MEMPHIS — Having coached two national championship teams, Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan had a fairly keen sense of what it takes to be a championship contender, and what was missing from his team heading into this season.
"There's certain qualities that make up good teams," Donovan said. "And you may go about doing it a different way, but a lot of it is the chemistry, their care for one another, their commitment to one another, their unselfishness, their ability to accept their teammates for who they are, not pass judgment."
With that in mind, Donovan made a concerted effort this year to have his players to get to know one another better, spend more time together and create a bond that would sustain them through good and bad.
The result has been a group of players more concerned about not letting each other down than personal goals. Moreso than its defense, uptempo offense or bench play, the Gators believe chemistry has made this team unique.
"I believe we're a really tight team," senior center Patric Young said. "We don't necessarily live together because I'm not going to call any names, but some of those guys are slobs. But this team this year has definitely taken a lot of steps as a whole just to be more connected, and to know each other more in the meetings that Coach Donovan has us have. It's just the steps we take to really be open and honest with each other and just to realize it's not about the individual; it's about the team and the common goal."
Playing for a common goal led Florida to become the first team to go 18-0 in SEC play. It is the only school to advance to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 the past four years, and it had an undefeated home record for the second straight season.
It did so overcoming many obstacles: two suspensions for senior guard Scottie Wilbekin and multiple injuries to forwards Will Yeguete and Casey Prather.
"I think we grew together," Yeguete said. "Obviously we had Scottie going through the suspension last summer, but I think we all have personal things we went through. And we're all just trying to learn from each other. And I think this year, we're trying to love one another and learn more about our teammates. I think we've done a really good job."
The Gators believe the unique chemistry has led to a tangible difference. Last year they were 0-6 in games decided by single digits. This year they are 14-2.
"I think that everybody on the team just makes an effort, and it's easy because we like each other so much," Wilbekin said. "We love playing together so much and through this year, winning the games like we have, it's just brought us closer together. It's something about winning close games that's different than winning by 10 or 15. I think that also brings us closer together."
Florida plays UCLA Thursday in the South Region semifinals, seeking to advance to the Elite Eight for the fourth straight season. Donovan, who recently signed a contract extension through the 2018-19 season, believes the Gators' chemistry is an intangible that can't be overstated.
"I think what's made them special is their willingness to be unselfish, their willingness to forgive, because when you spend as much time as we do there's going to be issues in your team, guys are going to upset guys, there's going to be things that bother them. … These guys have done a great job of serving one another and not being totally focused on me, I, what I want, what I need. I think that's been something that's made them special. I think when you can get young people to do that, that really allows you to create something special."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]