The ultimate survivors advance

Florida figured out how to run with  UCLA, then, two days later, how to grind it out with  Dayton. Wisconsin ousted a seemingly more athletic  Baylor team, then a No. 1 seed in  Arizona. Connecticut eliminated second-seeded  Villanova and third-seeded  Iowa State. Kentucky merely eradicated three-fourths of last season's Final Four ( Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan in succession).

But the merit goes beyond these past two weeks. It goes back to the rocky patches, to when the haters and doubters congregated at the virtual watercooler -- the cesspools of message boards and 140-character Twitter rants.

There's a lot of clarity in solitude.

"It takes a lot of character to keep going when nobody else believes in you,'' UConn coach Kevin Ollie said.

Consider when each of these teams began its road to North Texas in earnest. Not when things were easy, but when things were hard.

Florida lost to Connecticut on Dec. 2, in the Gators' first real test with a full lineup -- but they haven't lost since.

"Obviously, it was a tough loss like that, losing at the buzzer,'' Gators coach Billy Donovan said. "But there's things we can look at in the game, right after the game finished, of where we needed to get better and improve. We did a much, much better job going forward.''

Wisconsin toiled through that awful January, then reeled off eight consecutive wins.

Connecticut got its doors blown off by Louisville to end the regular season and lost again to the Cards in the American Athletic Conference tournament for what looked like a surefire quick NCAA exit. Now, the Huskies are playing like a team that believes it is invincible.

And Kentucky, following that dismal loss to South Carolina, roared back to nearly beat Florida in the SEC title game before embarking on its wrecking tour of the 2013 Final Four.

It's not about "adversity" or "resilience," the two most overused buzzwords at this time of year. It's not even about tweaks, twerks or whatever else a coach might like to call it.

It's about blocking out the white noise of praise that confuses the issue and makes a player believe he can, as Calipari colorfully puts it, "poop ice cream."

It's about time and patience, growth and experience. It's about a 30-plus-game marathon of a season that, by its very design and length, is destined to have peaks and valleys.

"You have some players get hot, some players that develop beyond what others might have thought of,'' Ryan said. "I never sell players short. I always think they can get better and be really good by the time they get done. That's why we teach and coach the way we do. Some years, it works better than others.''

It's about knowing that the sky isn't falling.

It's just dropping a few acorns, hoping to knock a little sense into us all.

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