When March rolled in last year, it was no different from any other month for Florida forward Dorian Finney-Smith.
He was in the first year of his transfer from Virginia Tech and had to sit out the season per NCAA rules. He practiced, but as the Gators made their run to a third consecutive Elite Eight, Finney-Smith was watching on TV. So you can imagine what the newly crowned SEC sixth man of the year feels like today.
"It's a great feeling," said Finney-Smith who averages 9.4 points and 6.9 rebounds in 25 minutes per game. "I have never made it to the tournament. At Virginia Tech, our season was over after the ACC tournament. So right now, I'm just standing in the moment."
When No. 1 Florida begins SEC tournament play against eighth-seeded Missouri this afternoon, the Gators' top reserves — Finney-Smith, Kasey Hill, DeVon Walker and Chris Walker — will be a critical part of their NCAA title hopes.
At one point limited to six players, Florida is now nine-deep and healthy entering the most important part of the season.
"Certainly us having depth is a good thing," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "We've had to battle through this year not having a full complement of players. Getting Kasey Hill back, I think it's good for Scottie (Wilbekin) to rest him. We can play all those guys together and play Scottie off the ball. … Hopefully Chris will be able to continue to progress and get better. It allows us to press, we have more depth in the backcourt, it helps you get out of foul trouble a little better. All of those things I think are very important and help your team when you have more numbers and bodies."
To understand why the late-season emergence of the Gators' bench is important, look at its history. In 2000, the Gators brought five players off the bench during the NCAA Tournament in which it advanced to the title game: Donnell Harvey, Brett Nelson, Matt Bonner, Kenyan Weaks and Major Parker. In defeating top-ranked Duke to advance to the Final Four, the Gators' depth compared to the Blue Devils — who had four players with more than 30 minutes — was a key to the game.
In 2006 bench players Walter Hodge, Chris Richard and Adrian Moss proved critical in the Gators' title run. And in 2007 it was Hodge, Richards and St. Petersburg's Marreese Speights.
The backups have proven of late to be more than just bodies. In Saturday's win over Kentucky, Hill had eight points and seven assists in 21 minutes. The bench had 20 first-half points.
"He's gotten more comfortable, more confident. He's been able to see plays better, see plays develop," Wilbekin said of Hill. "And he's gotten better on defense."
After a midseason slump in which he was 1-for-23on 3-point ers, Finney-Smith is 10-for-20 in the past four games. When playing that way alongside sophomore 3-point specialist Michael Frazier, and with long-range ability from DeVon Walker, it provides a stronger offensive dimension.
Although he has only played the final 10 games of the season, Chris Walker slowly is emerging, and the Gators need his ability to block shots and relieve center Patric Young without losing a big-man presence inside.
For Finney-Smith, the bench role is new, but he has adapted quickly. And the Gators are better because of it.
"When I came here I just wanted to do anything to help my team win," he said. "That was the whole reason for me to come here, was to win."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]