Some may say they can’t or won’t, but you can be sure Florida’s players and coaches will tune in to the national championship game on Monday.
And when they turn on the television or stream the game from another device, the Gators will be sitting in Gainesville, FL watching a team they beat three times, an eight-seed that entered the tournament unranked in the Associated Press top 25 poll, compete against a seven-seed that bookended UF’s school-record 30-game winning streak with a pair of losses and was one of just two opponents to hand them a defeat this season.
Florida was supposed to earn itself a storybook ending to a near-perfect season by getting revenge on UConn and moving on to either do the same against Wisconsin or defeat Kentucky for the fourth time in one season.
The game has not been played yet but the hurt is already there. UF’s entire team – especially the four seniors – is probably sick to its stomach that it put together the winningest season in program history only to fall two games short of the ultimate goal – every team’s ultimate goal – a national title.
Eventually, these Gators will understand that tremendous accomplishments should not be overshadowed by unrealized dreams, especially considering the substantial and seemingly ever-growing list of UF’s achievements this season.
Florida’s journey to the Final Four was exceptional, awe-inspiring even.
It was championship-caliber, just not championship-winning.
This was a team that went 29-8 one year ago and lost all three of its leading scorers from that season to graduation.
This was a team that had advanced to – yet fallen in – three-straight Elite Eights.
This was a team that opened the season with numerous suspensions and injuries and did not have its starting five play together until the eighth game.
This was a team that did not even have a back-up center until mid-December.
This was a team that (as has been repeated ad nauseam) fielded a roster without any of its veterans likely winding up as a first-round draft pick.
Yet this was team that found a way – 30 times in a row, 36-out-of-39 times in a season – to not only win but win big and make history along the way.
It swept the Southeastern Conference regular-season and tournament championships. It won the East Regional of the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
These Gators have trophies. They have pieces of nylon nets. They have championship t-shirts and hats. They will eventually have conference rings, too.
They have memories to last a lifetime, even if the last one is bittersweet.
And they also have each other.
“For the first time in my life, I was a part of a group of guys that were really willing to bleed for one another, guys that were really willing to just do whatever it took to go outside of themselves, to commit to the greater goal,” said senior center Patric Young after the Final Four loss.
“Looking at the year, going into it, we didn’t know what was going to happen with the suspension and the injuries and all that stuff. But we stuck together through it, had a lot of great memories.
“One thing I can take from this team is just when you can truly love a group of guys or people like this, you bring out the best out of them and you bring out the best out of yourself.”
Young, senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, senior forward Casey Prather, senior F Will Yeguete (back after two years of knee injuries), sophomore guard Michael Frazier II and redshirt sophomore F Dorian Finney-Smith played as a single unit and consequently each had the best season of his respective career.
Head coach Billy Donovan – he of two national titles and three prior Final Fours, a future Hall of Famer with plenty of coaching left in his career – did, too.
He assembled the parts, and even though a few screws that came in the package got misplaced along the way, Donovan found enough super glue in his toolbox to ensure the team got built the right way – his way.
“Maybe more so than any team that I’ve coached based on the talent level, we played way beyond our potential as a team.
“I think that we have been a team where the whole has been better than the parts. When you break us down individually, we’re not the most talented group, but when you stick us together collectively, we’re really good.
“These guys ran off 30-straight games. … They went through the SEC unblemished. They went through the SEC Tournament. They got to the Final Four. Certainly we would have loved to have played on Monday night, and I told them before the game, ‘The team that plays the best is going to play on Monday night.’ I thought UConn played better than we did.
“But I think every coach sits up here and [says, ‘I’m] so proud of my guys, I’m so proud of my guys.’ Me being proud of them is from a totally different perspective, because for me personally, I saw how dysfunctional we were in September. Didn’t even know what we would look like.
“I got a chance to experience a lot of personal victories along the way off the court. Their body of work on the court people will evaluate or judge themselves, but for me personally, where they were as individuals and where they were as a team to where they came from in terms of becoming a team, I mean, it was one of the most special experiences I’ve had being around a group of guys away from the court maybe since I’ve been in coaching.”
There were tears Saturday night in Arlington, TX and there may be more in the coming days, weeks, months, even years for these Gators.
But 2013-14 Florida was about so much more than its on-court success, even if the team has been defined all season by its winning.
“Just this team was so special, something I’m never going to forget for all my life,” said Young. “We accomplished a lot just by loving each other and being really committed and loving playing with one another. So, I’m just really going to cherish everything that we had this year and it’s going to be something I’ll never forget.”
Added Wilbekin: “I think that everybody will remember this season for the team that we were able to become, because at the beginning of the year, it didn’t look like we would be much of a team. Then throughout the year, we just really came together and did a lot of special things. … Even though it’s hard right now, I’m sure that I’ll look back on this year and be really proud of the guys that were standing next to me and just us as a team.”
Yeguete was even more sentimental: “We’re going to continue to just cherish our friendship, and we’re going to stay close after this. We’re a great team, I think. We accomplished a lot of things during the year. They played better than us tonight. This game is not changing anything.”
And it shouldn’t…at least not as it pertains to how the team is remembered.
The Gators’ entire journey, especially that of the four seniors, changed plenty.
For the first time since 2007, Florida’s fans were truly rabid again. The Rowdy Reptiles were outstanding all season – home, away and at neutral sites. They had a team to root for not just on the court but off of it as well – well-rounded student-athletes who worked hard at their game, took pride in serving the community and were as happy to be at UF as the other students were to have them as peers.
The coaching staff faced challenge after challenge yet handled each one with poise and tremendous success. At least two of the assistants will have head coaching jobs soon, whether next year or shortly thereafter.
The seniors flipped their legacy, going from perennially being known as just-not-good-enough to the winningest group of four-year players in school history. And there is no question that they are also leaving an impact on the program as a whole.
“I just enjoyed playing with them so much,” said Frazier. “They’ve done so much for this program. They’re such great guys, great teammates. These two years being around them have been the best two years of my life. I just want to thank them and tell them they’ve done so much for Florida and the younger guys coming back next year.”
Then again, maybe the 2013-14 Gators should be remembered as that one polysemic word, which can be used not only to define a group that has achieved victory but also one deserving of praise, admiration and respect.