Mar 29, 2014; Memphis, TN, USA; Florida Gators guard Scottie Wilbekin (5) reacts at the end of the first half in the finals of the south regional of the 2014 NCAA Mens Basketball Championship tournament against the Dayton Flyers at FedEx Forum. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Florida Gators Basketball: Familiarity in the Final Four

It’s been an amazing season for the Florida Gators and with two more wins, it could be the greatest ever. To reach that goal, Florida will have to face a UConn squad that was the last team to beat the Gators. Since then, they’ve gone on a historic 30-game winning streak, which is the longest in SEC and UF history. But it’s not just the Huskies in the Final Four; It’s also the Wisconsin Badgers and Kentucky Wildcats, both of which Florida has faced this season. To cut down the nets in North Texas, Florida will have to exact revenge on at least one of the two teams to beat them this season, or defeat a team they will have faced four times this season. No matter who they face, it will be an incredible challenge.

Florida and UConn are completely different teams then they were five months ago. The Gators played in Storrs, CT without Kasey Hill, Chris Walker, and Scottie Wilbekin, at least for the last 3:01. Ryan Boatright, Niels Giffey, and DeAndre Daniels hadn’t come on as strong and grown for the Huskies. Freshman center Amida Brimah barely made an impact in the game, despite being UConn’s lone center.

Both teams are firing on all cylinders now with incredible runs through the tournament. Connecticut has beaten the three of the top four seeds in the East Region. First, they needed overtime to defeat the 10-seed St. Joeseph’s Hawks, 89-81. St. Joes, a popular upset pick, took seven-seed UConn to the wire, but head coach Kevin Ollie came away with the win in his first NCAA Tournament game.

Next, they decididly took out the top-seeded Villanova Wildcats in a matchup of former Big East rivals 77-65. Napier scored 21 of his 25 points in the second half as Connecticut ran away with the game.

In the Sweet 16 came the three-seed Iowa State Cyclones, whom I had in the Elite Eight. The Cyclones were a balanced team all season with a number of contributors, but having Georges Niang on the bench with a broken foot proved to be insurmountable. Unfortunately for my bracket, Daniels led UConn with a 27 point, 10 rebound effort to knock ISU out of the tournament 81-76.

Finally, they got past a four-seed Michigan State team everyone had winning the national championship (I’m looking at you ESPN experts and President Obama). In a hard-fought, back-and-forth effort, their leader, Shabazz Napier led the Huskies to a 60-54 win with 25 points. That’s the one thing that hasn’t changed for UConn: Shabazz Napier. He’s still the guy who can bring the team back from any deficit and he still hits big shots with the game on the line. No one remembers that better than us Gator fans do.

It was somewhat of a fluky comeback and win, but that’s what happens when the ball bounces the right way. I’m sure if Wilbekin was guarding him, the result would have been different.

Next on Florida’s revenge tour comes Wisconsin. The Badgers beat the Gators in the second game of the season, 59-53. That game featured a completely different Florida team, and a Wisconsin team that hadn’t found their go-to guy yet. Scottie Wilbekin  and Dorian Finney-Smith were serving their season-opening suspension and Chris Walker wasn’t even enrolled at UF. Will Yeguete was coming off a knee injury and Michael Frazier II was recovering from mononucleosis. Kasey Hill and DeVon walker ended up getting the start for the second straight game, but it’s difficult to ask a freshman point guard like Hill to go to Madison and come away with a win. Hill struggled, scoring only four points on 2-11 shooting. Meanwhile, the Badgers hadn’t seen their seven-foot center Frank Kaminsky break out yet. Kaminsky was held to eight points. It was Sam Dekker and Traevon Jackson who led Wisconsin to the first Florida loss on the young season. Jackson had the eight-foot floater with eight seconds left that proved to be the dagger.

Wisconsin has had a tough road to North Texas as well. In the Second Round, they had one of the most impressive scores of the opening weekend. In a 15-2 matchup, the Badgers blew the American University Eagles out of the water with a 75-35 win. Wisconsin overcame a slow start to out score the Eagles 43-13 in the second half.

Next, the Badgers got a plucky Oregon Ducks team. In a battle of tempos that featured the Ducks high-flying offense against the Badgers methodical defense, Wisconsin prevailed because of a Ben Brust three-pointer with 1:07 left in the game. They would go on to win the game, 85-77.

Wisconsin had no problem with the Baylor Bears in the Sweet 16 as they went on to win, 69-52. Kaminsky started his assault in Anaheim with this game, notching 19 points and six blocks.

Kaminsky continued his success in a 84-83 thrilling overtime victory against the one-seed Arizona Wildcats. He led the Badgers to their first Final Four since 2000 with a 28 point, 11 board effort.

Finally, there’s a familiar face Florida’s had success with this season: The Kentucky Wildcats. The Gators and ‘Cats met three times this season with the Orange and Blue victorious on all the occasions. The first meeting, Florida snapped Kentucky’s 22-game win streak at Rupp Arena with a 69-59 win. Scottie Wilbekin hit critical free throws down the stretch to cement the Gators win. He had a career-high 23 points and Casey Prather added 24 more as Florida never panicked and came back to win the game.

In a fun juxtaposition of team makeup, the regular season rematch happened to be on Florida’s Senior Day, with the senior-laden Gators handing the Wildcat’s starting-five freshman their worst loss against Florida, 84-65. UF ran UK out of the building to go 18-0 in conference, the only team in SEC history to reach 18 league wins. It’s only fitting that Patric Young, Casey Prather, and Scottie Wilbekin led the Gators in scoring with 18, 15, and 13 respectively. Will Yeguete also contributed five points and seven rebounds.

The final meeting proved to be a much tougher test for Florida. For the SEC Tournament crown, the Gators beat the Wildcats 61-60. The SEC Tournament and this game in particular were when Kentucky became a serious threat in the NCAA Tournament. The young team finally jelled together and head coach John Calipari tweaked his team to perform at a high level. If James Young hadn’t slipped, the result may have been different.

Kentucky’s faced three of the top-four seeds in the Midwest Region to make it to AT&T Stadium as an eight-seed, the highest left in the tourney. Their adventure to Arlington hasn’t been easy, as the most they’ve won a game by is seven points. For perspective, Florida has beaten all four teams they’ve faced by at least 10 points. But wins are wins when it all boils down, and their winning in the NCAA Tournament started with a battle of Wildcats. Kentucky beat nine-seed Kansas State 56-49 thanks to a monster effort by Julius Randle. Randle had 19 points and 15 rebounds in the win.

In one of the best games of the tournament, Kentucky took out the first one-seed in Wichita State, and in the process, ruined their perfect season. The Shockers fought back-and-forth with the Wildcats, but the Harrison twins proved too much for Wichita State in a 78-76 win. Andrew led Kentucky with 20 points and Aaron added another 19.

The Sweet 16 featured the battle of Kentucky with the Wildcats facing the defending champion Louisville Cardinals. Aaron Harrison hit a trey with 39 seconds left and Randle sunk a pair of free throws down the stretch to ice a 74-69 victory. This may have been the most impressive victory Kentucky has had all season. Louisville had entered the NCAA Tournament on a tear and were many people’s (including me) pick to go to the national championship game. But just as earlier in the season, the Wildcats came away with the W.

Fittingly, Kentucky and Michigan squared off in the Elite Eight. With a win over the Wolverines, the Wildcats would be the first team since the 1992 Fab Five Michigan squad to reach the Final Four with five freshman starters. And for Florida fans, it represented a chance for a possible rematch with Michigan in the national championship game, which would have ensured Florida could atone for their last three losses. The Wolverines beat the Gators in the Elite Eight last season. But once again, Aaron Harrison hit a huge step-back three-pointer in the waning seconds to propel Kentucky to a 75-72 victory.

As the teams are preparing for the Final Four, Florida definitely has an advantage. Having faced all three opponents is definitely something that the Gators can build on. And since their two losses came when the team wasn’t at full strength, there’s no reason to believe Florida won’t have a different result next time around. Scottie Wilbekin, Dorian Finney-Smith, Kasey Hill, and Chris Walker are all playing at a high level now, which makes the Gators a tough out. One other thing: Please don’t tell me that Florida doesn’t have a hard strength of schedule.

Florida’s revenge tour starts Saturday night at 6:09 pm in AT&T Stadium. The Gators will try to contain Shabazz Napier and the UConn Huskies in the first matchup. In the second game, Kentucky will face their second straight B10 opponent in Wisconsin. That game starts 40 minutes following the conclusion of the Florida-UConn game, with a tentative start of 8:49 pm.

If the Gators are lucky enough to make it to the national championship game, I’d like to face Wisconsin. Something about beating the two teams that beat you this year sounds more than gratifying. Plus, beating a team four times in a season is an incredibly difficult thing to do, especially with Kentucky playing as well as they are.

Who would you want to see in the championship game? What are your predictions for the Final Four? Will Florida be cutting down the nets for the third time in nine years? Let us know in the comments section or on Facebook and Twitter.

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Tags: Basketball Final Four Florida Gators NCAA Tournament

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