Florida too complete to be stopped

MEMPHIS -- Billy Donovan could live with the first two.

Isn't that how it goes? There are losses you can live with and losses that drive you mad -- performances you can be proud of despite the result, and games that stick in your gut for months.

In 2011, the first of Florida's four straight Elite Eights, the Gators lost in overtime to a red-hot Butler team that made every play down the stretch. In 2012, Donovan lost to his mentor, Rick Pitino, and a Louisville team that guarded its way to the Final Four. Florida played well in both games. It was last year's loss -- a dreary blowout to eventual national runner-up Michigan -- that Donovan didn't like.

On Saturday, after Florida's fourth Elite Eight game in four years and its first win -- a 62-52 victory over No. 11 seed Dayton -- Donovan was fielding all of the expected questions about his program's remarkable run of success. He was making a larger point about the way seasons end in the NCAA tournament, and the ways those small samples skew perception. But for a second, his tone gave him away.

"I thought we played well against Louisville and Butler," Donovan said, his voice flecked with sudden disdain. "I did not think we played well against Michigan -- at all."

That, more than anything, was what bothered Donovan about losing his third straight shot at a Final Four last March. It wasn't the notion that Florida couldn't "break through" or any of the other fuzzy narratives applied to mostly arbitrary milestones. It was simply that his team didn't play well, and worse -- that his players didn't "pull together" when they needed each other the most.

Florida, if it wasn't clear already, is not that team anymore.

These Gators are tight-knit, jubilant, funny and selfless. They are also focused, poised, even businesslike. It's a group able to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime Final Four ride and remain unimpressed by the fanfare all at the same time.

And it is, more than most, a product of the disappointments that preceded it.

"I'm not sure that these four seniors, having gone through the experiences in the previous Elite Eights, could have made the next step that they made," Donovan said.

That next step has manifested itself in a season-for-the-ages-in-progress: 30 straight wins, an unbeaten SEC season, a No. 1 overall seed and now a trip to Arlington as the clear favorite to win the NCAA title. When this peerless run began in November, the Gators were dealing with suspensions and injuries that devastated Donovan's roster. Now Florida is the most complete, and maybe the deepest, team in the country.

That trajectory is, in a way, a microcosm of the past four years.

For the first three seasons of Casey Prather's career, he was either injured or a role player without a role. It took two years for Donovan's staff to, as he put it, "figure him out." Will Yeguete has battled knee injuries for years. Scottie Wilbekin spent most of his first three seasons backing up a coterie of Florida guards. He was also frequently in trouble. Last summer, Donovan all but dismissed his starting point guard from the program for good. Every day for months, the senior guard had to prove to his coach and his teammates that he was committed, that he really wanted another chance and that he deserved it.

"He really had to work to infuse himself into the team," Prather said.

When Young was a sophomore, he was expected to replace veteran forward Vernon Macklin, but his skill set wasn't there -- he was little more than a big body and a rim protector. When he struggled, he was criticized for being out of shape, for lacking the motor that drives all great big men. At one point, Young considered a transfer.

On Saturday night, Young finished with 12 points on a varied selection of impressive post moves, outworking and out-muscling Dayton's overwhelmed back line. Prather was the Gators' star for the first three months of its season, the player who almost single-handedly kept them competitive when Donovan's roster was still hard-hit; he will almost surely be named to an All-American team next week.

Wilbekin was the SEC player of the year and has become Florida's go-to player. The Gators trust him to make all of the big plays down the stretch. There might not be a more reliable guard in the country.

"We trust him totally," Yeguete said.

It's too easy to chalk too much up to chemistry; teams are good when they have good basketball players, whether they like each other or not. Make no mistake: This Florida team won 36 games before the Final Four because it is very talented, very long, very deep, playing the best and most adaptable defense in the country.

Even so, it is impossible to ignore the Gators' rapport. You can see it on the court, in huddles and timeouts. You can feel it in the locker room as the Gators dance to Yung Beastie's goofy twerking song (and then jokingly boo an equipment manager for turning it down). And you can see it at the news conferences, where Wilbekin and Young have practically turned their answers into a two-man comedy show.

Young is the ebullient, talkative, sensitive type. He is happy to talk about his feelings, and at length. Wilbekin is straightforward, even blunt.

On Saturday, a reporter asked the two to describe their thoughts just after the final buzzer sounded. Young, as always, spoke first.

"The first thing that came to my mind, I was just in disbelief," Young said. "It still hasn't hit me that we're going to be one of the final four teams in the country. The next thing that came to my mind was just to go down on one knee and just thank God, just thank him for allowing us to fight through adversity and do it the right way and come out on top."

He continued: "At the beginning of the year, you always set your goal to make it here, especially last year when we ended in the same position but we were the other team. It was kind of weird, because I'm so used to walking into my locker room after that final buzzer. It was all just a shock and a surprise and just -- gratitude."

Wilbekin followed up.

"I can't really remember exactly, but I'm going to go with happy," he said.

"That would be it," Young said.

"We just love playing the game of basketball together," Wilbekin said. "That's what makes it so special."

It's a small thing, but it's a defining one for this Florida team. At any point in the past four years, any of Donovan's four seniors could have left the program, or gotten discouraged by injuries and poor play, or decided that it wasn't worth fighting out of a deep, quasi-dismissal hole just to get back on the court this season. But would Florida be this good, this complete, if it had?

Donovan spent most of the week insisting there was no special value in the coincidences of the past. Yeah, sure, this was Florida's fourth straight Elite Eight. So what? It didn't need to come with some added, invisible pressure. That was last year, and last year's team, and it had nothing to do with Florida versus Dayton on a Saturday night in Memphis.

Seasons almost always end in losses. It doesn't matter when those losses come. All you can hope is that you play well.

But on Saturday night, perhaps for the first time all week, Donovan acknowledged the value of the past.

"This group has learned that you've got to be able to pull together when things get tough," Donovan said. "It's great for those guys that they stayed the course and saw the bigger picture rather than wanting immediate success.

"They're better players today for going through what they went through. If it would have been easier on them, I don't think they'd be quite as good."