Finney-Smith makes long-awaited NCAA tournament debut

Florida forward Dorian Finney-Smith shoots a 3-pointer during a practice at the Amway Center on Wednesday. The Gators will play Albany on Thursday in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, March 20, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 19, 2014 at 7:57 p.m.

ORLANDO — For most of the Florida players, the blue curtains and NCAA font on the signs are old news. For Billy Donovan, the feeling in his stomach this morning as he gets ready for another tournament game is a given.

But for Dorian Finney-Smith, this is like opening the biggest Christmas present under the tree.

This time, he's with his team.

This time, he's in the tourney.

If it feels like the first time, that's because it is.

Today, you may be able to see the goosebumps without HD.

“To go from being on a team that never had a postseason (Virginia Tech) to being here,” said senior center Patric Young, “I'm sure he's grateful.”

A year ago, he was a big part of the Florida team that made the Elite Eight. Then again, he wasn't.

While Finney-Smith worked hard during the season to offer scout team looks to the Gator inside players, once the tournament rolled around Florida wasn't allowed to take him to Austin because he was sitting out the year as a transfer.

So he watched and texted, and texted and watched. He went to the gym alone. He went to school alone.

“It was tough, man,” said the player they call Doe-Doe. “Especially see my team lose (in Dallas to Michigan). I felt like I could have contributed.

“It was just tough, but they did a good job keeping me in the loop. I'd group text them a lot, tell them to go play hard. You kind of feel out of it. You feel like the only one going to school. But I just told myself, 'You're just going to have to tough this one out.'”

It's difficult to imagine that feeling. You sweat and sprint and dunk in practice and sit on the bench for home games in the O'Connell Center, and then when all of the attention is on college basketball, none of it is on you.

That's why this opening game in the NCAA tournament against Albany may be more special to Finney-Smith than anyone else.

Because he's here.

Not back there.

Nothing against Gainesville.

“That's gotta be pretty rough watching your team on TV when you've been with them every day,” said sophomore guard Michael Frazier II.

Pretty rough, indeed.

Not like this. This is standing in Florida's assigned locker room at the Amway Center with TV lights shining in your face. This is blue rugs and open practice and more media than you've seen all season.

This is the NCAA tournament.

“It's special, man,” he said with a big grin.

“It's different when you have to sit out,” said senior Will Yeguete. “I'm sure he's enjoying his time right now.”

More than last year. Last year, he helped them so much, but nobody outside of the inner circle saw it. Last year, he had days in practice that turned into whispers outside of the practice facility about how good he might be.

And this year we saw it. Huge rebounds. Big shots. Tough defense.

As it turned out, he was good enough to be the best sixth man in the SEC.

“That felt good,” Finney-Smith said. “It just means I accepted my role coming off the bench and I took pride in that.”

Last year he was a key part of the team in February. This year he is a major part of the team in March.

“I'm happy for him,” Donovan said. “I know he's excited about it and he's been a real, real big piece and a positive piece to our team this season.”

Florida might have made the NCAA tournament without Finney-Smith, but it wouldn't have won 26 in a row and gone 21-0 in the SEC and beaten Kentucky and Tennessee six times in 51 days or been the No. 1 overall seed without him.

“He stuck it out,” Young said. “He stuck it through, stayed with the process and I'm glad he's with us right now.”

In the Big Dance. March Madness. Bracket Fever.

Welcome, Doe-Doe.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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