Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The quest to become the 2014 NCAA Tournament champion was as wide open as ever this season, and the results so far have been indicative of the national parity, with three No. 1 seeds failing to reach the Final Four.
The Florida Gators are the one exception, however, living up to their billing as the tournament's No. 1 overall seed by conquering the South Region.
During a season where top teams stumbled in the ranks on a weekly basis, Florida provided rare sustained greatness during the campaign by piecing together a program-record 30-game winning streak. The squad came into the tournament with the spotlight shining bright, but while the other No. 1 seeds Virginia, Wichita State and Arizona succumbed to the pressure, Florida thrived by dismissing Albany (67-55), Pittsburgh (61-45), UCLA (79-68) and Dayton (62-52) en route to the Final Four. In the process, it became the first team to win four straight NCAA Tournament games by double digit points since Kentucky did so in 2012, and that team went on to win the title.
The Gators have been fortunate enough to enjoy plenty of NCAA Tournament success during their history, and most of it has come in the years since Billy Donovan took over the program. The team enjoyed some strong seasons in the late 1980s and early 1990s with five appearances in the Big Dance, including a Final Four run in 1994 under Lon Kruger, but Donovan's insurgence during the 1996-97 season was the first step in building one of the nation's elite basketball powerhouses.
In a remarkable display of consistency, Florida appeared in every NCAA Tournament from 1999-2007 and was crowned national champion in both 2006 and 2007, as the only team in the past 20 years to repeat as champions. Donovan's squad experienced a transition phase in 2008 and 2009 in which it failed to make the tournament field, but it wasn't long before the Gators were back, as they have been dancing every season since 2010.
Donovan's track record speaks for itself -- he has a .761 winning percentage in 46 career NCAA Tournament games. However, his squad had failed to make the championship leap in the recent past. Despite being the only team in the nation to advance to the Elite Eight in every season from 2011-13, the Gators were bounced from the regional finals all three times.
The 2014 version of the squad is a senior-heavy team, with four-year veterans Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Patric Young and Will Yeguete making up the majority of the starting lineup. After experiencing multiple heartbreaks in failing to get over the hump in the three previous seasons, the crew finally gets to taste the Final Four after dismissing the Cinderella Dayton Flyers late last week.
Donovan believes that his seniors have learned from their past letdowns and have channeled that energy into this year's run.
"They're better players today by going through what they went through," Donovan said. "If it would have been easier for them, I don't think they'd be quite as good. The struggles they've had to go through have forced them to have perseverance, resiliency, mental and physical toughness, and the ability to battle and fight."
The heart and soul of this veteran squad is unquestionably Wilbekin, who brings 13.4 ppg and 3.7 apg to the table and an SEC All-Defensive Team selection with 1.6 spg. The 6-foot-2 guard stepped up when his team needed him the most in the Elite Eight by tying a career high with 23 points.
"I'm having the most fun I've ever had in my life right now," said Wilbekin, who continues to fill up his trophy case this season by adding the South Region's Most Outstanding Player honors to his SEC Player of the Year and SEC Tournament MVP.
The Gators are far from a one-man show, however. In fact, they are one of the nation's most well-rounded squads and are anchored by the nation's third-best scoring defense (57.6 ppg). The offense does more than hold its own as well, shooting 46.1 percent from the field for 70.4 ppg. Prather pours in a team- high 13.8 ppg, while ranking in the top-30 nationally in field-goal percentage (.603). Michael Frazier, the only non-senior in the starting five, scores 12.6 ppg and has made 117 3-pointers at a 44.8 percent clip. Young (10.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.1 bpg) was the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year, and Dorian Finney- Smith (10.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg) brings a spark off the bench.
The Gators were the favorite to win it all when the field was announced a few weeks ago on Selection Sunday, and their dominant run through the South Region has only affirmed that notion. However, things will be far from easy in Arlington.
Their Final Four matchup is against Connecticut, a team that handed the Gators their latest loss back on Dec. 2, 65-64 in Storrs on a buzzer-beating jumper by Shabazz Napier. The team's only other loss this season came on Nov. 12 at Wisconsin, a squad that is in the other national semifinal.
UConn and potentially Wisconsin could provide a roadblock on Florida's championship route, but it was a completely different team earlier in the season with Wilbekin, Finney-Smith and Kasey Hill (5.5 ppg, 3.2 apg, 1.2 spg) all missing multiple games. The team has been a cohesive unit for several months now and has as much palpable chemistry, especially defensively, as any remaining team.
Florida's season has been an overwhelming success to this point, so much so that anything less than a national championship would make the 2013-14 campaign feel unfulfilled. It's a shared sentiment by the title-hungry seniors, who are out to prove they aren't ready to let their foot off the gas pedal just yet.
"Our goal at the beginning of the year wasn't to be South Region champions," Young said. "Our goal was to be national champions ... There's a hunger within us, with this whole team, to keep going."