Before this season began, I wrote a short blog previewing how the Gator basketball team would perform this year. While writing it, I never would have predicted that the Gators would win a school record 30 games in a row and be the first team in college basketball history to go 18-0 in SEC play. The Gators made it to the Final Four, which I knew would be a given as soon as the winning streak began to hit the twenties, and came within two wins of the third National Championship in program history. But waiting for them was UConn, the last team to beat the Gators before The Streak began. A buzzer beater was not needed this time from touted point guard Shabazz Napier as his Huskies handed the Gators a 10 point loss. Just like that, it was all over. The best team in the country had just lost to a team that didn't even win its own conference.
Despite a heartbreaking ending to the greatest basketball season in Florida history, the Gators should not hang their heads. They beat freshman star Andrew Wiggins and the Kansas Jayhawks in the O-Dome, swept the season series against Kentucky (which hadn't happened since the 2006 season), won both the SEC regular season and tournament titles, defeated rival Florida State (which is great regardless of what sport is being played), and set new school marks for consecutive games won (30) and wins in a season (36).
On a personal level, Florida basketball became the stage for Scottie Wilbekin and his journey to becoming the SEC player of the year. Even though Wilbekin didn't do so hot in the Final Four vs UConn (4 points and just a single assist), Gator fans everywhere should thank him for his efforts that helped get the team there in the first place. Wilbekin joins Patric Young, Will Yeguete, and Casey Prather as a group of four seniors who will sorely be missed next year.
I truly believe this was the Gators' best opportunity to win a National Championship because they had the leadership and chemistry that most winning teams are composed of. Next year, the Gators will have three seniors: Jacob Kurtz, Billy Donovan Jr., and Eli Carter. Kurtz is a walk-on, Donovan Jr. is on the team because wants to be a coach like his father, and Carter redshirted because he was hurt (which will make him a redshirt junior). That being said, the Gators will have TWO seniors next year!
Florida is going to have to rely on rising sophomores Kasey Hill and Chris Walker and rising juniors Michael Frazier II and Dorian Finney-Smith if they wish to duplicate the success of this season. Winning the SEC will be hard next year if any of Kentucky's freshmen decide to stay for their sophomore campaigns (if you have ever heard of Kentucky alumni like John Wall, Anthony Davis, or Nerlens Noel then you can assume that some of these freshmen will follow the Kentucky one and done tradition and head to the draft). If they decide to stay though, Florida will be in trouble. This isn't a 2014 season preview article, so I won't elaborate or worry about these things until next November.
It seems unfair that the Gators will be watching from home as a team like Kentucky, who Florida beat three times, will be playing for a National Championship. But that's the nature of March Madness. The goal is to win six games in a row and your team will be the champions of college basketball. Your team doesn't even necessarily have to be good. It's all about peaking at the right time. The Gators peaked in January while UConn and Kentucky picked late March to peak.
For anyone wondering, no I will not be watching the game tomorrow. I won't even pick a team because I could honestly care less about who wins it all tomorrow. For my final thoughts on Gator basketball I have a few things to say. It was an amazing season that solidified the University of Florida's ability to excel at many sports. For my freshman year at UF, I can come to terms with my team winning the SEC and making it to the Final Four. With head coach Billy Donovan's contract locked up through the 2018 season, I believe that one day the Florida Gators will be on top of the college basketball world once again.