michigan on Sunday afternoon.

 
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