My 2006 Final Four experience: Making a run

For the first time since 2000, we coasted through the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. We had home court advantage in Jacksonville and neither South Alabama nor UW-Milwaukee gave us much of a game. Regardless of how we did from the Sweet 16 on out, I think Gator Nation collectively breathed a huge sigh of relief. We finally made it out of the first weekend and we would get to see at least one decent basketball game during the tournament.

Through that next week, I was pretty nervous about the upcoming Georgetown game. Everyone knew they were a good team and they would match up well against the Gators. Their guards were solid, their front-court was big and agile, and their offense was exactly the kind of offense that could take us out of our game plan. The Princeton style offense that Georgetown runs uses the same ideas that Izzo had used to defeat us in years past–slow the game down, take your time on every possession and don’t let the Gators get out and run.

The day of our Sweet 16 game, I recruited a friend of mine, gave him a Gators hat and aggravated him for four straight hours by continuously babbling about great the Gators are. “Man, we’re really fun to watch. I’m telling you, we can really move the ball!” Gator basketball just isn’t the same without other Gators cheering around me. My buddy isn’t a Gator, but I made him an honorary Gator for the evening and he was a good sport about it all. The game went right down to the wire and we finally sealed it when Corey Brewer made a crazy circus shot while falling to the floor as he was fouled. I immediately knew that, should we go on to the Final Four, this would be the requisite game-saving shot that each team needs to go the distance.

That night, we also watched the Villanova game. Seeing them play made me very nervous. This was the team who’d bounced us in 2005 and they were very physical, athletic and their guards could flat shoot. I wondered whether our team could hang with them. They basically just bullied Boston College for 40 minutes and I knew they’d try the same thing against us. The referees were letting them play, and I knew that, historically, we didn’t do well against very physical teams. The reason that Kentucky beat us so many times from 2000 to 2004 was that they just played harder than we did, pushed us around and got into our heads. Villanova would try to do the same thing.

That Sunday, I watched the game from my couch. This time, I couldn’t recruit any other Gators–honorary or otherwise–to join in. This was the most important Gator basketball game in almost six years and I was watching it in an empty living room; it was depressing and exhilarating at the same time. I tried not to get my hopes up, but I’d already started looking at plane tickets to Florida in case we won. It didn’t take me long to realize that we were going to run over Villanova. I almost couldn’t even believe what I was seeing: our team was right in their faces, contesting every shot, and matching their physicality stride for stride. Our guards totally shut them down from behind the arc. This game was a coaching masterpiece for Billy Donovan–all he had were mismatches all night, and yet he found a way to stop them from scoring and ran a coherent, effective offense against their swarming guards. All of a sudden, we were going to the Final Four!

The game hadn’t even ended and I was already calling my friends in Gainesville and leaving voicemails everywhere: “Hey, let me know what y’all are doing for the Final Four. If you’re going to Indy, let me know and I’ll go ahead and book a ticket. If you’re staying in Gainesville, I’ll just fly out there. Just let me know so I can book something.” There was no way I�d be watching a Florida Final Four game by myself, I just wouldn�t let it happen. The next morning, they called back and we decided to rendezvous in Gainesville. I immediately booked a ticket and planned to stay in Gainesville through Monday night. At first, I was a little disappointed that we weren’t going to watch the game in Indy, but then I realized we were going back to the Final Four and I was going to watch it all right in the heart of Gator Nation. I didn’t know what it would be like watching the game in Indiana, but I knew what it was like watching the games in Gainesville back in 2000 and that was definitely where I wanted to be.