Gators trounce November expectations for their season
Published: Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 7:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 7:23 p.m.
To fully appreciate what this Florida basketball team has accomplished so far this season, you have to take yourself back to November.
Remember November? The Gator Nation was wallowing in the misery of one of the worst football seasons ever and there weren't a lot of reasons to believe that basketball was going to offer a remedy.
It wasn't that Florida had a lack of talent. It's just that a lot of it wasn't playing.
Scottie Wilbekin was suspended. So was Dorian Finney-Smith. Chris Walker was in limbo. Will Yeguete was nowhere near 100 percent because of offseason surgery. Jacob Kurtz was the first player off the bench and played 26 minutes in the opener.
Two of the early subs in the opening game against North Florida were Eli Carter and Dillon Graham, both since relegated to redshirts.
Florida won that night by eight points and gave up 38 second-half points. There was no reason to think this team might be special, certainly not this special.
Nobody could see this coming. Greatness seemed like a pipe dream.
This team looked like a big puzzle. Then, the pieces began to be put into place.
What we didn't know then is what we know now — that this team had bought in. We didn't know Wilbekin would return from his second suspension a changed man. We didn't know Casey Prather's 28 points in the opener were a sign of things to come, not an aberration. We didn't know the bench would eventually become filled with players who would understand their roles.We didn't know it could win whether Michael Frazier II scored zero points or 37.
And we didn't know Patric Young would come to grips with what he is, not who we thought he was.
“Number one (thing that had to change) was my attitude — just having the mindset of not getting bored with the process,” Young said earlier this week. “The process can be boring at times when you do the same things over and over again. You have to start from ground zero every year. You have to embrace that because the foundation you lay early in the season or the offseason is going to bear good fruit hopefully when the season moves along.”
A team that struggled on the road a year ago won every SEC game on the road. A team that found a way to lose close games discovered how to win them.
I go back to the Arkansas game as the turning point of this season. It was only the second SEC game of the season and Florida had already lost a couple of tight games at Wisconsin and UConn, but still had put up an NCAA-worthy non-conference resume. Nobody was thinking about this team being a one seed at the time.
But the Gators went to Fayetteville, Ark., where they had been blown out the year before. And they trailed throughout the game, down eight with 4:43 to play.
Instead of succumbing to the wishes of the Hog-calling fans, they rallied to send the game into overtime, then won it, 84-82. That's when you knew this season might be different.
There have been bigger victories this season, but that's the one that sticks in my mind, the catalyst for this season.
Still, 17-0 in the SEC? No. 1 in the nation? SEC champions? Did you see all of that coming in November?
It's a testament to Billy Donovan, but it's a testament to everyone connected to the program whether it be the strength coach or the video coordinator or the assistants and certainly to the players who have made this happen.
Late in Tuesday night's blowout win at South Carolina, the students in Columbia began to chant, “Geor-gia Sou-thern!” Really? That's it?
But it did take you back to November when Gator fans needed to feel good again.
This team had provided the perfect antidote for the fall flop, a salve for a deep wound.
That wasn't its job, but it has been a byproduct.
On Saturday, there is one more chance to chase greatness at home. The carrot is still out there, dangling from a string. But this group has already taken a pretty good chomp out of it.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.