ARLINGTON, Texas — Scottie Wilbekin and his three senior Gator teammates advanced to three Elite Eight games, and lost, before finally clearing that hurdle and advancing to this weekend's Final Four. So you can imagine how much the adrenaline was flowing when they arrived at AT&T Stadium on Thursday afternoon.
Kentucky's Julius Randle was a middle school student growing up in Dallas when he learned that the 2014 Final Four was going to be played in his hometown, and he wanted very much to be a part of it. Connecticut is making its third Final Four appearance in the past six years, while Wisconsin is in its first under 66-year-old coach Bo Ryan.
Florida, Kentucky, Wisconsin and UConn all arrived in Dallas hoping to leave next week with an NCAA championship. But the road between now and Saturday's national semifinal games is filled with potholes that could easily trip a team up. On Thursday, the four coaches leading this season's teams said keeping them focused and keeping them from becoming overwhelmed are the top priorities.
"We know our guys are going to get in front of 75,000, look around and think, 'Oh, my, it's going to be that way,' " Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "If you think these 18-, 19- and 20-year-old kids are going to not be cognizant of what's going on around them, they will be. So our whole thing right now is stay in the moment. Don't worry about Saturday, let's worry about today. Try not to overload them with stuff and go from there."
According to the players, that's not an easy thing to do. Daily practices and media obligations monopolize their time. Then the downtime can lead to overthinking the game.
"It's kind of tough to manage these first days," said UConn senior guard-forward Niels Giffey, who is participating in his second Final Four. "You have to stay focused on what you've got to get done on the court. That's the most important thing, I think. You can't be too impressed with everything that's going on: the gym, the different crowd that's going to be out there and all the attention that's focused on you. So just stay with your group as much as you can, stay with your teammates. That's really what I'm trying to tell my younger guys that haven't been here before, just try to have fun, enjoy this moment as much as you can."
Randle, a freshman forward, is trying to balance the excitement of making it to the Final Four with the desire to win it all in his hometown.
"It's kind of been emotional for my family, all that the team's been through this year," Randle said. "They're just really proud of where we came from. But at the end of the day we're just excited to get out there and compete and have another opportunity to play the game."
Wisconsin appears to be in the right frame of mind, Ryan said: "One of our players actually made a comment as we were driving in, 'So this is the road to the Final Four.' So I think our guys are loose enough. They understand it's another two-game tournament."
Wilbekin, UF's star point guard, said the plan for the Gators is to do what has gotten them this far.
"Stay focused and not let all the media attention that we're going to be getting there affect us and make us have a higher opinion of ourselves than we need to," Wilbekin said. "Because we're the same team that was struggling in the beginning of the year, and just basically the same team before we went on our streak of 30 wins. We just have to stay grounded and remember who we are, and just be the people that we are, and the team that we are."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]