Gators better connected, ready to maximize Final Four opportunity

03/31/2014 10:15 PM

11/12/2014 4:28 PM

Every coach of a successful team has a euphemism for the intangible element that binds players together and makes the unit operate at a level greater than the sum of its parts.

Florida men’s basketball coach Billy Donovan likes to cite the increased “connectedness” of this year’s team as a reason why the Gators (36-2), the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, are headed to AT&T Stadium in Arlington for Saturday’s Final Four matchup against Connecticut (30-8) after Florida’s last three seasons ended with losses in Elite Eight contests.

“Our players have allowed me to coach them and implement a system. They’ve bought into that system,” Donovan said during a Monday conference call with Final Four coaches. “Everybody this year has been totally committed to each other and their team.”

That level of commitment, Donovan said, has helped a team that was “in complete shambles and disarray” in August recover from a series of suspensions, injuries and ineligibilities to key players and set the school record for most victories in a season (36).

Florida’s four-senior nucleus of multiyear contributors has been largely responsible for carrying the Gators into Saturday’s game at AT&T Stadium (5:09 p.m., TBS). Three members of that group have posted career highs in season scoring averages: forward Casey Prather (13.8 ppg), point guard Scottie Wilbekin (13.4) and center Patric Young (10.8).

The fourth, forward Will Yeguete, is contributing 5.0 points and 5.2 rebounds per game in his first season as a full-time starter, topping his career numbers in both areas (4.0 points, 4.9 rebounds).

“Everybody on this team has a bigger role this year,” Wilbekin said of the Gators’ returning players. “So when you have that investment, it always means more. And when you’re a senior, you know it’s your last go at it.”

Four of the Gators’ five starters have the senior-season motivator spurring them. But that is not true for sophomore guard Michael Frazier (12.6 ppg, 3.5 apg), a first-year starter who is Florida’s top threat from behind the 3-point arc (45.5 percent). Nor does it apply to freshman guard Kasey Hill, who came off the bench to contribute a career-high 10 assists in the team’s Sweet 16 victory over UCLA.

Another first-year contributor, forward Dorian Finney-Smith (6-foot-8, 212 pounds), earned SEC Sixth Man of the Year honors by averaging 9.0 points and 6.7 rebounds in his first season of eligibility after transferring from Virginia Tech.

“We’re a whole team that’s connected, like brothers. One flesh, one body,” said Prather, who has more than doubled last year’s scoring average in his final season at Florida. “We all know how to help each other and make each other better. That wasn’t the case last year.”

Finney-Smith said: “When things go wrong, we still stay together. We get on each other, but no one takes it personal.”

He credited the four senior starters for setting that tone in the locker room by being able to dish out and handle criticism.

“That makes you respect them a lot more,” Finney-Smith said. “They get on us. We can get on them, and they won’t say anything. They just take it and tell you how it is.”

Florida players say such unvarnished give-and-take has been instrumental in helping the Gators build the school-record 30-game winning streak they will carry into Saturday’s game.

Florida also will arrive with an uncanny amount of familiarity with the other Final Four teams headed to AT&T Stadium. The Gators have played them all, posting a 3-0 mark this season against Kentucky and dropping nonconference road games against UConn (65-64 on Dec. 2) and Wisconsin (59-53 on Nov. 12).

Donovan called his team’s edge in familiarity against Final Four foes “a good thing as it relates to preparation.” He cited the team’s last-second loss at Connecticut as “a game that really helped our team going forward.”

The proof is in the 30-game winning streak. Florida has not lost since falling to UConn on a last-second shot in Storrs, Conn.

“From a preparation standpoint, we can take some things from previous games, things we need to do better,” Donovan said during Monday’s call. “The UConn loss was our second road game. When you play against a good team and you’ve got to battle and fight, it helps you understand how hard you have to persevere. Any time you play in a game like that, you get a chance to learn and grow. Right after that game finished, we did a much, much better job going forward … in areas where we needed to get better and improve.”

Now, the Gators get their rematch with UConn at the Final Four in Arlington.

“When we get these opportunities, we have a lot of motivation,” Young said. “It’s not going to overwhelm us. We’re going to go into the game thinking we can win.”

Just like the Gators have done in the last 30 games they have played.

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