Florida hopes to bypass history in Final Four quest

03/28/2014 8:49 PM

11/12/2014 4:25 PM

Forget about top-ranked Florida owning the nation’s longest winning streak among men’s college basketball teams. Disregard the Gators’ status as the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Understand, instead, that Saturday’s matchup against Dayton, the No. 11 seed in the South Regional, qualifies as the toughest mental test of the season for the Gators (35-2).

That is because Florida, after 29 consecutive victories, has once again reached the implied stop sign on its NCAA journey. The senior-laden Gators, for a fourth consecutive season, head into an Elite Eight matchup as the favorite to advance to the Final Four.

They are 0-3 in this situation the past three years, dropping games to Michigan (2013), Louisville (2012) and Butler (2011) by a combined 27 points. This time, the Gators are 10-point favorites to take down Dayton (26-10), a fifth-place finisher in the Atlantic 10 that is the lone double-digit seed remaining in the tournament field.

When the teams meet Saturday at FedEx Forum (5:09 p.m., TBS), the Gators will arrive with questions in their minds because of their past failures in this spot. It’s only human nature, even if Gators point guard Scottie Wilbekin tried Friday to deny the doubts dancing in the back of his noggin.

“The past doesn’t haunt us at all,” Wilbekin said. “In terms of that, there’s no pressure.”

Not even a little bit? Wilbekin hedged, reflecting on last year’s 79-59 pasting at the hands of Michigan during an Elite Eight matchup at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

“Maybe if it was the same team that we had last year and we were playing the same Michigan team,” Wilbekin said. “Then I’d be a little worried.”

Instead, the Gators will face Dayton, a team making its first Elite Eight appearance in 30 years and seeking its first Final Four berth since 1967. The Flyers, in other words, are playing with house money and should be able to freewheel it in efforts to punch their ticket to the 2014 Final Four, April 5 and 7 in Arlington.

Florida, on the other hand, seeks to avoid becoming a historic anomaly: a team that made four consecutive Elite Eight appearances yet never advanced to the Final Four.

For the four seniors in the Gators’ starting lineup, including Wilbekin and center Patric Young, memories of past losses in this situation remain fresh. And painful.

Wilbekin called them “extremely demoralizing.” Young said he struggled to grasp the finality of the Gators’ last three exits until he saw other teams playing in Final Four telecasts and became disheartened.

Now, he seeks to fill a long-standing void on his college record.

“It’s possibly my last game of my last season. I’ve never been to the Final Four,” Young said. “Hopefully, we can go farther this time. We don’t want to let that opportunity slip away.”

In terms of historic comparisons, the Gators already stand in elite company. The only other program in the past 25 years to reach the Elite Eight in four consecutive seasons is Duke, which made five straight from 1988-92. But that is where the similarities stop.

The Blue Devils, during each of those five seasons, reached the Final Four. Duke won NCAA titles in 1991 and 1992. Florida, by comparison, has put together a 119-29 mark the past four seasons.

This year’s Gators have tied the school record for single-season victories (35). But all of that will be obscured by a giant Oh-fer in most fans’ minds if Florida does not punch its ticket to JerryWorld for next week’s Final Four.

A whiff Saturday by the Gators would put them on a comparable level to the Buffalo Bills, who have spent the past two decades as punch lines for jokes because they lost four consecutive Super Bowls (1990-93 seasons). Rest assured, these Gators understand the stakes.

“Obviously, everybody knows our past,” said forward Will Yeguete, another of the Gators’ senior starters. “We’ve talked about it, and getting to the Elite Eight is not enough for us.”

Once inside FedEx Forum, the Gators can count on the support of friends, family members and frontrunners in office pools who need Florida in the Final Four to benefit their brackets. The rest of the world will be rooting for Dayton.

Young said a hostile crowd in Memphis will not shake the Gators’ spirits.

“Even if all the fans there are cheering for Dayton, we’re still going to stay within ourselves and stay focused,” Young said. “We won’t allow it to affect us. We’re not going to let the past haunt us.”

In other words, the same message the Gators delivered before last year’s 20-point loss to Michigan in an Elite Eight game in Arlington.

These Gators, unlike last year’s group, may be good enough physically to overcome Saturday’s doubts. Rest assured, they exist in the minds of Florida players. Even if the Gators are not willing to acknowledge them.

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