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March 3, 2014

Seniors embrace final opportunity

In college basketball, March is a time of theatrics and drama that is as made for television as your favorite primetime episodic programming. But before the workdays and weekends are derailed in favor of non-stop tournament binging, there comes a time for lasts.

Monday evening, Florida's four seniors will embark on the final Southeastern Conference road trip of their careers. Friday, they'll sleep in their own beds the night before a college game for the last time. Saturday marks their final game in the O'Connell Center.

Reflection usually means nostalgia, but for this team, reflection is a source of motivation.

"Hopefully the greatest thing hasn't come yet," center Patric Young said. "But as of now, this class has gone through a lot. From guys thinking about transferring to staying in school, to not playing games with injuries. All those things, this team, this senior class, has persevered, stuck together and won."

But it has been those wins that have created the circumstances and downfalls that have stung most. There are still short-term goals ahead of the Gators, finishing SEC play 18-0 the most prominent at the moment. But it is the long-term goal, built off three years of Elite Eight failure and frustration, that is never far from the surface.

"We have to stay in the moment if we get another opportunity to go to the Final Four," Young said. "Just go moment by moment and know that we're not going to get this chance again, especially me. We're not going to let that opportunity get by us. We're going to go out every single day that we can and make sure we give our best effort. We go to the tournament, we can't take any of those games for granted. Hopefully, we win six games in a row."

Of Florida's four seniors, it is only Young who was viewed as a team-changing star out of high school. Given his lofty outside standards, the first three years of his career were rarely viewed in an overly positive manner. There was always some expectation he was not meeting, some preconceived statistic he was not reaching.

The senior version of Young plays with better energy, emotional Teflon through bad moments and more focused when it comes to the grind of preparation for each game. He'll never average the double-double Billy Donovan once said he expected of him, but he's more consistently productive than he has ever been.

Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin and Will Yeguete, have worked past fairly pedestrian forays into college basketball and found roles that fit each perfectly over time. In an era of "one-and-dones," they're proof that chemistry and development still mean something in a sport of such temporary allegiance. "I don't know what it was about it, but we clicked instantly," Prather said. "Since then we've just improved our relationship on and off the court."

Saturday's ceremony will dance with the idea of finality but in reality it will be anything but. March means the only goals Florida's seniors have left untouched can be accomplished within the next 36 days.

"As a coach, you're always trying to create an epiphany," Donovan said. "For these guys it's been a process. It's really been a process for them over four years and they have steadily gotten better. The thing that I'm most proud about them is they've stayed the course."

Whether or not that course will end with the ultimate goal in hand will have a dramatic effect on legacy.

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