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UF's 2001 dreams tied to 2000 pain

In a minute, Teddy Dupay will tell you how excited he is.

Give him a second, maybe two, and Dupay will tell you about the adrenaline surging through his veins. He'll tell you how his mouth is dry and his palms are wet and how he can't close his eyes without thinking about Western Kentucky.

Any time now, and Dupay will be ready for the NCAA Tournament to begin for him and his University of Florida teammates. Once he does, he said, he is certain that the Gators will go on a run much like the one of a year ago.

For the moment, however, Dupay is talking about pain.

Even now, it hurts. Eleven months have passed, not to mention an entire regular season. There have been big games and big shots and big moments. A million times since that night, the ball has bounced from his fingertips.

Still, Dupay can remember how awful it felt to lose to Michigan State in last season's NCAA championship game.

"It still bothers me," he said quietly. "It'll bother me forever. Even now, there are times when I feel what I felt after losing that game. You can't explain it. We let an opportunity get away. That hurts."

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the best measurement possible of how far the Gators' basketball program has come.

Second place smells. Any questions?

It is Thursday, a day before the Gators' next chance arrives. In a locker room inside the bowels of the Louisiana Superdome, you could feel the excitement. The Gators were preparing for another NCAA Tournament, another one in which they believe they will hang around for a while, and you could sense the anticipation. Players rubbed their hands together and spoke quickly, as if talking faster would make game time hurry.

As for Dupay, he was still talking about last year, about the one that got away and the pain that won't go away.

"I've thought about it all year," he said. "During preseason practice, or during practice, or late at night. Even if we got fortunate and won one, it wouldn't go away. I'm greedy about things like that. I'd think "It could be two in a row.' If we just could have gotten off to a better start in that game, maybe we would have been there in the end."

Then Dupay frowns and shakes his head, and you swear you still can see the reflection of Mateen Cleaves in his eyes. It says something that, on the eve of the chance to do something about it, the wounds still seem fresh.

This is the level of expectation, and of disappointment, that now reside within the Gators' program. There is the big trophy, and there is disappointment. You live with one, or you live with the other.

Such are the stakes as Florida begins its third consecutive NCAA Tournament today. This is no longer a happy-to-be-here program that dropped in every decade or so with a collection of overachievers to wave at the cameras. For a thousand days now, the Gators have been one of the elite college basketball teams in the country, one of those teams for which March seems reserved.

From now on, this is what Florida basketball is. It doesn't matter who graduates, or who leaves early, or who is in the way. Florida expects to be here. Even better, it expects to shine here.

In some ways, this year has proven that more than last year. If last year was the program's arrival, this was the year it moved in to the neighborhood of Duke and Kentucky and everyone else. Last year was a talented bunch of recruits who managed to beat the clock and get good before anyone expected it.

This year, however, most of us would have expected the program to hit a speed bump, considering that sophomore Mike Miller and freshman Donnell Harvey bolted the team in favor of the NBA. Instead, the Gators went 23-6 and ended up as the third seed in the South.

"This year proved we're a program," Dupay said. "We're not just one team that got good and then went away."

So you ask: Can the Gators do it again? Can they get on another roll such as the one that brought them to the championship game last year?

And they answer: Why not?

"I definitely think we can," Dupay said. "We're a good team. I think we're as good as last year. Don't forget, we almost lost in the first round last year. We've shown this year we can run off six victories in a row. The teams that do well in this tournament are the ones with chemistry, with unselfishness, the ones who play defense. We do those things."

"We still aren't finished," said Brent Nelson. "We still have a ways to go."

Who knows? It takes different things to galvanize a team and allow it to become hot at the right time. Last year, it was Miller's driving layup against Butler that seemed to allow the Gators to grow up overnight. From then until the final, the Gators could do no wrong.

As for this year, who plays Miller's role in the final minute of a tight game? Can the Gators survive their lack of depth in the frontcourt? Can Florida stand up to a bracket that (according to seed) would force them to play, in order, Western Kentucky, Texas, North Carolina, Michigan State, Illinois and either Duke or Stanford?

It's a lot to ask, of course.

Then again, anything less is a lot to endure.

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