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March 29, 2014

Notebook: Ready to take the next step



MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Four years ago, Patric Young gathered a group of nave freshmen and told them they had a chance to compete for championships.

"On Day 1 of our freshman year, I said, 'We can be great. We can do it," Young reminisced. "Now we are doing it. I don't know if I could see the future, but I believed in us."

Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete (eventually) did too, but three straight years of frustrating exits left everyone wondering, "Are we sure?"

Now, top-seeded Florida (35-2) and its hungry seniors stand just 40-minutes away from erasing its demons and bitter defeats, as the Gators and upstart, 11th-seeded Dayton Flyers tangle for a ticket to the Final Four tomorrow night (6:09 p.m., TBS) at the FedEx Forum.

"We're really excited just to have this opportunity to be here," Young said. "At the beginning of the year, it's our goal to make it here, and the fact that we have this opportunity -- we're not going to let the moment get bigger than us. ... We're just very blessed and fortunate to be a team that can put themselves in this opportunity to play for a Final Four again. Going to prepare and do the best we can, especially as a senior class, because it's our last go-round to make it to that next step."

The Elite Eight has been a field of land mines full of disastrous memories for the Gators, but instead of shying away from the past Florida embraced its failures this season.

The Gators -- especially the four dogged seniors desperate for a final chance -- truly bought into coach Billy Donovan's constant motivational analogies, as it galvanized a group to again reach the doorstep of coronation.

"I think we're a special group," Donovan said. "All teams left playing are special. There's a reason that you're here. ... It's never an easy exit out of the tournament because this is such an exciting time."

DEPTH
The Flyers have gained plenty of attention for their impressive depth, as a dozen scholarship players are capable of contributing on a nightly basis. But while Dayton's line changes are an interesting wrinkle, Florida's bench is impressive in its own right.

The Gators' reserves have outscored their counterparts 62 percent of the time this season, including 11 of the last 14 games.

In Thursday's win over fourth-seeded UCLA, Florida's second-unit -- led by SEC Sixth Man of the Year Dorian Finney-Smith -- had a plus-12 advantage (23-11) on the stat sheet.

Finney-Smith topped all reserves with 10 points, but it was a pair of freshmen that chipped in noteworthy performances too.

Kasey Hill joined elite company (Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd) after dishing out 10 assists in a Sweet 16 game. The freshman added six rebounds and six points too, as Florida played with two point guards for much of the second half.

Meanwhile, after tallying zero points and just a single rebound in his first two career NCAA Tournament contests, forward Chris Walker played the best six-minutes of his collegiate career.

NO BROTHERLY ADVICE
Archie Miller joked his older brother, Sean, Arizona's head coach, is a tad busy to solicit information on how to trump Florida.

The Wildcats and Gators played a home-and-home series in 2011-12 and 2012-13, but two brothers aren't even speaking during the NCAA Tournament despite becoming the first siblings to lead their respective teams to the Regional Semifinals.

"He's not helping me. He's trying to do his thing," said Archie, as Sean's Wildcats advanced after topping San Diego State on Thursday night.

"But Florida, you see them a lot on TV. You understand what they're about. You understand their pedigree. They're the No. 1 overall seed for a reason. They've won 29 games in a row. I don't know who can help me, to be honest with you."

INSIDE EDGE?
Flyers assistant Tom Ostrom spent seven seasons (1998-2003) on Donovan's staff at Florida and another eight seasons with Gators assistant John Pelphrey at South Alabama and Arkansas, but his familiarity with Florida's coaches won't be crucial advantage, according to Miller.

"Tom is a terrific coach," Miller said. "I think Tom's experience with Florida is a long time ago. Big thing nowadays it's not so much what [Florida] does but their personnel."

Donovan concurred, adding, "It's been awhile since Tom worked for me but he did a great for me and a great job for John."

Still, Ostrom was put in charge of Dayton's game-plan for the Gators, as the assistant sat courtside Thursday and scouted Florida as it beat UCLA.

QUOTABLE
"If it was the same team we had last year and we were playing the same Michigan team, maybe I'd be a little worried. But we have a new team, and we're playing a new team, so it's a totally different situation." -- Wilbekin, on possibly being "haunted" by Florida's failures in the Elite Eight.

THIS & THAT
Donovan collected his 450th victory when UF trumped UCLA late Thursday night. ... Amanda Butler's 11th-seeded Lady Gators upset sixth-seeded Dayton (83-69) in the first round of this year's women's NCAA Tournament. It marks the first time in school history Florida's men's and women's teams have played the same school in the tournament in the same season. ... UF is the first team in the 21st Century to punch fourth straight tickets to the Elite Eight. Meanwhile, no other team in the nation has even reached the Sweet 16 each of the past four years. ... Dayton is seeking its first trip to the Final Four since 1967.


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