Florida Gators' Blueprint to Win the 2014 NCAA Tournament

Gideon Rubin@@RubinGideonFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2014

Florida Gators' Blueprint to Win the 2014 NCAA Tournament

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    Phil Sandlin/Associated Press

    Many of NCAA selection committee's decisions are sure to raise some eyebrows in the coming days.

    The decision to make the Florida Gators the No. 1 seed in the South Region, however, isn't one of them.

    The nation's top-ranked team is heading into the tournament as a heavy favorite and is picked to win it all by most knowledgeable experts and every casino on the Vegas strip. Vegas Insider, for example, has the Gators as an 11-2 favorite.

    But in a historically unpredictable tournament, it's important to remember going in that advantages on paper don't always materialize on hardwood floors in front of packed arenas the way they're supposed to.

    The Gators open against the winner of a first-round game between Albany and Mt. St. Mary's.

    Here is how Florida can avoid being one of those teams.

Just Be Florida

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    Phil Sandlin/Associated Press

    Florida is in a uniquely enviable position going into the tournament in the sense that the Gators really shouldn't have to do anything exceptional to contend for the title.

    The Gators aren't a perfect team to be sure. They have weaknesses that could be exposed deeper into the tournament just like everybody else, but if they stick to what got them to this point, they should have no trouble getting to the Final Four.

    Their combination of a suffocating defense, experience (they start four seniors) and outstanding chemistry make them well-suited to withstand the challenges even on an off shooting night.

    The Gators have gotten to this point without a can't-miss NBA prospect by buying into coach Billy Donovan's team-oriented philosophy that emphasizes unselfishness.

    The temptation to stray from the blue-collar approach they've been winning with under the bright lights of the Big Dance could prove costly for a team that has no true superstars.

Show No Mercy

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    Dave Martin/Associated Press

    Florida carries an aura of invincibility into the tournament along with a target on its back.

    It's human nature to root for underdogs, and in a tournament that offers a lot of Cinderella stories, those "awe shucks, we're just happy to be here" early-round opponents can be dangerous for a team like Florida.

    Florida should annihilate first-round opponent (Albany or Mt. St. Mary's) with relative ease, and the Gators will surely do so before it's all over.

    But a team under no pressure that's playing with house money can draw energy from a packed arena at the first hint of a potentially interesting development.

    Whoever Florida opens with of course has no chance—No. 16 seeds are 0-for-infinity tournament history—but a team with nothing to lose can force the Gators to expend energy and the risk of injury by extending a game that should ostensibly be over 10 minutes in.

    Squashing any remote hope early on will keep the Gators fresh for games deeper in the tournament that will really matter and add to the intimidation factor the Gators have going into the tournament.

Make Free Throws

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    For all the things Florida has done well this year, shooting free throws hasn't been one of them.

    The Gators rank tied for 275th among 351 NCAA Division I teams with a 66.6 free-throw percentage (507 for 761).

    It isn't all bad at the free-throw line for Florida.

    Guards Michael Frazier II and Scottie Wilbekin are 83.6 (46-of-55) and 74.4 (90-of-121) percent shooters from the stripe.

    Center Patric Young, a 60 percent free throw shooter (75-of-125) and forward Casey Prather at 67.7 percent (109-of-161) are among the worst offenders.

    It shouldn't matter early on, but free-throw shooting woes could haunt the Gators in close games later in the tournament.

Depend on Defense

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    Bill Haber/Associated Press

    Florida's lack of star power and problems at the free-throw line hasn't mattered much throughout the season and probably won't be a factor in the tournament if it keeps playing lights-out defense.

    The Gators have yielded the third-fewest points allowed (57.9) in the nation—no small feat for a team playing in the intensely competitive SEC.


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