For the fourth time in four years the University of Florida Men's Basketball team has reached the Elite Eight. This is a remarkable accomplishment for any school, much less a school widely regarded as a football school where sustained success on the basketball court was considered nearly impossible as recently as as 15 years ago. And while what Florida has already accomplished this year is to be praised, it will be seen as a failure by many if Billy Donovan and the Gators aren't able to reach the Final Four by beating Dayton later today.
Almost exactly four years ago, Florida stood in the same position as it is today. One game away from a trip to the Final Four. And while there are some remarkable similarities (we'll get to those in a minute) between four years ago and present day, these are two very, very different scenarios.
First the similarities: A mid-major midwestern opponent (Butler/Dayton). An SEC Player of the Year that was also a lightly recruited local player who bloomed late in his collegiate career (Chandler Parsons/Scottie Wilbekin). A leading front court contributor that transferred to Florida (Vernon Macklin/Dorian Finney-Smith). A McDonald's All-American freshman big man from Florida (Patric Young/Chris Walker) contributing off the bench. And finally, four years ago I wrote this.
That's where the similarities end for these teams. That Florida team was a 6 seed that few expected to make a run at the Final Four. This years's team is the tournament's number 1 overall seed, riding a 29 game winning streak. That Florida team featured a collection of players that frustrated and perplexed many Florida fans with their inconsistency and erratic play while this year's Gators play a brand of defensively oriented team basketball that Florida fans have grown to love and appreciate. And finally, these team's core is comprised of four senior starters. Four seniors starters where everything begins and ends for this team. You'll hear plenty today about how Florida's four seniors are playing in their fourth Elite Eight, attempting to finally reach a Final Four. While this is true, it neglects to tell the remarkable journey they've traveled to get to this point.
Four years ago, none of these four seniors could've predicted how their career would turn out. For example, Patric Young was a freshman, a McDonalds All-American coming out of high school who many had pegged as an NBA 1st round draft choice by the end of his sophomore year. Inconsistency, an uneven work ethic and a lack of awareness of who he was as a basketball player all kept this from happening and even had many observers wondering if he'd even merit selection in the the NBA Draft at the conclusion of his career as recently as this past summer. He was, in a word, maddening. He was filled with so much potential. Most of which was unrealized. That is, until this year. Young committed himself to the team and to bettering himself as a basketball player.
Four years ago, Casey Prather and Will Yeguette were largely unknown frontcourt recruits who had yet to show what, if any, future they'd have in Orange and Blue. Prather was a freakish athlete and while he showed flashes of brilliance, he was inconsistent and not good for much more than the occasional highlight dunk or block. Then this year came around and Prather finally accepted who he was, a great athlete with the ability to lock down wing scorers while punishing teams with a relentless will to use his athleticism by driving the lane to create opportunities for himself and others.
At that same time Will Yeguete was even more of an unknown. Yegeute wasn't highly recruited. His best offer other than Florida was from Indiana. Not present day Indiana but immediately post Kelvin Sampson Indiana. A program that was forced to take two and three star recruits just to fill out their roster. Yeguete played his high school ball at a prep school in my area (Florida Air Academy) that has sent players to Kansas, Florida, Alabama, Texas and Miami among others. When Florida was recruiting Yegeutte I went to watch him play. To say I was underwhelmed would be accurate. I didn't get it. He's 6'7" with average offensive skills and no chance of becoming a perimeter player. What was he ever going to be able contribute to the program at Florida?
Four years ago, Scottie Wilbekin was a 17 year old backup point guard who should've still been a senior in high school. He enrolled at Florida as a 16 year old, fresh off his junior year of high school. The previous spring Florida's presumed backup point guard (Nimrod Tishman…no, really his name was Nimrod) left school during the offseason and Billy Donovan asked the already commmited Gainesville native to skip out on his senior year and come play for Florida. Wilbekin did and, frankly played very well for an impossibly young guy playing at the highest level of college basketball for a coach who is notoriously tough on his point guards. Looking back, its remarkable what Wilbekin did that year.
While Wilbekin's journey has received the most attention, the journey that each of Florida's seniors has taken to get to this point is remarkable in it's own right. These separate journeys all merged together at some point to form the core of a team that (regardless of the final result) will always be one of my all time favorite Gator teams, regardless of the sport. With that said, Florida needs to win today. The tale of this team, and these four seniors, doesn't end today. At least I hope it doesn't. Not in heartbreak and falling short. No, that's not the story they've been writing.