Florida emerges as national title favorite after statement win at UK
Florida made a clear statement on Saturday: the Gators are the national title favorites right now.
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- There's been one common theme throughout the 2013-14 college basketball season: parity. No clear title favorite. Wide-open Final Four hunt. Arizona looked like the potential frontrunner -- but then Brandon Ashley got hurt and the Wildcats fell back to the pack.
A month away from Selection Sunday, one team might have emerged out of the group.
Florida went into Lexington on Saturday night and came out with a 69-59 win over Kentucky -- the first home loss for the Wildcats in 23 games. Casey Prather led the way with 24 points for Florida, but Scottie Wilbekin had 23 points and made clutch plays late in the game. Andrew Harrison went for 20 points and four assists to pace Kentucky, with James Young scoring 19 points.
The Gators are not one of the remaining unbeatens, they're not the most talented team in the country and they're not littered with future first-round picks -- but they showed on Saturday night that they are the best team in the country.
"This reassured what we knew," Wilbekin said. "We can win in tough environments."
Florida has now won 17 straight games since losing on a Shabazz Napier buzzer-beater on Dec. 2 at Connecticut. Moreover, the Gators haven't lost when they are at full-strength. The loss to Wisconsin in November came without Wilbekin, Dorian Finney-Smith and Chris Walker. The loss to Connecticut came without Kasey Hill and Walker -- while Wilbekin got hurt in the final minute and wasn't on the floor for Napier's shot.
It wasn't a seamless transition to get everyone on the same page, but now that everyone is mostly healthy -- coach Billy Donovan mentioned a Kasey Hill groin injury after the game -- Florida is hitting on all cylinders.
"If it wasn't for those injuries, I think we could potentially could be undefeated," Florida's Patric Young said.
When talking to opposing coaches for my Scouting Title Contenders piece on the Gators last week, one quote stood out among all the tips, pointers and analysis: "We all get hit with adversity, but with Florida, it just doesn't last as long." On the surface, it makes sense. But after watching the Gators weather storm after storm against Kentucky, the picture really started to form: teams simply don't go on big runs against Florida. In the NCAA tournament, 12-0 and 15-2 runs swing momentum in major ways -- and Florida just doesn't allow it.
On Saturday, every time Kentucky got the crowd into the game or looked like it might start to pull away, Florida answered with a basket, a couple of defensive stops -- and suddenly the Gators were tied or ahead. When Andrew Harrison made a layup to give Kentucky a seven-point lead with 11:12 left, it seemed like a danger time for Florida. The Gators were struggling offensively, missing from the perimeter and not finishing around the rim.
But Florida knew how to respond. Patric Young had two old-fashioned three-point plays sandwiched around a Wilbekin 3-pointer, eventually resulting in a 13-3 run that changed the entire game.
"We know it's coming," Patric Young said of not letting opponents go on long runs. "We know there's going to be adversity in the game. Coach builds environments for that in practice every single day, and being able to experience that in practice, coming into the game, it's nothing. We're ready for it. We just stick to our principles."
It starts with experience for Florida. The Gators start four seniors and a sophomore, and have made three straight Elite Eight appearances. There's essentially nothing they haven't seen before.
"I feel like we've been through it before," Will Yeguete said. "We were down against Tennessee and we just tried to stay in the moment. I think we have a lot of guys that believe in each other and we believe in our teammates. We believe that we can make plays down the stretch."
"If we get in this situation again, we can say, 'Guys, we have done this before. We just need to stick together and do what we do,'" Young added.
Winning a national championship isn't always about who has the most talent -- it sometimes comes down to bouncing back and responding when things aren't going right. And Florida has shown time and time again it can make plays even when the momentum is clearly going the other direction.
The Gators have a steady veteran point guard in Wilbekin; a clutch shooter in Michael Frazier; an aggressive scorer in Prather; veteran big men in Young and Will Yeguete; and a host of players who know their roles. More importantly, they have one of the best defenses in the country. A defense that switches and communicates as well as anyone.
Watching them in person, there is very little ego on the court. There are no agendas. There is unselfishness and a winning attitude.
"It's not going to be all smooth sailing," Donovan said. "When it's not smooth sailing, you have to fight through it and stay connected as a group. We're down seven, we can't have one guy thinking about the last shot he missed, and another guy is worried about a call. You have to be able to move on to the next thing and have five guys connected in the face of adversity, fighting to do whatever they need to do on the next possession."
Florida's biggest weaknesses come on the offensive end. The Gators aren't a great 3-point shooting team and they are prone to scoring droughts. But their defense enables them to stay in games even when shots aren't falling -- and that's what happened on Saturday night. Florida started 1-for-11 from 3-point range, but Kentucky couldn't get much in transition or on the offensive glass.
The Gators just stayed within striking distance due to their defense, knowing the shots would fall eventually and scoring would come eventually. Both happened as planned. In fact, Florida scored at least one point on its last 13 possessions.
"It was a hostile environment," Prather said. "We looked at each other and said, 'Let's get it done.'"
There will be questions heading into March, mostly focusing on the weak SEC and the number of mediocre teams Florida has played since January. But the Gators can point back to this Saturday night win in Rupp Arena as proof they can beat anyone.
And right now, that proof is enough for me to say this: Florida is the best team in the country.
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