Ladies and gentleman, these are your Florida Gators. And in case you hadn’t noticed, these guys are pretty good. How good? How about #2 in the nation, 23-2 overall, 12-0 in the SEC, and currently on a school record 17 game winning streak. The only other Gator basketball teams who won 17 straight won NCAA tournament championships. After dispatching Kentucky, the only other team with a legitimate claim to an SEC title this year, the Gators path to an undefeated conference season and a possible number one seed in the tourney appears very doable. But let’s not crown them just yet.
In an age of “one and done’s”, players leaving early for the NBA, and players transferring for more playing time, this team is an anachronism. A senior dominated lineup of players who, other than Patric Young, were mostly role players for much of their careers and waited patiently for their opportunity to start yet never wavered from the path head coach Billy Donovan set for them.
It’s not exactly an outhouse-to-the-penthouse story nor is it as dramatic a change as the ’04’s who went from rarely used bench players to national champs. Unlike those guys, this collection of players had made significant contributions previously in their careers but, other than Young, who has been the starting center for two years, these guys were never THE guy. They all had varying roles on OTHER teams, all three of which made it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tourney. But now it’s THEIR time and they’re making the most of it.
Coming into the past week there were still a ton of detractors. Despite a 15 game winning streak and undefeated conference record, many questioned how good this team actually was, largely due to a scheduling quirk which had them playing the dregs of a weak SEC through much of the first half of their conference slate. And then there’s the fact that they were not very overwhelming against that weak schedule. Unlike last season when the Gators were blowing out their opponents in their victories, this year’s edition was struggling against weak competition going to overtime at Arkansas, being in a one point game with two minutes to play against Auburn, heading to halftime close in seemingly every game.
Sure they look good at home, in the friendly confines of the O’Dome and the loud and proud Rowdy Reptiles. The knock has been that they struggle away from home. But after taking the best shots of both Tennessee and Kentucky on the road in two of the tougher road venues in the conference and perhaps the nation, it’s safe to say this team has won over many of their detractors.
All Aboard! The Gator Bandwagon is leaving the station and it’s running out of room.
They are a throwback team for sure. Four seniors who have stuck it out for four years and matured both on and off the court playing team basketball the way it USED to be played. For sure there are no superstars, simply blue collar guys who have learned Billy Donovan’s complex offensive and defensive systems to a tee and found their role within it.
Patrick Young, the former McDonald’s All American center who up to this season never quite seemed to live up to the hype that goes with being a chiseled 6’10 post player. Casey Prather, the athletic wingman who can take most post players off the dribble and make athletic moves to the basket but has limited jump shooting abilities. Will Yeguete the defensive specialist who is active underneath the basket and on the press but has little in the way of offensive ability. And then there’s the guy who makes it all go, point guard Scottie Wilbekin. A low rated kid, and I do mean kid (he was 16 when he enrolled at Florida), coming out of high school who, coming into this season, was known more for his off the court problems than on court prowess.
Four seniors, all with questionable NBA draft stock, who have combined to do things only two other Gator teams have done. Much more talented Gator teams. This is certainly the unlikeliest of Donovan coached teams to make a charge at a number one seed in the NCAA tournament. For sure, Billy Donovan has fielded more talented teams. But only two have played as well together as this one does. And they both won championships. Could this be the year they hang another NCAA banner in the O’Dome?
“Someone asked me were there comparisons [with this Gator team and the championship teams],” Billy Donovan said after the victory over Kentucky. “And I think because of some of the things the guys have done, and certainly our tradition is not like Kentucky’s so some of the milestones in our program get referenced back to that group. And that group had three top ten players. I think it was the first time in the history of the NBA draft that three players from one team went in the top nine. Then you had Chris Richard coming off the bench who was a second round draft pick and you had Mareese Speights who was a first round draft pick the next year. Our talent level on that team was at a totally different level than this team. But I did say the comparison I would make is the way those guys tried to play for each other, the way they cared about each other there are some similarities that way but this group does not have that same level of talent that the other group had.”
And therein may just lie the key to why this team plays so well together in spite of it’s many deficiencies. Chemistry. They play for each other, they care about each other.
“I think that they [Gator seniors] have very, very good chemistry, they’re very, very well connected,” Donovan added. “I think they care a great deal about each other, I think they play for each other.”
Unlike a lot of teams who go their separate ways after practice is over or after the game is over, these guys are friends on the court and off the court. Like the ’04’s, these guys came in together, they’ve grown together, played together, and will go out together.
“That’s something we talked about as freshmen,” Wilbekin said last week. “Saying that one day it would be our team and one day our time will come. It’s just funny that it’s here now. Sometimes, we think back to when we were freshmen and kind of laugh to ourselves. We’re definitely cherishing every moment we have this season.”
And that togetherness will help them come conference and NCAA tournament time. It will help them cement their legacy. Tournaments are all about grind. Teams play two games in three days and sometimes three in four days and the short turnaround time is something they don’t see a lot during the season. It’s a grind getting up to play after only a day of rest and with shortened practice time. Fortunately for the Gators, they have played Thursday-Saturday turnaround games a couple of times already this season. And oddly, some of their most dominant games have been in the turnaround game.
They also have the road trip to deal with. Being on the road for three to four days at a time can also be a grind. A mental grind. Not having a usual routine can be disruptive for players. Sleeping in motel rooms, playing in unfriendly confines, and shooting at baskets with a different depth perception can also be distracting. It helps to be a close knit group. Guys that hang together have a much easier time overcoming the distractions of the road. This team has that. While it may seem like they’ve struggled on the road this season, one could also argue that they’ve played well finding ways to grind out victories in the midst of constant adversity. That’s EXACTLY what is necessary to win a tournament which requires winning six games across three weekends all in venues they’ve likely never seen.
So despite the Gators many deficiencies, and they are many, this team of unlikely heroes sits as odds on favorite of winning it all. Think about that for a moment. Take your time. A team that started the season without it’s starting point guard who was suspended for five games and not allowed to practice with the team all summer, who dismissed a key post player in transfer Damontre Harris before the season began, who saw it’s top incoming freshman superstar miss all of the non-conference and half of the conference schedule, and who for most of the non-conference season could barely field a starting five and could not even operate a full scrimmage, is now the odds on favorite to win the whole kit and kaboodle.
This team is chasing more than wins and an undefeated conference schedule. More than an NCAA tournament number one seed and tourney championship. This team is chasing a legacy.