Sam: Gators to start NCAA tourney run

By Sam Kouvaris, Sports director, skouvari@wjxt.com
Published On: Mar 19 2014 04:08:38 PM EDT
Updated On: Mar 19 2014 08:59:55 PM EDT
ORLANDO, Fla. -

A No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

I thought I’d get that out there right away so if there is some kind of jinx, it’ll fade by game time on Thursday.

But the Gators won’t need it.

As the top ranked team in the country for the first time at the end of the regular season, Florida will beat Albany in their opener in Orlando of the NCAA tournament.

Unlike with the back-to-back national championship teams, this Gators squad doesn’t engender a lot of confidence when it comes to the fans expectations.  Maybe it’s just the Gator fan mentality, maybe because they don’t have a part of their game that looks dominating, or maybe it’s because they’ve been scared to death at the close calls in the last three weeks.  But the fact remains that Florida is still unbeaten since December 3rd when UConn threw up a prayer at the buzzer to beat them.  Since then there are a half dozen games that this group of players would have let get away coming down the stretch.

“Absolutely,” Patric Young agreed after beating Kentucky in their final regular season game at home.  “But this team believes in each other.  We pump each other up.  When other teams go on a run, we respond.”

And that’s the biggest difference.  This team does respond.  Instead of running from the ball with the game on the line, Scottie Wilbekin is looking for his shot.  Michael Frazier II accepts, as Billy Donovan calls it, the “responsibility” to take that shot.  Young is not afraid with the ball in his hands and can make things happen.

The ability to reach what you might think is the highest of highs, regroup and do it again, and regroup and do it a third time is the key to the Gators continued success.

“It’ll be talked about,” Donovan said when asked if it was the coach’s responsibility to manage the emotional ups of his team.  “We all have a stake in that, and I like our guys attitude towards that.  They’re concentrating on what they can do instead of all of the potential things going on around them.”

That’s what happens when you have a senior laden team.  With Young and Wilbekin in the starting lineup with Will Yeguete and Casey Prather, the Gators put four guys on the floor who have been around college basketball for a while.  All are stories that have a bit of redemption in them.  Young was so raw as a freshman it was hard to project him as any kind of offensive threat.  Wilbekin has been suspended from the team multiple times for breaking team rules and was told by Donovan after his injury early this year that if he didn’t change his game, he was going to the bench.  Of course, he became the SEC Player of the Year.  Yeguete has battled knee problems and Prather was so far in the dog house in his first two years in Gainesville that most of the talk was about where he’d transfer to.  All have played pivotal roles in the Gators success this year.  But the thing I was most impressed with seeing those guys in person before, during and after games is how they actually stick together.  When they’re going to do something, be interviewed, kiss the floor, cut the nets, they do it together.

It’s hard not to think of anything less than a National Championship as a failure.  But that would be a shame if they don’t win it if that’s all they’re remembered for.  This has been a fun team to watch and a fun team to be around.  Donovan calls it the most satisfying, fun regular season he’s ever coached. 

Let’s hope it continues.

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