NCAA Tournament 2014: Once in the shadows, Final Four favorite Florida is casting them

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The Gators loom over the Final Four after falling one game short of the semifinals a year ago.

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The favorite to win the 2014 NCAA Tournament is the team that began its season with its presumptive starting point guard and star transfer suspended, no NBA prospects among its starting lineup other than a wunderkind freshman — the point guard, not the wunderkind freshman whose eligibility saga was one of the team's offseason storylines — and much of its rotation hurt or ailing.

It was the favorite coming into the tournament, and is still the favorite — after impressive performances from two of the other three teams, and despite the presence of both teams that beat it this year and the only one to come within a point during its 30-game winning streak.

This year, this tournament, this Final Four: The Florida Gators, among the most unlikely behemoths in college basketball, loom over all of it. After a year spent in the shadows, Florida is finally casting them.

Well, sort of.

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Florida's strengths, this year, are rooted in this team's incredible balance and effort; if "toughness" were a tangible thing, the Gators would have the largest store of it in America.

Those teams that have fallen to Florida this season have largely been stomped or gotten shook; either Florida runs away or pulls away, more or less. But there are exceptions to those cases, and those exceptions have been made by the three other teams in the Final Four.

Wisconsin beat a diminished Florida — one without Scottie Wilbekin or Dorian Finney-Smith, both still suspended, and without Chris Walker, not yet enrolled — in Kasey Hill's second collegiate game, and both Hill's inexperience and the Gators' Achilles heel, occasionally leaky perimeter defense, showed. The Gators held a 16-4 lead early, as Hill scored or assisted on 10 of those points; he would cool off as Wisconsin heated up, eventually fouling out. The Badgers made nine of 20 threes, and never trailed in the second half in their 59-53 win.

UConn handed Florida its last loss in December in Storrs, in a game that Florida never quite controlled, thanks to one of the few entities in college basketball as indomitable as these Gators: Shabazz Napier. Napier gave Gators not named Scottie Wilbekin all they could handle, pouring in 26 points and making the game-winning buzzer-beater, while his teammates went 14-of-38 from the field. Hill didn't play in that game thanks to an ankle injury; neither did Florida's perimeter defense, really, as the Huskies made 11 of 24 threes. And Wilbekin turned his ankle late, missing Napier's late barrage of points, and Walker still wasn't even enrolled.

Those two teams know they can beat Florida. They have. The Kentucky Wildcats, thrice beaten by the Gators, could have a chance to do what the Gators couldn't do in 2012, and knock off their SEC nemesis after losing the first three games of their season to them. And the closeness of the third and final game of the Florida-Kentucky trilogy this season has been what instilled in the 'Cats (and their fans) a belief in the possibility of this Final Four run in the first place.

Kentucky got shook in the first game between the two teams, a seismic win that left Rupp Arena silent. The Gators finished on an absurdly great run of offense, scoring a really-not-a-misprint 2.21 points per possession over the game's final 11:13 to take a 69-59 victory. They pulled away at home in Gainesville, handing the 'Cats an 84-65 loss that was Florida's largest win in series history, on a perfect Senior Day, despite a 15-0 run by the Wildcats in the second half.

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Photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The third game was different. It was closer, even though Florida played another dazzling first half and built a 15-point lead; the Gators went cold in the second and failed to hit the free throws that helped separate the two teams twice prior. Kentucky marched to the line, where it scored 21 of its 60 points, as it does when its game plan is working. The Gators scored just four points in the final 6:08 of play, and allowed Kentucky a chance to hit a game-winner, only for the Wildcats to let it slip away like James Young slipped on his drive from the wing.

Florida became the first SEC team in history to go 21-0 against the league in regular-season and postseason play with the win — but Kentucky got its best evidence yet that it could go toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the nation.

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But Florida lost that game to Wisconsin in the final minute with just six of the players from what amounts to its current nine-man rotation, and without either Wilbekin or Hill on the floor to defend Traevon Jackson, who dropped a dagger of an 18-footer to seal the Badgers' victory. It was a good loss if ever there were one.

And Florida lost that game to UConn on the final shot after a few breaks went the Huskies' way. Napier was fouled — "fouled," perhaps — on a made three just before UConn's final possession; the point he got at the line was the point that made his buzzer-beating jumper game-winning, not game-tying. And Napier may have double-dribbled on the last play, and got his rebound thanks to all five Gators collapsing to the rim to get the rebounds — something that probably doesn't happen with either Wilbekin or Hill on the floor, and something that Florida has kept in mind since.

And for all the momentum Kentucky has at the moment, and all of the momentum it has derived from strong play in stretches against Florida, the Wildcats didn't lead at any point in either their second or third meeting with the Gators — and thus haven't led against Florida in the last 88:14 of play between the two teams. Plus, the 'Cats appear likely to be without Willie Cauley-Stein in Texas, and he's one of their best weapons against Florida when on, having been unleashed for 10 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks in that SEC Tournament final.

Oh, and Florida's the No. 1 team in KenPom, has finally wrested the No. 1 spot in adjusted defensive efficiency from Arizona, has a better Pythagorean rating at the moment than both the 2006 and 2007 national champion Gators had, and will not be facing another team in the KenPom top five in Texas, not unless No. 6 Wisconsin beats No. 8 Kentucky by an incredible margin.

There are reasons for UConn, Wisconsin and Kentucky to have confidence in matchups against Florida, real and potential. There are more and better reasons for Florida to have confidence in matchups against any team in the country.

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Photo: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Florida being in the Final Four with two teams that have beaten Florida and a third that came within a botched drive of doing so will be the story of this Final Four because it's novel and easy to talk about, certainly more so than finding storylines for a Kentucky-Wisconsin semifinal.

The potential all-SEC final that looms beyond the semifinals — both Florida and Kentucky opened as favorites to advance — is also the most tantalizing final of the possible four, even if the exasperating "The SEC sucked!" rhetoric (it didn't) and half-assed juxtapositions and jokes about SEC football would be integral to that narrative.

And Florida's four seniors, who have stuck together, stuck it out, and in so doing written the finest chapter of their remarkable story with this Final Four berth, should be the soft-focus story of this week. None will taken in the first round of the 2014 NBA Draft pick, and the Gators would likely be the first national champion since 1986-87 Indiana — and second in history — without a first-round pick as a key contributor. (Kasey Hill and Chris Walker should be first-rounders at some point, but that point might be years away.)

There are storylines for every other team, too, and some of them are just about as compelling. But Florida is part of those storylines, especially Kentucky's.

The national champion will either a) have beaten Florida, the winningest team in college basketball this season, more than once, b) have beaten Florida in the teams' fourth meeting this season, c) have used strong play against Florida as a catalyst for its championship run or d) be Florida.

The biggest week in college basketball will revolve mostly around the team that has been doubted as its best since the second it clambered onto the throne.

Somehow, that team is Florida, striding out of the shadows to cast its own.

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