Balanced approach helps Florida outclass Dayton to reach Final Four
MEMPHIS -- The nine white towels on the floor of the Florida locker room, soaking wet and sporadically placed, served as evidence of another victory. As has become tradition for this streaking Florida team, the Gators players doused coach Billy Donovan with water from a cooler after they blew past Dayton, 62-52, to advance to the Final Four on Saturday night.
Donovan showed veteran savvy after the win, learning from the dousings he got after clinching the SEC regular season and SEC tournament titles. "I took my shoes off," Donovan said as he walked to his press conference. "They've got me when I least expected it. So I was a little bit better prepared this time."
Should we be prepared for Donovan's next dousing in North Texas next week? The Gators have won 30 games in a row and head to the Final Four as the prohibitive favorites to win the national title.
Florida advances to the Final Four for the fifth time in program history and the fourth time under Donovan. If the Gators win the title this year, he'll become just the sixth coach to win three national titles. He'd join Indiana's Bob Knight (3) and Connecticut's Jim Calhoun (3) and trail only Mike Krzyzewski (4), Adolph Rupp (4) and John Wooden (10) on the all-time list.
The narrative of this Florida Final Four team revolves around resolve built from heartache and patience and serves as a testimony to player development.
To get to this point, the Gators' four seniors have endured three consecutive losses in the Elite Eight, to Butler in 2011, Louisville in 2012 and Michigan in 2013. But on Saturday, the Gators imposed their will on the overmatched Flyers, as if unleashing the fury from the collective pain from coming so close in the past three NCAA tournaments. Florida jumped out to a 14-point halftime lead, held Dayton star Jordan Sibert scoreless and never let Dayton within striking distance in the second half.
"It just feels right," Florida senior Patric Young said. "Honestly, I hate to say that we deserve it. But we earned it. It feels like this is where we're supposed to be."
How did Florida get here? Look no further than Donovan's ability to recruit and develop roster spots 7 to 13. Florida assistant coach Matt McCall said that in staff meetings at Florida, the phrase "7 to 13" is often spoken about philosophically, as the Gators staff wants to find players who have the ability, work ethic and patience to come in on the back end of the roster and develop into elite players.
"The one thing we do is really try and find guys that know that they're going be from 7 to 13, and I love being around them," Donovan said. "They may not be the most talented, but they're great kids and eager to learn and get better and there's a competitiveness to them."
All four of Florida's seniors starters have been in that category. Wilbekin was such an offensively liability his freshman year that Butler coach Brad Stevens yelled at his players for guarding him on the perimeter, screaming, "Let him shoot." He's gone from 28 percent from three-point range to 39 percent, with a polished enough offensive game to win SEC Player of the Year.
He led the Gators with 23 points on Saturday night and won the South Region's Most Outstanding Player. He's scored 67 points, dished 12 assists and turned the ball over just twice in the NCAA tournament. "I'm happy about the award," he said. "But it's nothing compared to winning."
His three senior teammates who developed on similar planes agreed. Young evolved from a massive 240-pound body to a useful one, as his hammering of Dayton's Matt Kavanaugh in the post on Saturday showed. Young finished with 12 points, six rebounds and four blocks. Will Yeguete went from seldom-used bench warmer to the consummate glue guy, giving Florida gritty defense, rebounding and not requiring many offensive touches. Casey Prather made one of the most impressive leaps in all of college basketball this year, going from a reserve averaging 6.2 points per game as a junior to the leading scorer (14.0) for Florida.
Two plays on Saturday showed Florida's veteran savvy. The first came with 3:08 remaining in the first half when Young tipped an inbounds pass by Dayton's Schoochie Smith and Wilbekin took the loose ball for a coast-to-coast lay-up. That put the Gators up five, a key play in the run that ultimately unraveled Dayton. The Flyers tied the game at 23 with 4:41 remaining in the first half and ended up down 14 at halftime.
The capper to that first-half avalanche came when Wilbekin drilled a three-point shot over Dayton's Vee Sanford as time expired. "That was a tough one," Sanford said. "That was actually in my face."
The play summed up Wilbekin's savvy, as he noticed the shot clock was off after Dorian Finney-Smith snared an offensive rebound. He dribbled out the clock to wait for the final shot. And when Donovan signaled for a high-ball screen by Young, Wilbekin audibled to a clear-out play called "flat" where the four Florida players retreat to the baseline. He rose and drilled a picturesque three-pointer.
"He said, 'Can I go flat?' Donovan said. "I trust him. That worked out well."
Everything has worked out pretty well for these Gators the past few months. And the way that they're streaking into the Final Four, don't be surprised to see Donovan addressing his team barefoot late on Monday night.