Dorian Finney-Smith

For Florida’s senior class, the season ends in shocking disappointment

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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.

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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.”

No. 14 West Virginia takes care of No. 15 Baylor

West Virginia forward Devin Williams (41) dunks the ball during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Baylor, Saturday, Feb, 6, 2016, in Morgantown, W.Va. (AP Photo/Raymond Thompson)
AP Photo/Raymond Thompson
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Not exactly noted for their ability to knock down shots from the perimeter, No. 14 West Virginia grabbed sole possession of first place in the Big 12 thanks in part to their perimeter shooting. The Mountaineers shot 7-for-14 from three and 49.1 percent from the field in a 80-69 win over No. 15 Baylor that wasn’t as close as the final margin would lead one to believe.

Bob Huggins’ team led by as much as 19 in the second half, and the way in which they did it is what makes the win so impressive. “Press Virginia” yielded just ten Baylor turnovers, but that low number didn’t matter much thanks to West Virginia’s execution offensively.

They found quality looks against Baylor’s 1-1-3 zone in the first half and made them at a good clip, forcing Scott Drew to switch to man-to-man. That change didn’t do much to slow down West Virginia either, as Daxter Miles Jr. scored 20 points and sixth man Jaysean Paige added 17 off the bench. And with Devin Williams chipping in with 16 points and seven boards in the post, outplaying Baylor’s Rico Gathers Sr. (five points, seven rebounds), West Virginia grabbed control of the game in the first half and did not relinquish it.

The usual formula for West Virginia offensively is to attack the offensive glass, as their offensive rebounding percentage (43 percent) is tops in the country. “Their best offense is a missed shot” is a familiar refrain heard when people discuss the Mountaineers, who entered the game shooting just over 30 percent from three.

They didn’t need to lean on those second chances as heavily as they normally do Saturday night, not only because of the improved accuracy but also the improved work in finding shots. The ball moved against the Baylor defense and so did the players, resulting in an offensive attack that proved tougher for the visiting Bears to stop that one would expect given the statistics entering the game.

West Virginia was already established as a contender in the Big 12, but thanks to their win Saturday night the Mountaineers are the current pace setters. With a showdown at No. 7 Kansas set for Tuesday night, this was a big win for Bob Huggins’ team to get. And with it coming in spite of a low turnover (forced) count, this should only help West Virginia in the confidence department moving forward.

No. 22 Indiana falls at Penn State

Penn State's Shep Garner (33) moves towards the basket during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Indiana in State College, Pa., Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Ralph Wilson)
(AP Photo/Ralph Wilson)
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Brendan Taylor scored 24 points to lead Penn State to a 68-63 upset of No. 22 Indiana on Saturday night.

The Nittany Lions were 2-8 in Big Ten play entering the weekend. Indiana? They were 9-1 and tied for first in the conference. It’s the second loss in four games for the Hoosiers following a 7-0 start to Big Ten play, a fact made all the more concerning by the fact that their league schedule is finally about to get difficult.

The Hoosiers play No. 5 Iowa at home and No. 10 Michigan State in East Lansing next week. The following week they get No. 18 Purdue at home. In the final week of the regular season, Indiana squares off with No. 5 Iowa on the road and close the regular season with a visit from No. 4 Maryland.

That’s a lot of good teams that the Hoosiers to close out the year.

The question has been asked since Indiana’s hot start to league play: Are they for real? Did the Hoosiers really somehow turn things around defensively, or was that winning streak simply a by-product of their schedule?

The truth is that it was probably a combination of both. Calling them a fraud would be unjust — if you watched those games, there wasn’t much fluky about them; Indiana earned the Ws — but it does seem fair to say this is something of a regression to the mean.

They were going to slip up eventually.

And it will totally be forgotten if the Hoosiers can find a way to close the regular season with a winning record in their final seven games.