College Basketball Nation: Patric Young

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Florida is 36-3, but UConn is playing Monday night. Five things on UConn's 63-53 win in AT&T Stadium, a victory that puts it one win away from a national title every bit as unlikely as 2011's Kemba Walker-led sprint:

1. UConn beat Florida at its own game. Which is to say: defense. The Gators entered Saturday with the top-ranked adjusted efficiency defense in the country; the Gators had allowed just 0.94 points per possession in their four NCAA tournament games. Much less was made of UConn's defensive prowess, but the Huskies were no slouches on the defensive end in their own right: They entered Saturday ranked 10th in adjusted defensive efficiency thanks to their combination of perimeter pressure and interior shot-blocking.

That's exactly what they unleashed on the Gators on Saturday. Freshman guard Kasey Hill -- who had 10 assists in the Elite Eight against Dayton -- looked in over his head. Sharpshooter Michael Frazier II made his first 3-pointer of the game -- the first shot of the game, which put Florida up 3-0 -- and was never heard from again.

SEC player of the year Scottie Wilbekin was hampered by cramps and couldn't shake Ryan Boatright or Shabazz Napier. Wilbekin finished with three turnovers, one more than he had in his first 212 tournament possessions. One, with about seven minutes left in the first half, saw him leave the ball out in front of his body, practically begging for Napier to swipe it. Napier happily complied. Wilbekin's best look of the night came down 12 -- Florida's biggest deficit of the season, by the way -- with 49.9 seconds left. He barely grazed the rim. Florida scored less than a point per possession.

In short, UConn locked Florida down on the perimeter. It was the kind of disruptive, comprehensive performance we'd come to expect from the Gators -- the type of game in which you can't fathom the opponent scoring with any regularity. Only this time, in their first Final Four since 2007, the Gators were on the receiving end.

2. The Huskies were awfully good on the offensive end, too. UConn had polished off 1.10 points per trip by the time final buzzer sounded, the most any team had scored on the Gators in weeks. Some of those points came in transition, but a fair number came in the half court, with Napier and Boatright breaking down the Florida perimeter and finding open shooters for quality 3-point attempts. UConn shot 5-of-12 from 3 for the game -- a tidy, efficient 41 percent. Coupled with its defense, it was enough.

3. UConn's start gave no hint of what would come next. In the first 8 minutes, 49 seconds, the Huskies scored a grand total of four points. They didn't make shots, obviously, but the issues were deeper than that: UConn couldn't create any shots to take. Every ball screen was greeted by a Florida defender. Every attempt at penetration was halfhearted and tentative. Florida's defense was smothering, the Gators were scoring with relative ease on the other end and the energy in AT&T Stadium was nonexistent. It looked like we were in store for a dud. Not so much.

4. DeAndre Daniels is on a tear. Remember Daniels? The guy who came out of relative (though not total) obscurity to pour in 27 points in UConn's Sweet 16 win over Iowa State? He was great again Saturday night, shooting 9-of-14, scoring 20 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and making life immensely difficult for a Florida defense already scrambling to catch up with the UConn guards. Daniels makes UConn a nightmare to guard.

5. Casey Prather and Patric Young gave Florida a shot. Prather, a former role player turned star, was Florida's best player all season; Young was a four-year contributor with more than 3,600 minutes on his legs. Both will be heartbroken by the loss, but at least they can say they played well: Young had 19 points on 13 shots and added five rebounds, while Prather scored 15 points on 6-of-10 from the field and added six rebounds.

MEMPHIS -- The feel-good story of the 2014 NCAA tournament ended as so many feel-good underdog stories do: at the hands of a top-seeded favorite. Last season, Florida clinically ended Florida Gulf Coast's dunk-filled Cinderella run. On Saturday, the Gators sent Dayton home 62-52, and this time their reward is a long-awaited trip to the Final Four.

The Flyers didn't fade away. With 12 minutes left in the second half, Florida led 51-36 and looked set to cruise. But Dayton, led by the determined work of guard Dyshawn Pierre, kept incrementally pushing back in the second half. With 2:37 to play, the Flyers trailed by just eight. It was an off night in a handful of ways, but Pierre & Co. kept things interesting for longer than anyone could have expected midway through the second half.

Florida's size won the game. The Gators had their fair share of ugly possessions in the last 10 minutes of the second half, which usually went like this: Shoot the ball, scrap for a rebound, shoot the ball, scrap for a rebound, rinse, repeat. But even when Florida came away from those trips empty-handed, the rebounds spoke to the dominance the Gators wielded over Dayton around the rim. Patric Young was a force on both ends of the floor, finishing with 4 blocks, 6 rebounds and 12 points -- most of which were scored after he sealed a Dayton defender into oblivion under the rim.

Also: The rebounding battle wasn't close. Dayton likewise faced a much taller Stanford team in its first game in Memphis (which was true of its wins over New Mexico and Syracuse, too), but the Flyers were able to play the Cardinal to a draw on the glass by being quicker and craftier in the gaps of the Stanford zone. There were no such openings Saturday night. Florida rebounded more than 80 percent of Dayton's misses. Good first-shot defense helped the Gators as usual, but Dayton made a few shots, too (it finished 8-of-18 from 3). Most important was Florida's comprehensive rebounding effort.

Scottie Wilbekin was good when he needed to be. For the second time in as many games, the SEC Player of the Year didn't have a good shooting night -- he finished 6-of-14 from the field. But he went 3-of-5 from 3, including a re-tee attempt late in the second half after Dorian Finney-Smith corralled one of UF's dozen offensive rebounds. It was the shot of the game, providing the buffer a cold Gators team needed to hold off Dayton's last-ditch push down the stretch.

Dayton's fans were great. Coaches and players talk all the time about how the exposure of the NCAA tournament reveals to the world things locals take for granted. Rarely was that maxim more true than with Dayton. The city and university have long shared a special relationship with the basketball team through thick and thin. If nothing else, this team's run -- marked by thousands of students celebrating in the streets, and the thousands of Dayton fans who giddily flooded into Memphis this week -- showed off that relationship to the world.

A look around the South Region ...


What to watch: An offense-defense matchup for the ages. The Gators are one of the nation's two or three best defenses. They enter Thursday's game ranked No. 2 in adjusted defensive efficiency (and sixth in pure points allowed per possession). UCLA is one of the nation's best, most efficient, most finesse offenses. The Bruins don't rebound their own misses or draw fouls, but they shoot so well that they usually don't need to.

Who to watch: UCLA guards Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson are two of the nation's best players, and they may be the two most talented players on the court in Thursday's game. But the Gators have some talent of their own and are one of the few teams capable of throwing multiple matchups and looks (Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Will Yeguete, even Patric Young) at Adams and Anderson for 40 minutes.

Why watch: Can anyone stop Florida's march to the Final Four? With Kansas at No. 2 and Syracuse No. 3, the Gators' regional could have been as daunting as any other team's. Now it's up to the Bruins to halt Florida's machinelike run -- or leave it up to Dayton or Stanford on Saturday night.


What to watch: Statistically speaking, the two least likely Sweet 16 participants are also the most well-matched: Each team's offensive and defensive adjusted efficiency ranks overlap with the other. But that tells only part of the story. Dayton is a physical and athletic but largely perimeter-oriented team, while Stanford uses its size to hunker down and prevent easy baskets on the defensive end. Can the Flyers shoot over the top?

Who to watch: Dayton's guards and wings have earned the lion's share of praise in the lead-up to this game, and rightfully so -- Vee Sanford, Jordan Sibert, Dyshawn Pierre and Devin Oliver make the Flyers go. Which is why it will be so crucial that Stanford gets a good game out of point guard Chasson Randle on both ends of the floor.

Why watch: Neither of these teams is a true mid-major, and neither is exactly an underdog, either. Dayton is a basketball-obsessed town with a dedicated fan base, and Stanford is, well, Stanford. But basketball-wise, these are still the two teams making the most surprising runs of the tournament to date, and now at least one of them will reach the Elite Eight. That's March at its best, right?

ORLANDO, Fla. – The last time Florida coach Billy Donovan reached college basketball’s mountaintop, his roster was littered with future NBA draft picks.

The Gators squads that won back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007 featured three NBA first-round picks: Corey Brewer, Al Horford and Joakim Noah.

This season, Florida doesn’t even have a can’t-miss NBA prospect, but the Gators are headed back to the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight season after defeating No. 9 seed Pittsburgh 61-45 in a round-of-32 game of the South Region at Amway Center on Saturday.

The Gators, the NCAA tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, won their 28th consecutive game by doing what they’ve done all season: outhustling, outrebounding and out-defending opponents.

After a sluggish first half, Florida’s defense caused Pitt to miss 10 of its first 11 shots in the second. By the time Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin chased down a loose ball near half court to set up Casey Prather’s alley-oop pass to Patric Young for a dunk to make it 34-24 with about 16 minutes to go, the Panthers were all but cooked.

“They’re obviously a very good team, and the most physical team we’ve played all year long,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “They beat us on the glass and beat us to loose balls, and we’ve got to give them credit.”

[+] EnlargeScottie Wilbekin
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesScottie Wilbekin, Patric Young and the Florida Gators won their 28th consecutive game Saturday.
The Gators didn’t have much of a choice. With Young missing several close looks and guard Michael Frazier II struggling to knock down 3-pointers, UF turned up its defensive intensity and made life miserable for the Panthers. Pitt shot only 37.3 percent from the floor, including 4-for-17 on 3-pointers.

“Our shots weren’t falling,” Young said. “Michael Frazier had a lot of open looks, and I had a lot of open, five-foot hooks that didn’t fall. I knew I could affect the game in so many other ways. If the shots aren’t falling, I’m not going to be the kind of guy to hang my head. I knew I had to lead the team and find other ways to contribute.”

Young finished with 8 points, 9 rebounds and 4 blocked shots, and he largely outplayed Pitt forward Talib Zanna, who referred to Young as a “dirty player” in a news conference Friday.

“The coaches were challenging us, and they made me watch a lot of film of Zanna,” Young said. “He’s a great player and great rebounder, but I knew I could step up to the challenge. I’m a dirty player, so I just wanted to go out and scrap and fight and claw for rebounds. I know I had more than eight rebounds today. I want to go back and look.”

Once Florida’s shots finally started falling with about 11 minutes to go, the Panthers didn’t have a chance of coming back. The Gators scored on five straight possessions to make it 47-33 with 7:44 remaining, and later, Wilbekin scored eight straight points for UF to make it 57-45. Wilbekin scored 21 points on 9-for-15 shooting, and shot 5-for-6 with 10 seconds or less left on the shot clock.

“When the shot clock was winding down, you could see in Scottie’s eyes that he wanted the ball and was going to create something,” Young said.

Defense and effort are attributes Donovan has been preaching to his team all season. Before every game, Donovan tries to find an analogy or metaphor to share with his team.

Before the Gators took the floor against Pittsburgh, and two nights after they struggled in a closer-than-expected 67-55 victory over No. 16 seed Albany, he talked to his players about not being satisfied with their No. 1 ranking.

[+] EnlargeCasey Prather
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida's Casey Prather had 8 points, 6 rebounds and 3 steals against Pittsburgh on Saturday.
“He told us that if there were 100 people who decided to climb Mount Everest, all of them will probably reach the halfway point, where they can get water and oxygen,” Young said. “But then he asked us what percentage of them would stop at the relaxation point and not continue the climb. He said it’s about 20 percent. He said, ‘Let’s not be fat and happy about going 18-0 in the SEC and reaching the Sweet 16.’ He told us to keep climbing for the summit.”

Donovan said he wanted his players to remember the things that got them to this point. He didn’t see the hustle and desire in their opening game against Albany.

“I saw things inside of our team that I just did not like,” Donovan said. “There was nothing bad, like in terms of bad attitudes or guys having a problem with one another. There was just this frustration, personal expectation, and the game not going the way they wanted it to go. That’s not who we’ve been. I just wanted to make sure they understood that and we got back to who we were.”

The Gators are halfway toward reaching the Final Four, but their work is far from over. Florida will play the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 4 seed UCLA and No. 12 seed Stephen F. Austin in the South Region semifinals in Memphis, Tenn., on Thursday.

“We’re not done,” Young said. “I’m not happy. I’m happy we’re still playing, but I’m not going to say I’m happy and satisfied until we reach our goal. I’m not going to say it’s going to be a failure if we fall short, but we can’t allow a team to take it away from us.”

ATLANTA -- Florida center Patric Young felt weird about things even before the opening tip Friday.

It wasn’t a desperate Missouri opponent that had him jittery, it was the SEC regular-season champions trophy that commissioner Mike Slive presented to the Gators.

“It’s weird to be awarded with a trophy before a game you have to play,” Young said.

Twenty minutes of playing time later and Young felt even more weird, as No. 1 Florida -- riding a school-record 23 straight wins -- was tied with Missouri at 29 and looked completely out of sync. There was no energy or passion, and a handful of uncharacteristic Gators mistakes kept what should have been an overmatched Missouri team in the game.

[+] EnlargeKasey Hill
AP Photo/Steve HelberKasey Hill scored 7 points off the bench for the Gators in their rout of Missouri.
But as the Gators have been prone to do during such a special season, they regrouped, relied on veteran leadership, and calmed their nerves with a 72-49 rout of the Tigers in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament. It would have been so easy for the Gators, who have all but clinched a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, to lie down and get some rest before the Big Dance.

It would have been easy for them to panic against a team that needed this win. But after leading scorer Casey Prather, Young (the SEC Defensive Player of the Year) and valuable big man Will Yeguete combined to shoot a paltry 1-for-7 from the field with six points in the first half, the Gators stayed calm before getting hot in the second half.

“We never really panic when we’re in these situations,” said Young, who finished with nine points. “Panicking is the worst thing you can do. We just think about what’s next, how can we get out of this slump or whatever funk we’re going in, and pick it up on the defensive end because that’s the side we’re the most consistent at.

“We have a veteran group of guys … any situation we’re in we’re going to push through and persevere.”

The Gators, experienced with four senior starters, went to work with a 7-0 run to start the second half but put the game away with a 12-0 run midway through the second frame that was created when they started working together.

The first half was muddled by careless possessions, lazy shot attempts and soft play inside. With about 10 minutes remaining in the second half, however, the Gators utilized each other and wore Missouri down.

They became a team again, and, of course, it started with two vets.

First, Yeguete flicked in an easy layup off a nice dish from guard Kasey Hill to give Florida a 40-36 lead with 10:04 left. Then, the real orange-and-blue avalanche started when senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin stole an inbounds pass and then threw it in to Yeguete while falling out of bounds. Yeguete then found Wilbekin in the corner, where he nailed a monster 3-pointer that electrified both Florida’s team and a small contingent of Gators fans behind UF’s bench inside the Georgia Dome.

“If they were going to give me space, I was going to take it,” said Wilbekin, who finished with 15 points and went 5-of-6 beyond the arc.

From there, he and the Gators continued to take it. Their defense smothered an exhausted and frustrated Mizzou team -- which shot just 31.6 percent in the second half -- and their offense found the shooting edge. The Gators hit 4-of-5 shots during their run and missed just one shot after, closing the game hitting eight straight.

Just to make sure Mizzou had no prayer of any sort of miraculous comeback, four of the Gators' last nine buckets were 3-pointers.

“I think we have got a group that is pretty cerebral,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said of his team, which shot just 34.6 percent in the first half. “You can talk about things that we need to change or adjust, and they're pretty good at doing that.”

When a team outscores an opponent 43-20 in the second half, it has made a pretty strong statement about making a second-half adjustment.

The Gators have done that all season. It’s why they’re the No. 1 team in the country and will likely leave Atlanta with the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. This team has had ugly first halves before but has the maturity to forgive and forget. The frustration that lingered during the first half of Friday’s game vanished when the second half began.

There are still free throw issues (the Gators made only 10-of-20), and sleeping in the first half could always catch up with them against the better teams.

“Maybe we just weren’t ready to believe this game,” Young said. “I think we were more ready for Missouri to lay down and just be like, ‘Oh, they’re going to win this game.’”

It appears that this attitude forced Florida to wake up. The kind of spark the Gators got Friday won’t always be there, but maybe a lull during this impressive run is what this team needed after making things look so easy for most of the season.

“Whoever we play tomorrow, we’re going to have to come out better than we did today -- more energy, more passion, more fire -- and be focused and locked in on defense, and the offense will take care of itself,” guard Michael Frazier II said.

Tournament preview: SEC

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11

This season started with talk about a special group of classmates in this league, one so talented and exceptional that it just might go undefeated.

Which is exactly what happened, only not with the team or the group anyone expected.

Kentucky and its ubertalented freshmen grabbed the headlines in the preseason, a squad so once-in-a-generation special it spawned silly talk of a 40-0 season. The Wildcats instead endured the reality of growing pains, and they have yet to realize their potential.

[+] EnlargeCasey Prather
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesSenior Casey Prather leads the No. 1 Gators in scoring with 14.6 points per game.
In the meantime, Florida, with its ubertalented seniors, finished the SEC regular season undefeated, the first in the conference to go 18-0 and only the fourth team from a major conference to finish a league slate unscathed in the past 15 seasons.

Were it not for a certain team in Wichita, Kan., we might be singing more loudly the praises of Florida and its consistency. This college basketball season has been anything but stable, marked by strange upsets, wild rants and teams that, for one reason or another, could never find their footing.

Florida, with its own set of issues, hardly faltered. Despite problems both accidental (injuries) and self-inflicted (suspensions), the Gators lost only two games this season, finishing the regular season with 23 straight wins. Within the SEC, their average margin of victory was a gaudy 13 points per game.

It is worth noting, as well as impossible to ignore, that, in a year and a sport dominated by freshmen, Florida succeeded with and because of seniors. Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Will Yeguete and Patric Young already have racked up 113 wins in their career, with two tournaments left to break the school record (117).

“When you invest four years like these guys have invested, it means something to them," Florida coach Billy Donovan said after his team's season-finale win against Kentucky.

What’s at stake?

Conference pride. The SEC has a legitimate national title contender in Florida, but other than that, it has a lot of "meh." No team outside the Gators has done much all season to distinguish itself, with more teams trying, it would seem, to stay on the bubble than get off it.

The SEC needs three teams especially to prove their worth -- Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri. The Razorbacks, seeded fifth, lost a dismal regular-season finale against Alabama to put them back in the bubble conversation.

Meanwhile, in a pick 'em NCAA game, Tennessee did everything right and Missouri everything horrifically wrong in a 72-45 Vols win.

All three have been woefully inconsistent this season, putting together questionable résumés that have made for that uncomfortable bubble perch. Arkansas managed to sweep Kentucky but lose to both Alabama and Texas A&M. Tennessee, the least guilty of the three culprits, has no real notable wins but some bad losses (A&M, Vanderbilt). Missouri beat UCLA way back when and lost to Vandy, Georgia (twice) and Alabama.

To avoid an uncomfortable viewing party on Sunday, all three need to make sure they don’t have any more awful losses, not just for themselves but for the sake of their league.

The football kingpin SEC continues to promise an improved product on the hardwood but, season after season, coach after coach, struggles to make it happen. It’s time the teams helped the league office out.

Team with the most to gain

Kentucky. Yes, the Wildcats are firmly in the NCAA tournament, but if there is a team that can use a dose of feel-good medicine, it is the Wildcats. Kentucky ended the regular season with a 19-point loss to Florida, the disheartening exclamation point on a season that never quite became what anyone expected.

The Wildcats, the preseason No. 1 team in the nation, needed a tiebreaker to beat out Georgia for the No. 2 seed in the SEC tournament.

But nothing cures the November-December-January-February blues quite like a good month of March. Kentucky is one good run from becoming a very dangerous team, and a hot start at the SEC tournament could be the spark.

This is a team that needs to believe in itself as much as anything. The only way for the Wildcats to do that is to start stringing together wins.

On Tuesday night, Billy Donovan unleashed Chris Walker, the much-hyped, potential month-and-done NBA prospect. The freshman had finally gained clearance from the men and women behind the curtain in Indianapolis to compete after missing the first semester due to academic issues.

He was the No. 12 recruit in America, according to RecruitingNation’s Class of 2013 rankings. And even though he hadn’t played for the first three months of the season, NBA draft expert Chad Ford still listed him as a first-round pick in his latest mock draft.

Walker wasn’t the best player on the floor during his debut in No. 3 Florida’s 68-58 win over Missouri in Gainesville. But he helped. And if he continues to progress, the addition could be significant for a Florida team that can compete for the national championship without him.

He didn’t force things. He tried to blend in -- as much as one who hovers above the cylinder can realistically blend. He caught a few lobs. He blocked a few shots. But he essentially watched his teammates maintain Florida’s spot atop the SEC and extend its winning streak to 14 games from the bench.

Still, the rich got richer on Tuesday.

[+] EnlargeChris Walker
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsThe much-ballyhooed debut of Chris Walker went well for Florida, and the 6-foot-10 McDonald's All-American might be the player to put the Gators over the top.
Scottie Wilbekin had 19 points, mostly on free throws (13-for-16). Michael Frazier II's 3-point barrage in the second half helped, as he finished with 14 points and made four of his 11 3-point attempts. Patric Young added 13 points and six rebounds.

Oh, and Donovan brought a 2013 McDonald’s All-American off the bench.

That’s not fair. And it’s also not representative of the crumbling terrain known as the SEC.

Florida’s win over Missouri -- and Kentucky’s 80-64 victory over Ole Miss hours earlier -- simply solidified the widely recognized truth about the SEC: the Gators and Wildcats are the only noteworthy programs in this 14-team quagmire of a conference.

The Gators don’t have much company. Perhaps the Wildcats will beat them in their Jan. 15 meeting in Lexington and close the gap in the race.

The rest, however, continue to trail.

The strength of a league is assigned according to its depth and quality. And the SEC has neither right now.

There are six teams in the conference with sub-100 RPIs. Tennessee, Kentucky and Florida are the only SEC schools in the top 50, although Mizzou (51), LSU (55) and Ole Miss (56) are all near that mark.

But the reality is that the SEC might be a league that sends just two teams to the NCAA tournament. The Vols, Rebels, and both versions of Tigers can all obtain spots via strong finishes in the final month of the regular season and during the postseason tournament.

Victories over Kentucky and Florida, however, are the only prizes in this conference.

It’s hard to trust any of the SEC’s aforementioned borderline tourney teams right now. They’ve all been inconsistent -- and even Kentucky is short of what its potential appeared to be entering the year.

Mizzou, now 4-5 in the SEC, played a solid first half against the Gators on Tuesday. Frank Haith’s team led by three points at halftime, but then the Tigers were outscored 43-30 in the second half.

It’s the same storyline with so many teams in the SEC that aren’t named Florida and Kentucky. So close. And that’s all.

Tennessee has Jarnell Stokes and SEC first-teamer Jordan McRae. The Vols should be comfortable right now, not embarking on another nailbiting stretch toward Selection Sunday.

The same LSU team that beat Kentucky Jan. 28 lost at 9-12 Alabama six days prior to that.

Their struggles put the Gators in a difficult spot. They can’t climb much in a conference littered with mediocrity. But they’ll fall far if they suffer a loss to any team other than Kentucky.

John Gasaway put it this way in his latest riveting “Tuesday Truths” column: “Good SEC teams have no choice but to play a bunch of road games against struggling opponents. That’s what the SEC is: Florida, Kentucky, and a bunch of struggling teams. I’m oversimplifying, but you get the gist.”

The beauty of both the Big Ten and the Big 12, arguably the top two leagues in America, is that their internal carnage is generally viewed as proof of their substance. Texas is not surging in the Big 12 because the top tier was overrated as conference play approached. It’s surging because it’s a talented team. Nebraska and Northwestern have pulled off upsets in the Big Ten because there aren’t any easy wins in that league.

The SEC’s plotline thus far is more aligned with Mike Tyson’s “Punch-Out!!”

One behemoth knocking out everyone in its way. And a few unimposing contenders collectively posing a minimal threat.

What's missing for Florida? Nothing

December, 18, 2013

NEW YORK -- Suspensions and injuries, so forth and so on.

The song of this Florida basketball team has been played on the strings of a tiny violin. Not that the Gators were courting sympathy they wouldn't get, anyway.

This season thus far has been about what the Gators didn’t have because of injuries, both real and self-inflicted.

Let’s, however, talk about what Florida has -- perhaps the most complete team since Billy Donovan won back-to-back championships.

Solid big man? Patric Young. Check.

Inside presence? Will Yeguete. Check.

Shooter? Michael Frazier II. Check.

Wing player who can go inside or stretch you outside? Dorian Finney-Smith. Check.

[+] EnlargeScottie Wilbekin
Elsa/Getty ImagesScottie Wilbekin's heady play at point guard adds to a Florida team that seems to have all the necessary components.
Savvy point guard? Scottie Wilbekin. Check.

Gifted, impossible-to-stop athlete and potential wild card? Casey Prather. Check.

Defense? Check.

Great coach? Check.

Potential wunderkind freshman-in-waiting? Chris Walker. Check.

Florida has been to three consecutive Elite Eight games, but in each of those runs, something was missing.

What’s missing now?


“Florida is an elite team," Memphis coach Josh Pastner said after his team lost to the Gators 77-75 in the Jimmy V Classic on Tuesday. “We’ve played two elite teams -- Oklahoma State and Florida."

What makes Florida all the more intriguing, though, is that which you can’t quantify.

The Gators have scars, which Donovan talked about after the Gators' win Tuesday night.

He didn't speak as if his team is hung up on what it hasn’t accomplished, but it knows what it means to have scars.

Nobody has those anymore. Teams don’t cart painful memories around because players don’t last long enough to build up memories together. What you did lately has the shelf life of maybe six months. It’s all about muscle memory, not collective memories.

But the Gators have four seniors, which essentially qualifies them for AARP benefits. These are guys who remember the successes of three consecutive Elite Eight runs but also the flip side of three could-be Final Fours that ended short of the doorway.

“They’ve got a lot of scars on them; they’ve been through a lot," Donovan said. “And maybe it’s because they’ve been scarred enough and wounded enough, they understand that this is a journey."

The journey, however, could be another awfully good one for Donovan.

What he’s done at Florida is nothing short of exceptional. Pastner said after the game that the Hall of Fame should just bypass whatever grace period it has and induct Donovan immediately.

He was being flip, but the reality will be there someday.

This is a man who came into a football school, won two titles and watched that entire roster leave, only to rebuild the team into an elite winner again.

Yet because those successes ended in regional final berths and not the last weekend, Florida gets pushed back into the pack of good teams, not great ones.

That could change this season. Kentucky waltzed into the season as the prohibitive favorite in the SEC, but compare the Wildcats to the Gators right now. Each has been through its own share of hard luck and trials, yet Florida has emerged much more cleanly.

Why? Scars and experience. Losing a player to an injury and waiting for your point guard to serve multiple suspensions is nothing when you’ve been through things together. You get by.

“We’re just focused on right now," Prather said. “That’s all we think about is right now."

That doesn’t mean the Gators will march to the title. If this early season has proven to be anything, it is wildly unpredictable. Asked if he could exhale after coming through a run of four ranked opponents with a 3-1 record, Donovan said with utmost seriousness that he already was worried about Fresno State.

Nothing is in the bag. Florida isn’t so good that it can just kick back and wait for March to roll around.

Joakim Noah isn’t walking through that door, and so forth.

But this Florida team has the blocks upon which a champion can be built, the core fundamentals that we see more often than not (Kentucky and Anthony Davis being the anomaly).

Florida lost two games -- one by six at Wisconsin and one on a buzzerbeater at Connecticut. Neither time did they have their full roster.

And now they do.

"This is our team now; this is our core," Donovan said.

The rest of the world might be breathlessly awaiting the NCAA to allow Walker to make his debut because, after all, what are you these days without a stud freshman? Everyone has one!

But Donovan isn’t waiting on Walker, who enrolled in school this week. He watched him get eaten alive by Young in practice because he's a wide-eyed teenager going up against a man.

Walker is not the savior. And more importantly, he doesn’t need to be.

Florida has plenty just the way it is.

Andrew Wiggins can't do it alone

December, 11, 2013
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Andrew Wiggins held the ball above his head and screamed in desperation.

With the game on the line in the final minutes of No. 19 Florida's 67-61 win over No. 13 Kansas on Tuesday night, his teammates had abandoned him on the baseline, nearly prompting a turnover on the inbound pass before Frank Mason rescued him.

That moment was a metaphor for this entire troubling start. Wiggins can't overcome Kansas' weaknesses alone. Even if he could walk on water – and he was otherworldly in his definitive 26-point, 11-rebound, two-block performance – the rules wouldn't let him pass to himself.

The Jayhawks need a combination of a deliberate Wiggins, efficient starters, reserves who make an impact and a defense that protects the paint and the perimeter (the Jayhawks rank seventh in the Big 12 in 3-point field goal percentage defense).

They didn't have that combo in Gainesville. They didn't have it in Boulder, where they lost to Colorado, or at the Battle 4 Atlantis, where they lost to Villanova, either.

"I think it's on everybody," Wiggins said. "No one on the team lets all the pressure or all the negativity go to one person."

Wiggins needs someone, anyone, to ensure that he never goes another five minutes without a touch in the middle of an opponent's 21-0 run. He needs someone, anyone, to alert him when Patric Young's gladiator screens are threatening his livelihood. He needs someone, anyone, to recognize that it's not all on him. Can't be.

Read the rest of this story here.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The thing about assessing college basketball teams in November and December is that it’s much easier to get it wrong than to get it right.

A team’s full story is usually more layered than one outcome, one matchup or one streak can accurately illustrate in the first few weeks and months of any season.

Sometimes key players are injured. Sometimes key players are suspended. Sometimes key players are just green.

In No. 19 Florida’s case, all three have been factors.

The Gators have had enough drama to warrant an E! reality TV show.

They entered Tuesday’s 67-61 win over No. 13 Kansas at the O’Connell Center approaching 100 percent. In its most high-profile matchup of the year to date, Florida was almost fully staffed. The result was one of the most dominant performances -- in the first half, at least -- any team has ever played against Kansas and a reminder of what’s possible when a team can finally use most of the players on its roster.

It was also a warning against premature analysis of a team in flux.

There were 16 -- yes, 16 -- Kansas turnovers in the first half thanks to Florida's frustrating 1-3-1 zone. Per ESPN Stats & Information, Kansas committed turnovers on nine of its 18 possessions and went 4-for-15 from the field against the 1-3-1.

[+] EnlargeScottie Wilbekin
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesScottie Wilbekin's 18 points, six assists and four steals gave Gators fans a glimpse of what he can provide when he's in the flow of things.
The Jayhawks played like a team trapped in a fire pit.

There was a 21-0 Florida run that followed a 10-3 start by Kansas, changing the atmosphere in Florida’s home venue. After missing six of their first seven shots in the first half, the Gators went 7-for-12 during that rally. Kansas failed to score for 8:43.

If the Gators were spontaneously lucky, then the Jayhawks were suddenly cursed. Blowouts can begin with such a sweeping shift that even the players involved can’t describe it.

“I don’t know what happened,” Kansas star Andrew Wiggins said. “They just went on a run.”

The Gators resisted a furious second-half Kansas rally that arose when Wiggins decided to cook up his best college game to date (first career double-double with 26 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks and four turnovers), showing NBA scouts that he's still worthy of being the No. 1 pick in next year's draft.

But Patric Young & Co. stayed strong and avoided panic.

“It just shows that when this team is healthy and has everybody out there, or even when we don’t, we’re going to put five guys out there that are going to play hard and run our offense and play our style of play,” said Young, who finished with 12 points, six rebounds and three solid shoulders (minimum) into Kansas freshman Joel Embiid's sternum. “Our style of play was overwhelming for them. We need to bring that every single day.”

Freshman Kasey Hill played 20 minutes after nursing an ankle injury and missing the previous four games. Scottie Wilbekin, who served a suspension at the beginning of the season, suffered an ankle injury during Florida’s last-second loss at UConn last week. But he started against the Jayhawks.

Even with Wilbekin and Hill available, the Gators aren’t 100 percent.

Billy Donovan’s roster was missing five players due to suspension, illness or injury (excluding top-10 recruit Chris Walker, who was academically ineligible for the first semester) as the program prepared for its season opener against North Florida.

South Carolina transfer Damontre Harris will reportedly leave the team. Eli Carter, who averaged 14.9 PPG for Rutgers in 2012-13, will reportedly redshirt after suffering a broken leg last season. And Walker’s status is still undetermined, though he could be eligible in a few days.

What do you get when you add a 6-foot-10 potential lottery pick to a nationally ranked program that’s playing some of the best defense in America?

“I really don’t know. I know he’s a very good athlete,” Donovan said. “My biggest thing with him is going to be how quickly can he pick things up. And I’ve got to do a good job of keeping things simple for him. ... I hope it will work out.”

The (moving toward) full-strength Gators are quite talented -- Final Four talented.

That Kansas offense that crumbled under the pressure of a stiff zone in the first half is encumbered by problems such as inexperience, imbalance, inconsistency and shaky guard play.

But Bill Self’s boys lost to an elite Florida squad. Tuesday night was just its first chance to prove it. Florida doesn’t have one player who has averaged more than 20-plus minutes per game and played in all nine contests this season.

Florida didn’t have Dorian Finney-Smith or Wilbekin in its loss to Wisconsin. Finney-Smith scored 15 points Tuesday and triggered that first-half rally by going 4-for-6 from the 3-point line. Wilbekin recorded a team-high 18 points, six assists and four steals in 36 dazzling minutes.

“Once you get them back, it is a good feeling to have everybody out there playing together,” Wilbekin said. “You can see it. More rest. More versatile with what we can do on offense. And I think this is the first time you’ve seen us with everybody.”

The Gators are growing as they solidify their roster. That constrictive defensive display against a program that might boast three first-round draft picks was impressive because of its effectiveness and suddenness.

Florida, if healthy, suspension-free and eligible, could be the SEC’s best team and a national title contender in March.

But the Gators need more time together.

“I’m hopeful now, as we try to get a little bit healthier in this next week, it’d be good for us to get some of that continuity and cohesiveness on the court because there are times I see it and other times [not],” Donovan said. “I think guys need reps.”

Florida wasn’t pleased with the second-half sloppiness that could have turned a great win into a heartbreaking loss, though.

Once Florida began to play man-to-man defense in the second half, Wiggins grabbed his cape. He penetrated. He hit jump shots. He drew fouls. He was almost a hero.

Kansas had a final shot to change the outcome when it was down just 61-55 in the final minute. Florida unraveled at the free throw line (15-for-23 after halftime) and couldn’t stick Wiggins. But the turnover ghost continued to haunt the Jayhawks.

Brannen Greene lost control and fumbled the ball out of bounds with 45 seconds to play and a chance to cut Florida’s lead to two or three, dooming the Jayhawks to their third loss in the past four games.

“We’re just not a real skilled team,” Self said, “yet.”

Impressions: SEC media day 2

October, 17, 2013

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- I like my team. That's the first line of any coach's typical media day script. On Thursday, Florida coach Billy Donovan tossed that script into the shredder.

It's not that Donovan went rogue. Nor was he particularly negative. On Day 2 of the SEC's media days, Donovan merely acknowledged reality: His 2013-14 Gators team, though undoubtedly talented, is so beset by injuries and personnel issues that there isn't much of a team for Donovan to like in the first place.

[+] EnlargeBilly Donovan
AP Photo/Dave MartinBetween injuries and off-court issues, Florida coach Billy Donovan has been running practices with only seven scholarship players.
To wit: Eli Carter and Will Yeguete are both recovering from injuries suffered in the spring. Michael Frazier II is being tested for mononucleosis. Point guard Scottie Wilbekin is still serving an indefinite suspension. Damontre Harris is working through a hamstring issue. And star freshman forward Chris Walker is still working to attain his academic eligibility and join the Gators in December.

As a result, Donovan -- a two-time national champion and perennially successful recruiter -- has found himself running practices with just seven scholarship players. He admits he has no idea what to expect.

"We have a lot of unknowns," Donovan said, "with our injuries, not having a full complement of players. ... I'd tell you today, if we had [all our players available] and we could start Oct. 11 fully healthy, then I'd tell you we have a chance to be really good. Hopefully we can get there as the season goes on. But we're not there right now."

That adversity has led Florida's players to adopt an incongruous new slogan for the 2013-14 season: "S.W.A.G." But it's not just about confidence or flash (or slightly outdated tween lingo).

"It means 'Strengthen When Adversity Grows,'" senior forward Patric Young said. "We need to strengthen as adversity gets more and more in our face. We need to stay together and be connected."

Donovan was willing to praise his team on that front. He said his players were forming a "different bond and different connected-ness."

For now, it seems, chemistry is the least of the Gators' numerous worries.

Other notes from SEC media days:
  • When coaches weren't being asked about Kentucky's loaded incoming class, they were answering questions about the SEC's overall strength (or lack thereof). Uncertainty reigns. Even Kentucky, the surest bargain in the bunch, has earned that status despite most of its players never having played a collegiate game. "As soon as they play a real top team," Young said, "they're going to see it's not just a walk in the park. One-and-done is not for everybody."
  • There was at least one thing every SEC coach could agree on: The NCAA's new rules, designed to eliminate handchecks, arm bars and shaky charge calls, are good for the game -- with one caveat. The referees must remain consistent.
  • Not all teams will be affected equally by the new contact rules. Teams that thrive on physical, lane-clogging defense or that lead with a press will have to adjust their style this season. Case in point: Last season, Arkansas forced opponents into turnovers at one of the highest rates in the country. It also ranked No. 316 in the country in opponent free throw rate. "I've got a task on my hands," Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said.
  • South Carolina coach Frank Martin would like to clarify one thing: He's not as scary as you think. "There might 30 10-second snippets of me in a foul mood," Martin said. "I can promise you, that's [the only] 300 seconds out of a whole year that I'm in a foul mood. I love people. I love to laugh. I love to make people laugh. And if you asked anyone who knows me, they'd say you can't find anyone in the world more loyal than I am. ... So I'm not the big grizzly bear I'm always made out to be." Martin did not disclose whether he does, or does not, dance like no one's watching.

Were he not 6-foot-9, Patric Young would look 100 percent at home on a football field. That's always been Young's most immediately obvious asset: physique. He is the closest thing the college game has to Dwight Howard, a guy who is not only relatively athletic for his size but appears to have been cut out of stone at some point in high school.

Young's game has never quite matched the implications of his stature. In some ways, that's unfair; Young has been a very solid player for three years at Florida, and we knew 10 years ago that projecting an athlete's performance based on whether or not he "looks like a player" is sort of silly. Young's also spent most of his career playing the supportive rebound-and-kickout role to volume shooters like Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario. With Scottie Wilbekin and Kasey Hill in the backcourt now, there's a good chance the 2013-14 season will be Young's official breakout. And despite all that, the dude's shoulders still make you think he should average 20 and 10. They are both gift and curse.

In any case, the NBA is sure to come calling next summer. But as the above video shows, after a decade of basketball players-turned-tight ends taking to the new pass-first NFL with gusto, Young might just be the prototype. Just throw the ball up and let him catch it! That's how football works, right?

(Hat tip: Norlander)
Now that realignment is behind us, rosters are mostly finalized, and freshmen are getting used to living in dorm rooms (oh, to be reborn at summer orientation), we're spending the week looking ahead at some of the more interesting players and storylines we expect to track in 2013-14. Next up: players facing crucial senior seasons, both individually and for their teams.

(Important note: This is not a list of the best seniors, or even necessarily the most important or most indispensable). It is a list of seniors -- some who have underachieved to date -- that need to, once and for all, make good on their star potential in their final year in the college game. Make sense? Cool.)

10. C.J. Fair (Syracuse): Fair's career to this point has been characterized by admirable consistency. In his first two campaigns he maintained similarly promising offensive ratings (109.5 and 114.6) while averaging a 17.3 percent usage rate, while blending in quality defense, rebounding and stellar work on the offensive glass. Fair's usage jumped slightly as a junior (to 20.5 percent of available possessions), and he grew far more comfortable wielding his outside shot, but the rock-solid fundamentals of his game remained mostly the same. As a senior, even on a team with plenty of oncoming talent, Fair may yet be expected to do even more. If he can expand his game further on the perimeter and provide go-to scoring in the midrange without losing the things that have made him so solid for so long, the Orange should make a massive impression in their first year in the ACC, and Fair should do the same for NBA scouts.

[+] EnlargeKevin Ollie, Shabazz Napier
John Woike/Hartford Courant/MCTGuard Shabazz Napier has taken on a leadership role under coach Kevin Ollie.
9. Shabazz Napier (Connecticut): Napier has had one of the most up-and-down careers of any player in recent college hoops memory. You can make the argument that he got where he needed to be as a junior. Not only did he have his best year by far statistically (he posted a 115.3 offensive rating on 24.3 percent usage and a 54.4 effective field goal percentage, shot 39 percent from 3 and created plenty of steals) but also, under new coach Kevin Ollie, assumed the leadership role denied him by that apathetic 2011-12 team. The only problem? UConn was ineligible for the NCAA tournament. With a full batch of returning players and that APR-induced postseason ban behind the Huskies, Napier is in position to make his biggest impact since Kemba Walker was on campus.

8. Tim Frazier (Penn State): As promised above, some of the guys on this list have underachieved for most of their careers; it's not fair to lump Frazier into that group. There are two reasons he isn't already a household name: Penn State and injuries. When Frazier was healthy for his true junior season in 2011-12, he led the Big Ten in assists (and posted the nation's second-highest assist rate, higher than either Kendall Marshall or Scott Machado), averaged 18.2 points per game (second in the Big Ten), created four steals per 100 possessions and drew an average of six fouls per game, while playing 92.8 percent of his team's available minutes. Thanks to a medical hardship waiver -- the 2012-13 campaign was derailed by a brutal ACL injury Achilles tear in just the fourth game of the season -- 2013-14 will provide Frazier with his last chance to earn the kind of individual national attention that gets scouts to raise an eyebrow. If he can also pull Penn State over the rebuilding hump, hey, all the better.

7. Aaron Craft (Ohio State): You couldn't say Craft has underachieved in his career. Quite the opposite. During his prep days, Craft was seen as a merely respectable but hardly a program-changing recruit, provided your head coach didn't lie to NCAA investigators about having him over for a barbecue. (Ba-dum-ksh.) Craft has long since exceeded those expectations. As a freshman, he seized a starting role in Thad Matta's very good veterans-plus-Jared Sullinger-led lineup, and he has maintained his spot by cementing the respect of teammates and coaches and, most noticeably, playing the best, peskiest perimeter defense in the country. That's his calling card, and it won't go anywhere, but one can't help wondering whether Craft still has more to pick up on the offensive end. Can he be a leading scorer? A more confident 3-point shooter off the dribble? Is that even possible, given the tireless work Craft does on the defensive end? (Related: Can Shannon Scott, who morphed into a deadly defender late last season, take on some of that burden?) Losing Deshaun Thomas means Ohio State has to replace a large chunk of scoring one way or the other; more incisive stuff at the point of attack would be a good place to start.

[+] EnlargeMike Stobe/Getty Images
Mike Stobe/Getty ImagesCory Jefferson was a force during Baylor's NIT run.
6. Cory Jefferson (Baylor): It is never wise to project too much based on the disproportionately weighted sample of a few postseason games in March. This is especially true when the postseason in question was the NIT. So yes, you can expect Jefferson's 21.2 points per game in the Bears' NIT title run -- which ended with a 74-54 vivisection of a very good Iowa defense -- to earn him his fair share of prospective love this fall. But Jefferson was good long before March. He posted a 128.1 offensive rating on 19.1 percent usage -- and shot 61.8 percent from inside the arc, leading the Big 12 in overall field goal percentage (61.0) in the process -- in 2012-13. Could he approximate that effort with more of a lead role as a senior? We'll see.

5. Marshall Henderson (Ole Miss): Here's another question: Did Henderson already max out his talent? After a season in which he took 394 3s (which is insane!) and made 35 percent of them (less insane, but pretty good), it's hard to imagine Henderson somehow finding a way to take more shots. It's even harder, given the volume involved, to picture him finding a way to improve that 113.5 offensive rating. According to Synergy scouting data, 38.2 percent of Henderson's possessions ended with off-ball screen action; no other play type came remotely close to that sort of frequency. (No. 2? Spot-ups, with 17.2 percent, trailed by transition offense and hand-off plays -- all of which screams "not allowed to put it on the floor.") With a less experienced frontcourt, there are only so many screens the Rebels can set. There are only so many shots Henderson can take.

So the premise for improvement is twofold. To dig an even better senior season out of his madcap heart, Henderson needs to become a better ball handler, distributor and scorer off the dribble -- less a gunner than a capable combo guard. He also, obviously, has to get to the court in the first place, which will be no small feat given the substance abuse issues that put his status at Ole Miss in jeopardy this month. Henderson appears to be taking that stuff seriously -- which he clearly wasn't at first -- and that's a good thing. It is also crucial for his career. If Henderson has any shot of making his NBA dreams a reality, he has to adjust his skill set and quell any and all concerns about his life away from basketball. It won't be easy.

4. Kendall Williams (New Mexico): It is hardly fair to tie one's assessment of a player to one particularly bonkers scoring night, but I know what I saw, and what I saw was Williams score 46 points in 33 minutes against a good Colorado State team on the road. It's not like he had a bad season otherwise -- 13.3 points and 4.9 assists per game is perfectly respectable -- but it was impossible to watch him that night and not think there was something more below the surface. Truth is, Williams hasn't really improved statistically in his college career. He was a better passer and drew more fouls as a junior, but his freshman season remains his most efficient. His 3-point accuracy fell to 34.8 percent, down from the 42.6 percent mark he posted two years prior. Without newly minted Chicago Bull Tony Snell in the backcourt, it's fair to wonder whether the Lobos will have the same defensive chops that anchored their excellent 2012-13 season. Williams will have to work more efficiently alongside emerging star Alex Kirk to find another gear going forward.

[+] EnlargePatric Young
Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/MCT/Getty ImagesPatric Young may see more opportunities in the post this season.
3. Patric Young (Florida): Young has always felt a bit disappointing. That's rarely been his fault. During his first two seasons at Florida, he frequently languished on the low block while Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton fired away from 25 feet. As a junior, the calculus changed somewhat and Young began to get more genuine post touches in a strikingly balanced edition of the Gators' spread attack. Still, he remains the college game's greatest physical specimen for three years running; you can't look at him and not expect him to dominate everyone in his vicinity. He got closer on the defensive end last season. Overall, he still isn't there. This may be the year. Boynton, shot-magnet Mike Rosario and fellow four Erik Murphy are all gone. Scottie Wilbekin is not an aggressive attacker by nature. Freshman phenom Chris Walker's status remains up in the air. Odds are, Young may finally get the chance to go to work on the low block, even if by default. The question is whether he's ready.

2. Keith Appling (Michigan State): When Appling first popped up as a freshman at Michigan State, he was a breath of fresh air. That 2010-11 team was one of the few -- honestly, maybe the only -- in Tom Izzo's tenure to genuinely underachieve. Delvon Roe fought admirably through career-ending injuries, and a young Draymond Green pointed toward a bright future, but the team's three lead guards (Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers, and Korie Lucious), so key in bright back-to-back Final Four runs, proved to be corrosive, selfish influences. Appling quickly provided a contrast. His offensive game was tentatively promising, and his tenacious defense earned him Izzo's immediate respect. Here was a young, willing guard coached by a guy who made a career out of turning the Keith Applings of the world into Spartan legends. He was as sure a bet as the sport had to offer.

Remind me not to start a career oddsmaking business. Three years on, Appling's offensive game hasn't really improved. As a junior, he averaged 46.4 percent from inside the arc and 32 percent outside it. Turnovers are not uncommon to Izzo's teams, but Appling's inability to get his turnover rate down -- it was still 18.6 percent in 2012-13, just two points lower than his 20.6 percent assist percentage -- has compounded the effects of mediocre shooting. Last season, he went whole games, even whole weeks, when he would either (A) disappear, or (B) play so poorly (or at best, so tentatively) that Spartans fans would wonder whether option A wasn't preferable.

Appling has never been bad, per se. His perimeter defense hasn't gone anywhere. He has battled injuries with characteristic toughness, battled his slumps with determined accountability. You never hear bad things about him; he's been a reliable, hardworking presence within the program. But he has also never developed into what his coach once so convincingly proclaimed he would be.

This season is his final chance. The Spartans will be loaded again, with the Big Ten Freshman of the Year Gary Harris set for a monster sophomore season and forward Adreian Payne still blossoming into a devastating talent. Appling doesn't have to morph into a turnover-free replicate. He merely has to do what he does already and shoot the ball a bit better. If he does, there won't be many teams in the country capable of matching Michigan State man for man. If he doesn't, the Spartans will still be good -- but they, like Appling himself, risk leaving something on the table.

1. Joe Jackson (Memphis): Fortunately, Memphis won an NCAA tournament game in 2013. Getting that monkey off coach Josh Pastner's back meant knocking back at least some of the steadily growing "But can he actually coach?" talk in the Bluff City (and reinforcing a personal pet peeve about tournament sample size). It also meant less pressure on the player that has, for both better and worse, defined Pastner's tenure at the school.

Like many of the very best players Pastner has recruited in his tenure, Jackson is a local product, one of the first Pastner landed, who was unafraid to place his hometown's hopes -- and its uniquely provincial baggage -- on his back. He has also been emblematically frustrating. Hugely confident but too sensitive to criticism. Talented but too inconsistent. At times, he has been Memphis' best player. Just as often, he has moped his way to the bench.

Give Jackson credit for this much: He's still here. Many of Jackson's teammates have been fellow Memphis natives, and by many accounts the dynamic around the program has often resembled a youth team writ large, with whole neighborhoods and high school sets standing in for bickering parents arguing on behalf of one player or another. Rumors of intrasquad squabbles have been just as common. Jackson could have transferred, cordoned himself away from the local intensity, but despite all the struggles he remained. As a junior, he was much improved. His improved third season -- more unselfish and efficient than either of the two that preceded it -- built an excellent foundation for his senior campaign, but there is much more to be accomplished -- a deep tournament run chief among it.

When he arrived four years ago, Jackson embraced the unique pressure of his situation. As he told our own Dana O'Neil:

"I want to be remembered," Jackson said. "I want to be a legend. I want to be a hero. I want old people to see me on television and say, 'Look at that kid. He made it. He did it. That's who I want you to be like.'"

His performance has never quite matched that ambition. He has one more chance to close the gap.
Earlier this offseason, we got to see former Kentucky forward Nerlens Noel and his friend, a 7-year-old leukemia sufferer named Kelly Melton, swag it out at the Kentucky Derby. Today, we have a similar story, this time from Florida, where rising senior forwards Patric Young and Will Yeguete have formed a deep bond with a 3-year-old kid who sounds about a thousand times more courageous than anyone I know.

The Florida Times-Union's Hays Carlyon has the story. Since he was just 10 months old, when a doctor's initial diagnosis of mumps turned out to be acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Kaedyn Ballew has been in an off-again, on-again battle with cancer. During his first trip to Shands Hospital in Gainesville, as Carlyon writes, a responding oncologist told Ballew's mother, Shelsie Ballew, that her son likely wouldn't survive the weekend. He left the hospital five months later, in August, but returned in December when his mother noticed deep bruises on his legs and back, a sign that the cancer had returned.

Ballew was checked into Shands for another four unimaginable months. That was when he met Yeguete and Young, during one of the Florida players' trips to the children's ward at the hospital:
“The first time Will and I went to visit him, it was one of the best hospital visits I’ve ever had,” Young said. “The kid was going through leukemia for the second time. He just brightened up the room. He made me smile many times. I had great interaction with him. He has such a good imagination. It was a great experience. He’s an awesome kid to be around.”

That imagination was evident early. Kaedyn told Young and Yeguete how he had scared away a monster by flexing his muscles at him. “If he comes back,” Kaedyn said. “I’ll show him my muscles again."

Young and Yeguete have checked in since, following up when it was time for Kaedyn to come home from the hospital and helping the family move their things out of their grim second home. It's a truly great story made complete by a photo of Kaedyn in Yeguete's game-worn shoes, which might weigh more than the little guy's entire frame.

There is good news at the end of the story here, but it's not universally positive. Kaedyn's home from the hospital now, Carlyon writes, but he is still receiving treatment and is still experiencing brutal side effects. Doctors give him a 50 percent chance of full recovery; if he doesn't relapse by March of 2018, he'll be considered cured. In the meantime, the Gators and Kaedyn's mother are hoping he is soon healthy enough to attend a home game:
“He would love it,” Shelsie said. “He says he can’t wait to eat nachos with lots of cheese and watch Patric and Will play. I hope he’ll be able to. That would be really special.”
FloridaRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesThe Gators will rely on veteran center Patric Young to create offensive balance in 2013-14.
Editor's Note: This month, ESPN Insider's college basketball and recruiting experts are teaming up to examine how 15 of the nation's best recruiting classes will fit in with their teams in the 2013-14 season. Today's featured program: Florida Insider. Check out the Nation blog each morning for a corresponding post on the key returnee for each of the 15 teams.

The aftermath of Andrew Wiggins’ announcement on Tuesday has been enlightening.

Had he picked Kentucky, then many would have maintained their assumption the Wildcats would be the juggernauts of the 2013-14 season.

By choosing Kansas, however, Wiggins cast some doubt on that notion.

Next season will be bigger than Kentucky basketball. That’s always been the case, but it’s just more obvious now that the No. 1 recruit in America has selected a program outside of Lexington.

Michigan State, Michigan, Arizona, Kansas, Duke, North Carolina and Louisville will certainly be in the national title picture. And Florida should be in that mix, too.

The Gators lost Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario and Erik Murphy. And freshman guard Brandon Ogbueze left the program this week.

But transfers Dorian Finney-Smith (6.3 PPG and 7.0 RPG for Virginia Tech in 2011-12) and Damontre Harris (6.8 PPG, 5.5 RPG and 2.3 BPG for South Carolina in 2011-12) will be eligible next season. Plus, Billy Donovan’s recruiting class features McDonald’s All-Americans Kasey Hill and Chris Walker. Scottie Wilbekin is back, too.

The anchor of this group, however, is veteran big man Patric Young -- the top returnee for the program.

The 6-9 forward averaged 10.1 PPG, 6.3 RPG and 1.6 BPG. He had a 58.6 effective field goal percentage last season, 73rd nationally per Ken Pomeroy. He was ranked fifth in the SEC with a 6.87 block percentage (

His return to the Gators' program potentially signals a philosophical switch for Donovan. In past years, the coach relied on explosive guards who occupied his strong and deep backcourts. His perimeter options tend to be perennially plentiful.

Boynton, Rosario, Bradley Beal and Erving Walker have given Donovan a variety of contributors on the perimeter in recent years.

Next season, however, the Gators will have more answers and options inside.

Finney-Smith and Harris are two big bodies who will make Florida’s frontcourt one of the strongest units in America. Will Yeguete, who averaged 5.5 PPG and 5.8 RPG last season, will help, too.

Young has to be the leader of this crew.

Is he more than just a rugged cleanup man and dunk machine for the Gators?

There's nothing wrong with that role.

He’s been a critical contributor under Donovan. He’s been vital in the team’s three consecutive Elite Eight appearances.

But next year -- more than past years -- I believe Young will have to be a more dynamic player. He has to be a versatile player on both ends of the floor. The SEC is stacked with inside-outside threats that he’ll be asked to defend. It’s also a league that will welcome Julius Randle and feature Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes.

Playing in the paint will be a nightly battle in the SEC.

Last year, Young’s assists, rebounds, free-throw percentage and field-goal percentage were down compared to the previous season. He has to be a more consistent and efficient athlete for Florida.

But if he gives Florida last season’s production, the Gators still boast enough talent to make another run.

That, however, is not the expectation for Young. Can he take his game to the next level? That’s the question he must answer.

The 2013-14 campaign could be one of the most competitive seasons in recent history. The landscape will include multiple teams with legit NCAA title aspirations.

Balance will be vital for any program that ultimately finishes with the crown in Arlington.

Young’s presence will enhance Florida’s flexibility.

If he develops a more diverse post game, a better jump shot and an expansive defensive skill set, then Young might be the reason that Florida breaks through the field and reaches the Final Four.

But he has to touch the ball to be effective.

He averaged 7.1 field-goal attempts in both 2011-12 and 2012-13. Cody Zeller averaged 9.8 field goal attempts last season.

No, he’s not Zeller. This is a different team.

I get it.

Zeller, however, understood his role and could anticipate touches in ways Young could not in previous seasons because of Donovan’s guard-heavy rotation.

One night, he’d take 10 shots. The next night, he’d take two.

Young can’t reach his ceiling alone. Yes, he has to work hard this offseason to address his weaknesses. But he also needs his teammates to feed him.