A group of tough-as-nails seniors saw their Florida Gators careers end in disappointment Saturday night as the UConn Huskies upset the No. 1 overall seed in the 2014 Final Four 63-53.
Florida made four straight Elite Eights, but now the Gators program must face a future without its hard-working leaders.
None had a rougher end to his career than Scottie Wilbekin, who was locked up by UConn’s Ryan Boatright as the Gators offense melted down in the national semifinal. The SEC Player of the Year staggered to a 2-of-9 shooting night, recording just four points and one assist in his final game in a Florida jersey.
Wilbekin was just one of four seniors who started for Florida in the defeat—Patric Young, Will Yeguete and Casey Prather were the others—and none are surefire talents as far as the NBA is concerned. As coach Billy Donovan observed in a postgame interview on TBS, “In a lot of ways, I think these guys exceeded what I ever thought we could be as a team.”
There is, however, some good news to be salvaged in the loss of so much experience and leadership. The other five players who appeared in Saturday’s game for Florida are all freshmen or sophomores, meaning they can provide the nucleus for a successful team for next season and beyond.
Although sniper Michael Frazier II is the only returning starter, the key to next season's new-look Gators will be point guard Kasey Hill. The freshman struggled against the Huskies' stifling defense, but his 10-assist outburst against UCLA earlier in the tourney showed that he’ll be ready to take over the starting job by next fall.
As ESPN Radio’s Trevor Sikkema notes, Hill’s 32 games of experience are nothing to write off:
Florida's Kasey Hill taking off his jersey for the last time this season. He cherished it. Blood, sweat and tears. pic.twitter.com/BkI8LLT29o— Trevor Sikkema (@TampaBayTre) April 6, 2014
In the long run, though, Chris Walker has the most potential on the Florida roster. The freshman power forward boasts the quickness, length and tremendous leaping ability that let DeAndre Daniels dismantle the Gators defense on Saturday.
Walker played in just 17 games after becoming eligible in January, so he’ll have more to learn than the rest of Florida’s returnees. Once he gets the feel of the college game, though, he should become the biggest matchup problem on the roster.
Add in Frazier’s long-range marksmanship and the inside-outside offense of Dorian Finney-Smith, and the sophomore class has some weapons too. The 2014-15 Gators won’t have the defensive savvy of this year’s model, but they should be at least as strong offensively, if not better.
As for depth, Donovan took care of that problem with another solid recruiting effort, bringing in three 4-star freshmen on the perimeter (2-guard Brandone Francis, forward Devin Robinson and point guard Chris Chiozza). The key to that group will be the 6’8” Robinson, who could step right into Prather’s starting job.
Florida’s brilliant seniors will be missed, but they aren’t taking all of the program’s hopes with them into the sunset. The Gators may not win the SEC championship, but yet another Elite Eight run is far from an impossibility in Gainesville.