Final Four Previews In-Depth: Florida GatorsPosted by Bennet Hayes on April 4th, 2014
As part of our ongoing NCAA Tournament coverage, RTC is unveiling a detailed look at each of the Final Four teams throughout the week. Kentucky, Wisconsin and UConn have already released. Today: Florida.
Back on December 2, college basketball pollsters would have told you that Florida was the worst of the four teams still standing in this NCAA Tournament. #12 UConn beat the 15th-ranked Gators that night, and both Kentucky (#3) and Wisconsin (#8) rested comfortably among the top 10 teams in the nation. Things have changed quite significantly in the months since. As a result of 30 consecutive victories since that loss in Storrs, Florida now enters the Final Four as the prohibitive favorite to cut down the nets, while their three Final Four mates have lost a combined 24 times since the Gators have. It’s been a relentless and astounding string of success for Billy Donovan’s team, but the Gators know that their winning streak will mean far less if it fails to reach 32 games. The ultimate validation is available in North Texas, and Florida appears poised and ready to snatch it.
Pre-NCAA Tournament Capsule. Florida, picked to finished second in the SEC in the league preseason poll, began the season with a rather discombobulated roster. Scottie Wilbekin started the year suspended, Chris Walker was ineligible, and newcomers Dorian Finney-Smith, Kasey Hill, and DeVon Walker all missed time due to injuries. There were even times when Billy Donovan didn’t have enough healthy bodies to scrimmage five-on-five in practice, which made the Gators’ 11-2 non-conference record (which included victories over Kansas, Memphis, and Florida State) a good, if not great, beginning to the season. But Florida was just getting started. With Casey Prather emerging out of nowhere as an All-American candidate and Wilbekin shedding character issues to become one of the best two-way floor generals in the country, Florida ripped off 21 straight victories to seize the SEC regular season and Tournament crowns, leaving a path of destruction in their wake. Not everything was easy – five of those SEC wins came by five points or fewer – but the Gators posted the most impressive regular season in college basketball this season. They were rightfully awarded the #1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, and entered the Big Dance on a 26-game winning streak.
How They Got Here. The journey to Dallas was a direct one for Florida, which rarely struggled in dispatching Albany, Pittsburgh, UCLA and Dayton along the way. Pitt looked to be as good an #8-#9 seed as this year’s Tournament had to offer, but Florida out-toughed a team renowned for their physicality, eventually winning by a comfortable 16-point margin. Sweet Sixteen opponent UCLA presented an entirely different challenge for Billy Donovan’s team, but the Gators’ full-court pressure disrupted the potent UCLA offense enough to hold the Bruins under a point per possession, allowing their own shot-makers to settle in and make the difference in another double-figure victory. The last roadblock on the road to Dallas was Dayton, a team whose Cinderella story had stolen hearts across the country. Unfortunately for fans of the little guy, Florida’s more experienced, bigger front line carried the day, and the Gators were headed to the Final Four on the back of a +20 edge in free throw attempts.
Final Four History. Florida had made the Final Four just once before Billy Donovan took over in 1996 (the Gators lost in the National Semifinals to Duke in 1994), but this will be Donovan’s fourth visit to the Final Four as the head man in Gainesville. Under Billy The Kid, Florida is 3-0 in Final Four games and 5-1 overall in the Tournament’s final weekend, with the lone loss coming in the 2000 title game to Michigan State. Few will soon forget the back-to-back Florida titles in 2006 and 2007, and after three consecutive Elite Eight losses in 2011-13, this year’s team will attempt to make it three straight Final Four to National Title conversions for the Gators.
Season High Point. When a team wins 30 consecutive games it can be difficult to highlight one isolated peak, but the Gators’ January 11 victory at Arkansas may have shaped this season as much as any victory. The win at Kentucky a month later may have been when the nation finally came around to Florida’s status as the best team in the land, but the gut-check in Bud Walton Arena is the best example of the silent determination that has fueled this run. With Prather out and Wilbekin not starting due to an ankle injury, the undermanned Gators rallied back from a seven-point deficit to force overtime, then scored 18 points in the extra frame to steal a win in Fayetteville. It was the gimpy Wilbekin who came up with the biggest shot of the game, tying things up on a pull-up jumper with two seconds left in regulation. The moment was pivotal in Wilbekin’s ascendance to trusted leader, and the victory symbolic of a team that was learning how to win the tough ones, no matter who was in uniform.
Season Low Point. Both Wisconsin and UConn have done their best to excuse the two Florida losses this season, and neither defeat was especially traumatic at the time, so it’s hard to find any on-court low point for the consistent Gators. With that in mind, the nadir of this Florida season had to come long before the ball ever tipped on regular season action. Scottie Wilbekin’s indefinite suspension (for a violation of team rules) that was handed down over the summer put the senior point guard’s status on the team in serious jeopardy, and would eventually add to the early season personnel chaos that plagued Florida. Little was certain about the 2013-14 Gators back in June, and the uncertain availability of Wilbekin, one of just two returning starters, had to prompt major concern about the season ahead.
What’s Working. Considering Florida has won 30 straight games and has held every NCAA Tournament opponent under a point per possession while scoring at least a point per possession in all four games, the correct answer might be everything. The Gators are also averaging just eight-and-a-half turnovers per game in the Tournament, and as they have done all season, continue to control the action on the backboards. It’s been a four-game efficiency tour de force for Billy Donovan’s team in this NCAA Tournament, with their confidence and composure, in equal parts, palpable at all times.
What’s Not Working. Very little is the real answer, but if we are nitpicking, the lack of a go-to scorer could cause issues in the waning moments of a close game. Wilbekin has been tremendous all season and is a pretty capable shot-maker, but as the closest thing Florida has to a go-to scorer, he isn’t what you picture as a premier scorer on a national title team. In Shabazz Napier, Frank Kaminsky and Julius Randle, every other team in this Final Four has a player bound to create mismatches. The balanced Gators don’t have one guy that fits this bill, but will it matter? It certainly hasn’t to this point.
Why Florida Will Win It All. They have been the best team in college basketball for the past four months. Their defense is second to none, as capable of forcing turnovers and speeding you up into an quick-tempo game as they are buckling down and grinding out half-court possessions. The offense isn’t as efficient as the defense, but is still one of the 20 best in the country, and don’t forget the senior leadership. The quartet of Gator seniors – Wilbekin, Patric Young, Will Yeguete, and Prather – have waited four long years to get to this stage. You had better believe that in their one and only Final Four opportunity, they will fully understand the effort and urgency that this stage demands. Oh, and if they don’t? Their Hall of Fame, two-time National Championship-winning head coach will be guiding them along every step of the way. Make no mistake about it – it will be an upset if Florida is not the last team standing on Monday night.
Why Florida Won’t Win it All. You don’t win 30 in a row by accident. The Gators are the most balanced team in the country and will refuse to beat themselves, but if they are to fall in North Texas, a lack of diversity among perimeter scoring options may prove to be the culprit. Wilbekin and Michael Frazier are the lone Gators shooting over 30 percent from beyond the arc, and removing one or both of those threats would be a fantastic way to make the Florida offense fairly one-dimensional. Complete neutralization of Wilbekin may be difficult, but doing so with Frazier is a more manageable task. His season has been one relatively uncelebrated by the national media, but the sophomore sharpshooter has made 117 three-point field goals (a school record) and shot 45 percent from long range. Florida may not need him to continue his efficiency clinic in the Final Four to win it all – let’s not forget how balanced the Gators are – but the value of his floor-spacing ability should not be overlooked. Make life difficult for Frazier and Wilbekin, and you make life difficult for the Florida offense. Might UConn and their pesky guards prove up to this challenge?