Florida too complete to be stopped


MEMPHIS -- Billy Donovan could live with the first two.

Isn't that how it goes? There are losses you can live with and losses that drive you mad -- performances you can be proud of despite the result, and games that stick in your gut for months.

In 2011, the first of Florida's four straight Elite Eights, the Gators lost in overtime to a red-hot Butler team that made every play down the stretch. In 2012, Donovan lost to his mentor, Rick Pitino, and a Louisville team that guarded its way to the Final Four. Florida played well in both games. It was last year's loss -- a dreary blowout to eventual national runner-up Michigan -- that Donovan didn't like.

On Saturday, after Florida's fourth Elite Eight game in four years and its first win -- a 62-52 victory over No. 11 seed Dayton -- Donovan was fielding all of the expected questions about his program's remarkable run of success. He was making a larger point about the way seasons end in the NCAA tournament, and the ways those small samples skew perception. But for a second, his tone gave him away.

"I thought we played well against Louisville and Butler," Donovan said, his voice flecked with sudden disdain. "I did not think we played well against Michigan -- at all."

That, more than anything, was what bothered Donovan about losing his third straight shot at a Final Four last March. It wasn't the notion that Florida couldn't "break through" or any of the other fuzzy narratives applied to mostly arbitrary milestones. It was simply that his team didn't play well, and worse -- that his players didn't "pull together" when they needed each other the most.

Florida, if it wasn't clear already, is not that team anymore.

These Gators are tight-knit, jubilant, funny and selfless. They are also focused, poised, even businesslike. It's a group able to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime Final Four ride and remain unimpressed by the fanfare all at the same time.

And it is, more than most, a product of the disappointments that preceded it.

"I'm not sure that these four seniors, having gone through the experiences in the previous Elite Eights, could have made the next step that they made," Donovan said.

That next step has manifested itself in a season-for-the-ages-in-progress: 30 straight wins, an unbeaten SEC season, a No. 1 overall seed and now a trip to Arlington as the clear favorite to win the NCAA title. When this peerless run began in November, the Gators were dealing with suspensions and injuries that devastated Donovan's roster. Now Florida is the most complete, and maybe the deepest, team in the country.

That trajectory is, in a way, a microcosm of the past four years.

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