VETTEL: Jacksonville all but certain for UF

Chris Richard was today's hero / GETTY IMAGES

For weeks I've been saying that Florida needed 25 wins to earn a top four seed in the NCAA tournament and the right to play in Jacksonville in the first two rounds. Well after what's happened in the last few days, the Gators can start figuring out directions to The Landing.

It's not just the fact Billy Donovan's squad now has 26 victories and a four game winning streak. They belong back in the nation's top ten and a win Sunday could and should make that happen.

It's not just that they have two wins over the SEC regular season champion. It's not just that they are still playing while Kentucky, Tennessee and LSU are going home. This team has shown talent, depth, growth and resiliency; championship attributes all. The Gators entered tournament week ranked 16th in the A.P. Poll and 14th in the ESPN/USA Today coaches vote.

Richard Newest Hero

Friday night against Arkansas the Gators got virtually nothing from its bench as all five starters played over 30 minutes. Saturday against LSU Florida's bench, or more specifically Chris Richard gave UF a huge list. Richard certainly couldn't match Glen Davis body for body… who could? But "C-rich" battled for a season-high 30 minutes and almost matched Davis' 12 points with ten of his own. The junior from Lakeland added seven rebounds, his season high in 19 games against SEC teams.

Adrian Moss was useful and scrappy off the bench as well, chipping in four points and some needed hustle.

It was another game with five guys in double figures and it was another impressive win for a cast of characters that continues to deliver results game in and game out.

South Carolina? Really?!

While the Gators' trip to their third consecutive SEC tournament final can't be considered a big surprise, the winner in the other half of the draw certainly is. South Carolina arrived in Nashville with a 15-and-14 record, fearful that a loss in the first round to Mississippi State might knock the Gamecocks out of the N.I.T.

Well, after a 15-point win over the Bulldogs, Carolina has consecutive wins over Tennessee (79 – 71) and Kentucky (65 – 61). They are a team that now is one upset from an NCAA Tournament berth that seemed almost inconceivable just three days ago.

Every Gator fan knows that the Gamecocks somehow won both match ups with Florida this year. Both games were exactly what South Carolina hopes for – low scoring, slow paced defensive struggles. Those games limit Florida's greatest strength, the big guys in transition. It's no coincidence the Gators scored 69 or more points in 30 of their 32 games and the two exceptions came in the losses to South Carolina.

Tarence Kinsey and Renaldo Balkman are both from Tampa and both play very well against Florida. In the first game between the two teams, Kinsey scored 19 and Balkman added 14. The Gamecocks killed the Gators with 14 offensive rebounds and won 68-to-62.

Game two in Gainesville was perhaps the most disappointing loss of the season for the Gators as Carolina came to town and ended Florida's 20-game O'Dome winning streak. Kinsey had 16 while Balkman was less trouble with eight points and eight boards. The real killer in this game was little used reserve Bryce Sheldon who scored 14 off the bench in the 71-to-67 final.

Nothing to Lose on Sunday

With the win over LSU, the Gators are in an enviable position entering the title game Sunday afternoon. Another win could make UF a three seed and the trophy would certainly look nice, but I can't imagine how a loss would do any harm.

All six Gator losses are to tournament bound teams. Alabama might be back on the NCAA bubble, but they certainly will see some post-season action. Carolina beating the Gators for the third team would make them an NCAA team and would mean at least six of the Gators seven losses would be to teams in the big dance.

Florida has also gotten a pick me up in the strength of schedule evaluations this week, adding high quality games against Arkansas and LSU. Plus the Gators earn added credit for their victories over Syracuse and Wake Forest who had impressive weeks as well.

Florida can go out in Nashville and let ‘er rip, but don't think they will be cavalier about this game. If you guys think you were disappointed in the team in the first two Carolina games, just think how they feel. Florida is a clearly superior team, and despite the awkward match ups, they will be cutting down the nets Sunday afternoon.

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