Mar 29, 2014, 10:21 PM EDT
Reaching the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament is an achievement that’s to be commended. Given the nature of one-and-done tournaments, numerous teams with designs on winning a national title have fallen short of that accomplishment much less get to the Final Four. Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators had reached the Elite Eight four years in a row entering Saturday’s game against No. 11 Dayton, only to see their first three experiences end in heartbreak.
Faced with an opponent that while feisty, many expected them to beat, Florida had some external pressure to deal with. But that doesn’t compare to the internal hopes and expectations they placed on themselves, with a talented senior class looking to leave its mark by helping Donovan win his third national title.
And one of those seniors, point guard Scottie Wilbekin, has been the player asked to lead the way after what was a tumultuous offseason. Suspended from the program for the second time in his career, there were questions as to whether or not Wilbekin would be able to do enough off the court to ensure that his coach would entrust him with the task of leading the Gators on the court.
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Wilbekin was able to do that but to his credit he didn’t stop there, joining his teammates in leading the program to a 36-2 record and their first Final Four in seven years. The Gators were able to get over the hump due in part to the ability of its point guard to get over his own personal “hump” that placed his Florida career in jeopardy.
“Some of the issues that happened during the summer was part of what brought us together as a team,” Wilbekin said Friday. “Just throughout the year, the type of games that we’ve been in and the grind of practice, it’s just really a combination of all those things bringing us together to the team that we are today.
“It’s a joy now to play with these guys and just to spend time with them.”
From a statistical standpoint Wilbekin accounted for 23 points, three assists and three steals in Florida’s 62-52 win over Dayton, but he also played a critical role in the defending of Jordan Sibert. After scoring 18 points against No. 10 Stanford Sibert failed to score on Saturday, and Wilbekin’s effort certainly had something to do with that. He’s been one of the best point guards in the country all season long, and Wilbekin’s growth in all aspects of his game is one reason why Florida’s headed to Texas.
However he wasn’t alone, with fellow seniors Casey Prather, Will Yeguete and Patric Young also having key roles. And from a growth standpoint, not many players in college basketball have come as far as Prather. After averaging 6.2 points per game as a junior Prather raised his production to 13.8 points per game this season, turning into the offensive threat few envisioned him becoming back in October.
Add in the burly Young and an energetic forward in Yeguete whose impact can’t be measured solely by the box score, and Florida had a capable cast of leaders who knew the pain that comes with falling short of their goal. And that was a motivation factor for the Gators, who are now headed to the Final Four.
Yet after getting over the hump there’s also the overwhelming feeling that this group is capable of more, as in winning two more games and delivering to their coach his third national title.
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