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NCAA tournament: Florida earned its due

MEMPHIS TN - MARCH 29:  Scottie Wilbek#5 FloridGators goes basket as Jordan Sibert #24 DevOliver #5 DaytFlyers defend during

MEMPHIS, TN - MARCH 29: Scottie Wilbekin #5 of the Florida Gators goes to the basket as Jordan Sibert #24 and Devin Oliver #5 of the Dayton Flyers defend during the south regional final of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the FedExForum on March 29, 2014 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 459542827

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Updated: April 4, 2014 11:49AM

ARLINGTON, Texas — Something is getting lost amid the excitement of a superpower program in Kentucky, which is returning to top form, and the sentimental appeal of another team, Wisconsin, which is making a major breakthrough, and the sense that Saturday’s Wildcats-Badgers matchup owns the marquee at this Final Four.

It’s certainly true that the impossibly young, otherworldly talented, how-on-Earth-were-they-an-8-seed Wildcats have stolen America’s imagination. Where is their ceiling, and is it so high that Jerry Jones might have to open up AT&T Stadium’s retractable roof?

And it’s undeniable that the Badgers, who have gotten beloved old coach Bo Ryan to his first Final Four, are the team America is rooting for. In case you still need convincing, consider the results of a state-by-state poll of readers asked to name the team they’d like to see win it all. New England went to Connecticut, SEC country was shared by Florida and Kentucky, and literally all 35 other states were aligned with Wisconsin.

Again, though, something is getting lost here, and it’s the sort of thing that should be impossible to lose sight of. It’s one of the greatest seasons for a team in modern history. Godzilla has come all the way from Gainesville, Fla., to tear the roof right off of Jerry World, and yet it’s almost like the monster of college basketball has disappeared into thin air.

“We feel very fortunate and privileged to be here,” Billy Donovan, coach of No. 1 Florida, said Thursday.

Fortunate? Privileged? The Gators didn’t get to this place thanks to any favorable bounces. They haven’t been handed a thing.

What they’ve done is win 30 straight games and 36 total, the most in school history. What they’ve done in this tournament is win their first four games by double digits without allowing a single opponent to get to 70 points, a feat only two other teams ever have managed.

And what they’ve done over four years is grow mighty and extremely dangerous because of a core group of seniors who have won a total of 55 Southeastern Conference games — five more than Kentucky in that same period — and reached the Elite 8 four times.

“Hopefully,” Gators senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said, “we’ll come out [Saturday against UConn] with a lot of high energy and be ready to play.”

Florida (36-2) didn’t stomp and smash its way through the SEC at 18-0 by ever failing to be ready. Two more victories and the Gators will finish at 38-2 — same as Kentucky in 2011-12, and those Wildcats owned the marquee and shared it with no one.

To find a team that arrived at the Final Four with a better resume than these Gators, you have to go back quite a ways. Derrick Rose’s 2007-08 Memphis team had only one loss prior to the Final Four, but the Tigers had feasted on terrible competition in Conference USA. A better example is the Illini, who got to St. Louis in 2005 with a brilliant record of 36-1, which included a run of 15 consecutive Big Ten victories as part of a 29-game overall winning streak.

By March, the Illini weren’t about to sneak up on anybody, and the Gators, well, they aren’t either. Look, everyone knows Godzilla is good.

But four players — one from each Final Four team — sat on stage for a press conference Thursday, and half a dozen questions were asked of Wisconsin’s Ben Brust before anyone seemed to notice that Wilbekin was up there, too. Brust isn’t chopped liver, but Wilbekin is the best player on the best team in the country.

The monster has faded into the background. Frankly, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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