ARLINGTON, Texas — Florida entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 team in the country. They were the No. 1 overall seed, and carried a 30-game winning streak into the Final Four. They were the best team in the country. They probably still are the best team in the country, and Saturday night’s Final Four matchup was looked upon as nothing more than a formality.
Show up, beat UConn, play for a national title.
Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and the rest of the Huskies had other ideas, however.
UConn overcame a horrid start, put a 27-6 run on the Gators to erase a 16-4 deficit, and shot 63.6% from the floor in the second half while making 11 of their last 12 shots from the field against the nation’s No. 1 defense. They would go on to win 63-53.
And like that, it was over.
For Florida’s four-man senior class — Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete and Casey Prather — it meant the end of a long and illustrious college basketball career. They reached three Elite 8s before getting to North Texas this season. They won four SEC titles, three of which were the regular season variety. Prior to their arrival on campus, Florida hadn’t reached the Round of 32 of the NCAA tournament since the 2007 team that won a national title.
“I think, for the first time in my life, I was a part of a group of guys that were really willing to bleed for one another,” Young said. “Guys that were really willing to just do whatever it took to go outside of themselves, to commit to the greater goal. Looking at the year, going into it, we didn’t know what was going to happen with the suspension and the injuries and all that stuff. But we stuck together through it.”
And that is why the job that Billy Donovan did coaching this team was one of the best of his long, illustrious career.
Think about where this team was in November. They didn’t know if they were going to get Chris Walker cleared. The had two players — Scottie Wilbekin and Dorian Finney-Smith — suspended at the start of the season. For Wilbekin, it was his second suspension in the span of eight months. Eli Carter never got healthy enough to play and was eventually shut down. Damontre Harris was booted from the team.
The team that was on the floor on Saturday night, the one that made Florida the best team in the country, wasn’t the one that Donovan expected to have at the beginning of the season.
“I saw how dysfunctional we were in September,” Donovan said. “Didn’t even know what we would look like.”
It would be one thing if Florida was like Kentucky, a team stocked with lottery-ready talent. But they’re not. It’s not a stretch to say that the only player that will end up having a significant career in the NBA is Walker, who basically didn’t have a role this season.
That’s what made the season so rewarding.
“I got a chance to experience a lot of personal victories along the way off the court,” he said. “Their body of work on the court, people will evaluate of judge themselves, but for me personally, where they were as individuals and where they were as a team, it was one of the most special experiences I’ve had being around a group of guys away from the court maybe since I’ve been in coaching.”
The good news for Billy Donovan is that he’s got plenty of talent in the pipeline. Florida is always going to get players, and that’s once again the case in the Class of 2014. Devin Robinson is a five-star wing that has the length and athleticism to have an immediate impact in college. Chris Chiozza might spend a year or two apprenticing under Kasey Hill, but his future is bright, as is that of Brandone Francis. Add in Duke transfer Alex Murphy, who will be eligible in December, to returnees Michael Frazier II, Dorian Finney-Smith and Eli Carter, and the framework for an SEC contender is there.
The key is going to be Chris Walker. He’s a freak athlete, a potential lottery pick that was a top ten recruit in 2013. But NBA front office types know that as well, and just because he couldn’t crack Florida’s rotation after he missed the first 21 games of the season doesn’t mean that his NBA career is in jeopardy. If he returns, Florida should very good once again. If he leaves, the Gators will be in major trouble along their front line. That’s one of the reasons they haven’t completely cut ties with Harris.
But the folks in the Gator program will worry about that later.
For now, they’re just upset about the fact that this team will not be ending their careers with a win.
“One thing I can take from this team,” Young said, “is just when you can truly love a group of guys or people like this, you bring the best out of them and you bring the best out of yourself.”