Championship or bust: Florida Gators primed to get past Elite Eight hump

For Florida’s seniors, this will be their last chance to win a national title after falling short in the Elite Eight the past three seasons.

03/20/2014 12:01 AM

03/20/2014 1:14 AM

Florida is the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, hasn’t lost since Dec. 2 and is unbeaten this season with its roster at full strength, but history says the Gators won’t win 32 straight to finish the season.

They don’t care.

Florida — a senior-laden group defined by toughness, perseverance and poise — is hoping to avoid a fourth consecutive bust in the Elite Eight, opening its pursuit for a national title Thursday at 4:10 p.m. against 16th seed Albany.

“What fuels us is just our last opportunity to win a championship,” senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said.

“The previous years, we were thinking of just getting to the Elite Eight, just getting to the Final Four. We want a championship. If we fall short of it with the Sweet 16, the Final Four, it won't be what we wanted.”

The Gators (32-2) have won a school-record 26 games in a row and stands as the gold-standard in college basketball this season, but the last team to claim the NCAA Championship with a winning streak of more than 13 games heading into the tournament was undefeated Indiana in 1975-76.

Again, they don’t care.

The Gators, heartbroken and seasoned from their past tournament failures, have bucked history all season and are in the midst of chronicling their own journey.

“Our first three years here we were never the No. 1 team in the country. When we finally achieved that this year, we were just like, OK, I mean, everything is the same, nothing has really changed,” senior center Patric Young explained.

“We just have to be focused on getting better every day, getting closer to one another, pushing, competing, and doing that, the results and everything else that comes with it, the history, the records we’ve broken, the 21-0 in conference games, all that has come with it. We’re just going to continue to do what’s been working, and hopefully we can achieve the ultimate goal.”

Florida stands six victories shy of cutting down the nets for the third time in five weeks after winning the Southeastern Conference regular-season and postseason tournaments, with Albany, an NCAA Tournament team for the second consecutive season, up as its first test.

The Great Danes (19-14) topped Mount St. Mary’s 71-64 on Tuesday in the first of four play-in games in Dayton, Ohio, and their reward is a date with Goliath.

“They’re the best team in the country,” Albany coach Will Brown said. “What’s so impressive is that they bring it every single night. Even when they don’t play well they still win.”

Since the Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, No. 1 seeds are undefeated (116-0) against 16th seeds and have an average margin of victory of 24.8 points over the past 25 years.

But Florida, fueled by its 2013-14 axiom of “chasing greatness,” isn’t overlooking David.

“They definitely can beat us,” said senior forward Casey Prather, UF’s leading scorer at 14.1 points per game. “Anybody can beat anybody in the tournament. We got to be ready from the get-go.”

Added SEC Sixth Man of the Year Dorian Finney-Smith: “I've never heard of Albany but they’re here, they made it to the tournament so they got to be good.”

The Great Danes struggle with turnovers, don’t shoot many three-pointers and prefer to play at a slow pace, so Florida is poised to exploit Albany with their suffocating press and transition offense.

Still, Florida coach Billy Donovan dismissed the notion the matchup is a major mismatch.

“They've earned the right to play the game,” Donovan said about Albany. “They've had a heck of a year.”

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