JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - I'm sure it's hard not to feel stunned if you followed Gator basketball this year after the loss to UConn in the Final Four.
Rolling along, winners of 30 straight and a favorite against the Huskies, it just seemed inevitable that Florida would get a chance to play for a National Championship.
The story lines were endless: the four seniors, the transfers, and the freshmen contributors. The redemption of Scottie Wilbekin and Casey Prather and the development of Patric Young and Will Yeguete. The team concept, the unselfishness and the way they won games down the stretch had people believing this team was destined for their place in history.
But as coach Billy Donovan noted in some of those close games toward the end of the season, their margin of error was very small. Without relying on a star to get them a basket when needed, the offensive load was spread around. There wasn't any pressure on any one player. If he was having an off night, somebody else could pick up the slack. But when things went south against UConn as a team, Florida didn't have any answers.
Patric Young was relying on what the Gators had done in the past, trying to conjure up good thoughts among his teammates.
"I think I was just trying to get the guys just to stay in the moment and just keep pushing on from the past, because we have been a team that's come from behind a lot, especially late in the season," he said after the game. " I thought that if we just picked it up a little bit more, just forgot about how we were shooting and just locked in and focused, we could have it come again."
Donovan said it would sink in a little later and when it does, I'm sure he'll lament the many things the Gators did wrong and how they didn't do things in the national semi-final that they had been doing all year.
"I thought that what generally happened for us was we were able to in the first six or eight minutes, get defensive stops and get out on the break. But if you look at their shooting percentage for the game, that really did not enable us to get out on the break. We could not get out on the break very much and attack like we wanted to."
Their hallmark for the season was defense. They could clamp down on anyone and that usually led to points on the other end. Some nights an offensive outburst by one player put the game out of reach quickly. Wilbekin, Michael Frazier and Prather all had their share,.
There was a constant feeling watching the game that somehow Florida was going to get it together and start a run that put them ahead and forced UConn into some mistakes. But save for the opening of the game that never happened. It was the Huskies that played the disturbing defense and it was Florida's usually unflappable ball handlers who turned it over and handed quick points to the opponent.
Young thought at one point in the second half it was all going to happen for the Gators.
"We cut it down to three, and I thought we were there. We were going to be able to I think change the game, take the lead back. But UCONN was very good with their pressure on our guards and we didn't convert points. They scored a lot on us as well. So all the credit goes to them."
Next year's squad will look different, but it will remain talented:
- Kasey Hill's experience as a freshman will be a valuable asset with four new starters on the floor:
- Chris Walker is just getting started and no doubt will benefit from having a full off-season to get bigger and stronger.
- Devon Walker saw enough playing time to know what's expected.
- Dorian Finney-Smith is already an established player who will have to have a leadership role as a junior.
- Jacob Kurtz was a situational player this year but could be counted on for something different in the future.
- Demontre Harris is back working out with the team and if he is anything like he was as the SEC's freshman of the year, he'll contribute right away.
It's also a chance for the incoming freshmen to earn some playing time as well. There's room.
The steps of the NCAA tournament are progressively harder as you go along. Getting there and then advancing is a grind. Watching the team figure out who they were and how to win games throughout the season and into the tournament was fascinating.
Donovan says it was a very different kind of year starting with injuries and suspensions and ending with a trip to the Final Four. He called his team "dysfunctional" in September but saw a dramatic change.
"I got a chance to experience a lot of personal victories along the way off the court. Their body of work on the court people will evaluate or judge themselves, but for me personally, where they were as individuals and where they were as a team to where they came from in terms of becoming a team, I mean, 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."
And the transformation was the same for the players.
"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 explained. " Guys that were really willing to just do whatever it took to go outside of themselves, to commit to the greater goal."
And Will Yeguete was able to look to the past and to the future with a senior's perspective.
"We accomplished a lot of things during the year. This game is not changing anything, regardless of how I feel, of my relationship with them. They're great guys. I love them, love to be around them. I just wish them the best and I know they're going to be successful in life."
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