Florida again has that Final Four look

Florida again has that Final Four look

February 18th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - College

Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin, right, drives against Tennessee guard Josh Richardson, left, in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, in Knoxville.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

A week ago tonight, his Volunteers having just lost to visiting Florida, Tennessee basketball coach Cuonzo Martin said of the Gators, "Probably the best Florida team since I've been here. As a team, I would put them ... similar to the Kentucky team with Anthony Davis."

For those with short memories, that Davis-led Wildcats bunch went 38-2 on its way to a national championship in the spring of 2012.

Now 23-2 after Saturday's 69-59 win at Kentucky, the second-ranked Gators theoretically could match both that record and that title. They're on a 17-game winning streak.

"Show me a weakness they have," ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes said before UF's win at Knoxville. "Because I can't find one. There's not yet a blueprint out there on how to beat them."

Technically, that's not true. Florida lost at Wisconsin in mid-November and fell by one point at Connecticut on Dec. 2. But the Gators were short-handed in both those losses due to injuries.

Now at full strength after the NCAA ruled freshman sensation Chris Walker eligible at the close of January, Florida has both stunning experience and depth, thanks to four seniors and nine players who play 10 or more minutes a game.

That's been especially helpful of late in the final minutes, when the Gators have rallied for road wins at Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee.

"What they did they've done, I'm guessing, 10 games this year," Kentucky coach John Calipari said after watching the Gators outscore his latest Kiddie Kats 16-6 in Saturday's final six minutes. "With five minutes to go, four minutes to go, three minutes to go, it's anybody's ballgame. Then they just grind better than the other team grinds it."

To show how much better the Gators grind it than a year ago, a less talented UK squad shut out Florida for the final seven minutes of a 61-57 win at Rupp Arena in 2013.

"They are all seniors and they have that communication, and I think that is where they had the advantage over us," UK guard James Young said.

Observed Tennessee junior forward Jarnell Stokes after losing to the Gators for the second time this season: "I go through double teams every day, but there is no double team like the one they were able to do today and last game. I felt like there was no one open, but I had two guys on me."

One of those often double-teaming Stokes is the physically biggest reason Florida now is viewed by many as the favorite to win its third national title since 2006: senior post player Patric Young, who stands 6-foot-9 and weighs a slimmed-down 240.

But by far the biggest intangible reason for the Gators' success is senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, this week's SEC player of the week after posting career highs at both Tennessee (21 points) and Kentucky (23), as well as dishing out eight assists while committing no turnovers in 71 minutes of action. He hit 21 of 24 free throws, including 18 of 20 in the final halves of both games while scoring 32 of his 44 points in the second halves.

Said UT senior guard Jordan McRae after watching Wilbekin's 23-foot 3-pointer finish off the Vols last week: "Josh [Richardson] played good defense, but that is the kind of player that [Wilbekin] is. He is a leader for their team. He hits big shots when they need it the most."

Added Martin in as accurate an assessment of Wilbekin's game as has been delivered all season when discussing that same 3-pointer: "If you watch him in scouting reports and film, that's what he does late in the shot clock. If he can get to the rim all the way to the right, he'll get right. If not he'll probe the defense and shoot that pull-up 3-point shot."

That's also exactly what he did at a crucial moment late in the Kentucky game, burying a triple in the face of Wildcats 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein when the big man failed to challenge the shot.

Within a relatively weak SEC, it's difficult to know precisely how good these Gators are. An average jump-shooting team aside from Michael Frazier, who's hitting over 40 percent of his triples, Florida could conceivably struggle against a lethal zone defense such as the 2-3 that Syracuse employs. The Gators rebound well, but not great, which could hurt them against a big team such as Kansas or a physical team such as Michigan State. A great ball-handling and passing team such as Duke might cause them problems if the Blue Devils are hitting from outside.

But Florida has lost only two road games all season by a total of seven points, both against ranked teams, and both when the Gators were at less than full strength. And their seniors have reached three straight Elite Eights.

Said senior forward Will Yugete of the Gators' extreme experience in an increasingly young college hoops landscape: "I think it's helped us a lot, because I feel like we've been through it before."

Now all they need to do is punch through to the Final Four before grinding their way to their sport's grandest prize.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.