Over the past decade, the NCAA basketball tournament and the Florida basketball team have gone hand in hand. In fact, head coach Billy Donovan has taken them to the big dance in 14 of his 17 seasons (including his current campaign). Needless to say, it has been business as usual for him in 2014. The Gators are back in the tournament with perhaps the best team Donovan has ever coached.
Just what is it that makes this team so special? Well, there are several key components. One of them being that this is a group with plenty of experience – something that has proved to be vital in March for any team. The Gators start four seniors: Patric Young at center, Will Yeguette at power forward, Casey Prather at small forward, and 2014 SEC Player of the year Scottie Wilbekin at point guard.
For this senior group specifically, they are not only experienced, but also quite accomplished. In their four years at Florida, they are the winningest senior class in school history with an impressive career record of 112-29. More importantly, they have a history of going deep into the NCAA tournament. In their first three seasons at Florida, these seniors have gone to the elite eight all three times. Needless to say, they know what it takes and are ready to leave it all on the floor one for one last run.
The odd man out when discussing the Gators’ starting lineup, sophomore Michael Frazier II, has often been the x-factor in close games this season. He is a high percentage outside shooter and can put games out of reach quickly when given the opportunity. He should make his presence felt this March in a big way.
In a collegiate sport that has been dominated by “one and done” freshman recruits who play out their freshman year and then immediately jump ship for the NBA, this type of veteran leadership is rare and should allow Florida to separate themselves from the pack in the coming days and weeks.
What more casual fans may not know about this team is how deep they are. It has been a luxury all season for coach Billy Donovan. When his seniors come off the court, he has the ability to unearth a bevy of talent by simply inserting his reserves. This is a weapon for which opposing coaches often lack a rebuttal.
Make no mistake about it, these players have been as important to Florida’s success as anyone. Their talented young second unit is led by SEC sixth man of the year Dorian Finney-Smith, along with a pair of highly touted freshmen in point guard Kasey Hill and forward Chris Walker.
All three have been sparkplugs for the blue and orange this season. Their rare combination of fundamentals and athleticism has resulted in rapid production on the court. If opponents think it will be smooth sailing when the starters take a rest, there will certainly be stormy waters ahead for them.
Overall, the Florida Gators are the overwhelming favorite this year to win the NCAA championship, and they come in as the number one overall seed. Experience, depth and their will to win should carry them through March barring a complete meltdown.
This is a group that took the SEC outright title, were crowned SEC tournament champions, and enter the big dance winners of 26 straight games. Will the Gators soon be hoisting their third championship trophy in the past decade? Only time will tell.