MEMPHIS — The Great Florida Basketball Machine chewed up and spit out another victim here Thursday night, one more in the long line that dates back to last December. The top-seeded team in both the South Region and the entire 2014 NCAA tournament, the Gators have not broken stride or blinked ahead of their Elite Eight matchup with 11th-seeded Dayton, the latest NCAA tournament Cinderella.
“Even if the team may be a Cinderella,” center Patric Young said, “that doesn’t have any bearing on what happens when the ball gets tipped. The best team’s going to win.”
For 29 straight games since falling to Connecticut on Dec. 2, that has been Florida, with its cast of superior contributors, none of them are likely NBA draft picks. Point guard Scottie Wilbekin ranks among college basketball’s best closers. Guard Casey Prather protects the basketball like a diamond. Young, an oak tree-size specimen, clogs up the interior. It gets to the point where someone inevitably slips your mind, someone who has logged big minutes this season and made big plays, like sharpshooter Michael Frazier or sophomore Dorian Finney-Smith or McDonald’s all-American Chris Walker.
Despite Dayton’s depth and improbable run, the Flyers enter Saturday’s region final as 10-point underdogs. The past two No. 11 seeds to reach the Elite Eight — VCU and George Mason — have moved on to the Final Four, but the Gators present an entirely different challenge, no matter what recent memory suggests. This is their fourth straight appearance in the region final. None of the previous three resulted in wins.
“I think chasing greatness is just being locked in the moment,” Frazier said. “Not worrying about the past, not worrying about the future, just trying to dominate every possession and be our best.”
The FedEx Forum crowd will almost certainly lean pro-Dayton, as it did Thursday and last weekend in Buffalo, N.Y., too. Those who stuck around from Stanford and UCLA should do so hoping to witness another miracle from the deep Flyers.
“That’s just how it is,” Young said. “As fans, we want to see the underdog team, whatever sport, be able to knock down the David and Goliath-type story. But that has nothing to do what happens in between the lines. We’ve been in hostile environments before. Even if all the fans there are cheering for Dayton, we’re still going to stay within ourselves and stay focused on the moment one possession at a time. We won’t allow it to affect us. We’ve been able to handle that all year long.”
At this stage in the NCAA tournament, approaching their final game of the second weekend, the Gators have taken the politically correct stance, insisting that they have abandoned all notions of seeding, which makes sense. To get here, Dayton has beaten No. 6 Ohio State, No. 3 Syracuse and No. 10 Stanford, three power-conference teams exposed by the Flyers’ depth. But the Machine has lurched forward with its business-like approach. As five players sat behind microphones on Friday afternoon, all seemed undaunted by the moment because, well, all have been here before.
“It’s always about the opponent, what they do, what we have to do, getting prepared to play,” Coach Billy Donovan said. “We don’t really get wrapped up in how it gets labeled of who we’re playing against, what the seedings are. It has nothing to do with anything. Once the ball gets thrown up in the air, the best team is going to win it between the lines.”