My 2006 Final Four experience: Team Building
Next year came and went, along with our hopes of returning to the Final Four. We didn't know it at the time, but we were seeing the beginning of a string of early exits from the NCAA Tournament. In 2001, we got whooped by Temple in the second round. In 2002, we lost a heartbreaker to Creighton, 83-82 in double overtime. In 2003, we replayed the 2000 Finals with Michigan State, only this time they bested us in the second round. In 2004, we fell to Manhattan in the first round. In 2005, we ran into Villanova in the second round.
All the while, Gator Nation was buzzing with speculation that Billy's run to the Finals in 2000 was a fluke, that he wasn't that great a coach. Personally, I went back and forth. From our success during the regular season (we averaged over 20 wins for all five of those years), it was obvious that he could coach. What wasn't obvious was why our team kept fading in March. I think a lot of it had to do with our tournament draws. Creighton is always a tricky team, although we definitely should've beaten them. Tom Izzo is just a good coach and his team matched up well with us in 2003. In 2005, Villanova was arguably the toughest 5-seed in the tournament and their grit and athleticism neutralized our finesse. I think there were also issues with team chemistry. We always had one or two superstars, but the rest of our team often wasn't as involved as it should've been. Superstars can win regular season games, but team play and defense wins championships. Defense was another big issue: we rarely had much of it. Our teams could score a lot of points, but they weren't all that tough. Villanova was simply more physical than we were, and we couldn't match their intensity.
Going into the 2005 season, I think we were all expecting the worst. We lost a significant portion of our offense and experience, and our team was very young. We weren't even close to the pre-season Top 25 and I don't think many Gators were too upset about that. We were bracing for a "rebuilding" year, and that's what made everything else so sweet.
We started off winning the Coaches vs. Cancer tourney in New York. I watched both of our games against Wake and Syracuse, and then I e-mailed my buddies at work the next day: "We're good." The team chemistry was undeniable and it was obvious that these guys weren't intimidated by anyone. Right out of the gate, we had beaten two ranked teams and we had very few tough games on our pre-conference schedule. Next thing we knew, we were 17-0 and poised to take the No. 1 spot in the polls. Almost as if it was scripted, all three remaining undefeated teams lost within hours of each other. To Gator fans, this was no surprise because we were accustomed to tanking when we topped the polls. This time, we only had to be the de facto leader before we dropped a game. All Gators everywhere simultaneously thought, "Here we go again."
I admit I was one of the first doubters. I just didn't want to get my hopes up. This team was young and there was no real, logical reason to expect anything great from them. Our schedule so far had been pretty easy, we hadn't really played any big games (the Wake and Syracuse games lost their luster as the season went on), and we still had a long way to go. Many of the starters had barely played in 2004 and I began to wonder if they were going to hit "the wall" that everyone talks about. They certainly looked to be fatiguing and we weren't winning close games as we had at the beginning of the season. The good news was, we weren't losing by much either. We were losing, but never being blown out.
Going into the 2006 SEC Tournament, I think there was a great sense of urgency for all of us. We hadn't been winning close games lately, we had even lost three straight, and we were in danger of getting a crummy seed in the NCAA tournament. I think Gator Nation felt a great need to defend our SEC Title from 2005. In retrospect, I think that this tournament was what ultimately led us to the Final Four. We got a great draw, so our path to the Championship game was relatively easy. We were fortunate to get a bye the first game, so our guys could rest up for the remaining games in March, however many they may be. We got another shot at two of the four teams who'd beaten us earlier in the season, and that gave us a chance to work on specific aspects of our game. We had let Arkansas' guards have too much freedom when we first played them, and our game against them in the SEC Tournament allowed us to work on locking them down. The South Carolina game was key, in my opinion. They had beaten us twice by pounding the ball inside, and forcing us to play a grind-it-out type of game that drained the shot clock and drastically slowed the tempo. The difference was that we won this one and we learned how to beat them at their own game. I think this game gave us the blueprint that we used to beat Georgetown in the Sweet 16.
After the SEC Tournament, we only had to wait a few hours to find out that we'd been given a 3-seed in our bracket. We would also be playing the first two games in Jacksonville, assuming we made it through the first round this year. I don't think Gator Nation really knew what to expect. On one hand, we'd had our best season ever. On the other hand, we still had a very young team with little experience and no obvious super star. What was worse, we had to wait almost a week to see our first NCAA Tournament game.