Florida's balance overwhelms UCLA

The Gators don't depend solely on one player, making them a dangerous team

Originally Published: March 28, 2014
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Scottie Wilbekin couldn't find his shot. Patric Young was out of rhythm, off-kilter, a half-step slow on rebounds and rotations. Casey Prather was unusually muted.

There were eight minutes left in Florida's fourth-straight Sweet 16 game, and the Gators' three best players -- the 2013-14 SEC Player of the Year, a center with 147 games and 3,555 minutes on his legs, and its leading scorer and surprise All-American candidate, respectively -- were flailing. Young and Prather had each picked up their fourth fouls, and were stuck on the bench. Wilbekin was 2-of-10 from the field.

Worse yet, UCLA was rolling. Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson were pushing the pace, getting easy buckets, finding open teammates, playing the same beautiful brand of offense that led UCLA to its 28 wins in Steve Alford's first season as coach. With six minutes left, Florida's lead was cut to three.

So Prather -- chugging through an off night, stuck watching from the sideline, eight minutes away from maybe ending his career -- must have been at least a little bit panicked.

"No," Prather said. "Not at all."

When the 2014 NCAA tournament's No. 1 overall seed jogged into its locker room at halftime of Thursday's 79-68 Sweet 16 win over UCLA, it had shot 43 percent from the field. Wilbekin, Prather and Young combined for eight points on 2-for-11 shooting. And it totally didn't matter.

The Gators led 36-30 at the half for precisely the same reason they were the No. 1 overall seed in the first place -- the same reason they plowed through 21 SEC regular-season and conference tournament games unbeaten, the same reason they haven't lost since Dec. 2, the same reason they were the overwhelming public favorite in the ESPN Tournament Challenge, and in the end, the same reason they weathered UCLA's run and pulled away for their 35th win of the season: because they are the deepest, most complete team in the country.

Florida is so well-rounded that its best three players, all seniors, can have their worst collective outings of the season at the worst possible time ... and no one in the building, with the possible exception of their opponents, can convince themselves the Gators might actually lose. Florida is so taut on the defensive end it can hold one of the nation's best passing offenses to 3 assists, 7 turnovers and .90 points per trip in the first half.

And Billy Donovan's team is so deep, it can get 10 assists from a freshman reserve point guard (Kasey Hill, the fourth freshman, alongside Jason Kidd, Keith Gatlin and Magic Johnson, to record 10 assists in a Sweet 16 game); five 3-pointers from sharpshooter Michael Frazier II (four of which were assisted by Hill); 18 points and 13 rebounds combined from Will Yeguete and Dorian Finney-Smith; and seven points in six minutes from a freshman forward (Chris Walker) who spent the first three months of the season trying to get eligible.

Who was the difference in the game? All of them. And Donovan and his seniors are moving on to their fourth straight Elite Eight as a result.

"You could tell in the summer," Prather said. "The first pickup game we played in August, it was crazy the way we jelled, the talent we had. You knew then everybody could contribute."

Ah, but not everybody could. Florida's first month of practice frequently featured just six and sometimes seven scholarship players. Wilbekin wasn't even officially on the team for much of the summer; Donovan reinstated him after a six-game suspension to begin the season. A score of Gators were injured or suspended at various points in November and December.

"We even had 'Doe-Doe' playing point guard one game," Young said.

[+] EnlargeScottie Wilbekin
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesSenior guard Scottie Wilbekin started slow but finished with 13 points and three assists.

"Doe-Doe" is the Gators' nickname for Finney-Smith, a 6-foot-8 forward with more rebounds this season than assists. But Young isn't kidding: On Nov. 21 against Middle Tennessee, when Hill was injured and Wilbekin had one game of his suspension left to serve, Finney-Smith really did start at point guard. Florida won by 20.

In other words: Thursday's comprehensive late-March performance would be worthy of sonnets in its own right. When understood in the trajectory of Florida's entire season, however, it stands as a stunning accomplishment.

There is a risk of talking too much about Florida's trajectory this season, of dwelling too much on personnel issues it left behind in early February (when Walker was finally cleared by the NCAA). But in many ways, the Gators' early-season depletion directly led them to where they are now. Without Wilbekin, Hill was forced to start at point at Wisconsin in the second game of the season. Prather, a three-year role player alongside former shot-happy guards such as Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton and Bradley Beal, suddenly morphed into a potent interior scorer. With Walker out of the picture, Donovan didn't have to worry about finding minutes for Finney-Smith or Yeguete. When Hill was injured, Wilbekin could dominate the ball for the first time in his career, and Frazier could emerge as the Gators' 3-point piece.

Somehow, without losing more than two games all season -- on the road at Wisconsin and UConn, by the way -- Donovan gradually introduced each player into the mix. Now his team is as deep as any in the country, with multiple players at every position. It is holding opponents to .91 points per possession. The Gators can match up with 6-foot-9 point guards (Anderson); they can withstand runs; they can make big shots; they can let Wilbekin create in close-and-late situations with the game on the line. They can get contributions from everybody, just as Prather predicted.

On Saturday night, against red-hot Elite Eight party-crasher Dayton, the Gators may need to do all of the above. The Flyers torched Stanford's previously stout defense in Thursday's opening game, with a lightning-fast, guard-oriented attack and a bench that finished plus-52.

Still, it is difficult to imagine this Florida team -- so close to the Final Four in each of its past four seasons, and more complete than ever before -- missing out now.

"We set our goals to be here, to be this team that could use a lot of guys," Young said. "But [in November], we never knew what would happen.

"It's been a process, it's been quite a journey, and it's been a great year. But we're not done."

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