It took a miraculous 75-foot shot, some stunning November upsets and some nail-biting wins in Southeastern Conference play.
But Florida is back in the NCAA Tournament after a two-season absence. The Gators received a surprisingly high No. 10 seed in the West Region and will face No. 7 seed BYU on Thursday in Oklahoma City, Okla.
"We're very, very excited and grateful for the opportunity," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "I'm more excited for our players having a chance to experience this, for most of them this is something they haven't been through yet. They've worked so hard from day one, and it's great to see them rewarded."
It's been a long road back. After winning the 2007 national title, Florida brought in the nation's top-rated recruiting class and was expected to continue its string of nine straight NCAA Tournament appearances. But the Gators stumbled down the stretch in both the 2008 and 2009 seasons, resulting in back-to-back NIT appearances.
Florida (21-12) will be making its 15th NCAA Tournament appearance in school history and 10th under Donovan.
"It was a stressful 48 hours not knowing if we were in or out," Florida junior forward Chandler Parsons said. "We're really excited to be a part of it. For most of us, it's our first experience with the NCAA Tournament. We just don't want to go and play one game, we want to prove we're deserving of being there."
It won't be easy. BYU (29-5) posted its best record in program history and finished second in the Mountain West Conference with a 13-3 record. The Cougars are led by 6-foot-2 junior shooting guard Jimmer Fredette, who is averaging 21.7 points per game and shooting 44.8 percent from 3-point range. BYU also leads the nation in free-throw shooting percentage at 78.4 percent.
"We'll get to work on BYU right away," Donovan said.
If Florida gets by BYU, it would face the winner of No. 2 seed Kansas State and No. 15 seed North Texas in the second round.
Already, ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale has picked the Gators to upset BYU in the first round.
"The Gators have won 70 games in three years and now they finally have a chance to go back to the NCAA Tournament, and I don't think they're going to let this slip by," said Vitale, a Sarasota native. "I think they're going to respond. I think Billy is a good tournament coach. I look for Florida to beat BYU despite the fact that they can shoot the basketball."
Florida was projected as the second team out of the tournament by ESPN.com bracket guru Joe Lunardi late Saturday night. But Florida's body of work outweighed its play down the stretch.
The Gators lost four of their last five games, including a loss to Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. But the Gators posted big wins in November against Florida State and Michigan State. Also, Florida beat North Carolina State in overtime on a 75-foot shot by Parsons at the buzzer.
Florida went 3-8 against the RPI Top 50 and won nine games against RPI top 100 teams. After the field was set, NCAA Tournament Selection Committee chairman Dan Guerrero told CBS a variety of factors were taken into account in choosing at-large times.
"It's not necessarily about how you finish," Guerrero said. "We looked at non-conference schedules or in some cases playing an unbalanced schedule within your division. Wins against the (RPI) Top 50, Top 100 also come into play."
Teams from the SEC West went 2-28 against the top four teams from the SEC East during the course of the season. All four SEC teams that received bids were from the SEC East (Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida). It's the first time since divisional play began in 1992 that all SEC bids in the NCAA Tournament came from the same division.
Of Florida's players, senior Dan Werner is the only one with NCAA Tournament experience. Werner was a freshman who played sparingly off the bench when Florida won the second of its national titles.
"It's such a great feeling (to be back)," Werner said. "That being said, now we need to turn our focus to BYU and need to come with the right mindset and take full advantage of this opportunity.”