Top-seeded Florida looks to end NCAA ‘heartbreak’
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) Florida already has cut down nets twice this season. The Gators have won a school-record 26 consecutive games, became the first team in Southeastern Conference history to go 18-0 in the regular season, won the league tournament and earned the overall top seed in the NCAA tournament for the second time.
No doubt, coach Billy Donovan’s team has accomplished a lot.
The Gators (32-2) aren’t satisfied, either.
The No. 1 seed in the South Region enters the NCAA tournament with an all-or-nothing mentality, knowing it needs six more wins to solidify a spot in program and college basketball lore. Anything short would be another disappointment for a senior-laden team that lost in a regional final the last three years.
”A lot of heartbreak,” leading scorer Casey Prather said. ”But I feel like that’s one of the things that make this team so special, because we know how to battle through and persevere through obstacles.”
Even though Prather and fellow senior starters Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete and Patric Young weren’t the core of the team like they are now, they still vividly remember the feeling of falling just short of the Final Four the last three years.
Florida led Butler by 11 points midway through the second half in 2011 before collapsing and losing in overtime. The Gators ended 2012 in similar fashion. They were up 11 with about 8 minutes to play against Louisville, but managed just three points the rest of the way and lost 72-68.
Last year was equally painful, a humbling, 79-59 thrashing against Michigan.
”It was pretty frustrating,” Young said. ”It was tough to go out the way we did because no team is 30 points better than us. We just came out really slow. You would think an opportunity to go to the Final Four would be enough motivation to come out with enough energy and the right mindset, but I guess that just wasn’t the case.”
The Gators insist it won’t happen again.
”What fuels us is just our last opportunity to win a championship,” said Wilbekin, the SEC player of the year. ”The previous years, we were thinking of just getting to the Elite Eight, just getting to the Final Four. We want a championship. If we fall short of it with the Sweet 16, the Final Four, it won’t be what we wanted.”
Donovan would like his players to have a different mindset.
He is trying to keep them focused on the present and not worry about what happened in the past.
”I don’t think our guys are looking at this as a win-or-bust kind of thing,” Donovan said. ”They’re not. I think they’re looking at this right now as we have an opportunity, what are we going to do with our opportunity and what are we going to try to chase and pursue? … It’s hard to draw any conclusions because of what’s happened in the past.
”I think you can learn from things, but I don’t think our guys are worried about the expectations around us as much as they’re focused on what are our expectations, what are our goals, what are we trying to do, how are we going to practice, how are we going to play, what can we do? We need to block out any distractions, if there are any, and focus on what we need to do between the lines.”
This is probably Florida’s most complete team since winning the second of back-to-back national titles in 2007.
The Gators have talent inside and out, enough depth to trap and press for 40 minutes and the ability to adapt to any style of play. Wilbekin, Prather, sharp-shooter Michal Frazier II, sixth man Dorian Finney-Smith and freshman Kasey Hill are dynamic in the open floor.
The Gators have struggled in half-court sets recently, but Wilbekin, Prather and Young have shown they can create shots when needed.
Florida’s biggest weakness is free-throw shooting. The team is hitting 66 percent from the charity stripe and was a woeful 27-of-54 (50 percent) in the SEC tournament.
If the defensive-minded Gators can find their stroke from the free-throw line and stay hot from 3-point range – they are shooting 47.5 percent from behind the arc the last six games – they could be primed to finally get back to the Final Four. And then maybe win two more games to erase all the recent NCAA heartbreak.
”I’ve had the potential to be on three Final Four teams in three years in a row,” Young said. ”But it’s the past and it’s helping us as a senior class to lead this team now. All we can experience is the now. We’re not going to let that opportunity get by us. We’re going to go out every single day that we can and make sure we give our best effort.
”We can’t take any of these games for granted. Hopefully we win six games in a row.”