MEMPHIS, Tenn. – You know the bandwagon is getting crowded when players from conference rivals hop onboard.
There was Marshall Henderson, the Mouth of the South and shooting guard for Mississippi, in the FedEx Forum on Thursday night wearing a Florida Gators T-shirt, doing the Gator Chomp and generally not acting like a guy who tried mightily to beat them five weeks ago in Oxford. And there was Henderson at various downtown Memphis establishments after the Gators beat UCLA, mingling with the people and seeming to enjoy himself immensely – as he is prone to do.
One of those places was a bar called Local, where Henderson ran into yours truly and a couple other writers. We were in a celebratory mood already, because the bartender had bet me I couldn't spell Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious off the top of my head. I did, and our tab was free. And then in strutted Marshall with a lady friend.
The only thing missing was Mike Tyson and a tiger.
Henderson had a Southeastern Conference tournament championship ring weighing down his left hand. He still was wearing his Gator shirt, beneath an Ole Miss hat. I believe he had consumed an adult beverage or two.
Henderson said he loved the way the Gators played. He said he felt a bond with point guard Scottie Wilbekin – "because we both got in trouble" – and talked to Wilbekin's dad at the game. He said he did not understand the backlash from some fans over him openly supporting a league rival.
I'm with him there – his Ole Miss career is complete and he's free to support anyone he wants. And who doesn't love a winner, anyway?
Florida is certainly that – 29 straight victories, a 21-0 mark in SEC games, the No. 1 ranking and a No. 1 seed. Even the national championship teams of 2006 and '07 didn't have a record like 35-2. No wonder the bandwagon is loading up.
But now we are at the line of demarcation between good and great: the Final Four. It's a line the current Gators have not been able to cross, losing the past three years in the regional final.
They lost a lead late in 2011 against Butler as a No. 2 seed – and that Butler team was not nearly as good as the one that made the Final Four the previous year. They lost a late lead again in 2012, this time against Louisville. And then they were blown out last year by a hot Michigan team.
The losses were bitter enough that Florida center Patric Young barely watched the Final Four the following week. He tuned in to see Kentucky win the title in 2012, and said he caught the last five minutes of Louisville-Michigan title game last April. But mostly he stayed away.
"It was pretty difficult," Young said. "One thing I can remember, each time flying back, it would never hit me that our season was over. We were so close so many times. It hurt, but it was motivation."
They've had a career full of motivation for Saturday.
This year the opponent is No. 11 seed Dayton. And this Florida team is far better than the previous three. On paper, it's a sure victory – maybe even a rout. Losing at this stage would be a ghastly, bitter defeat.
That could create an element of pressure. But it also could create a focus and urgency Dayton can only hope to replicate. Anything less than a totally locked-in Florida would be very surprising.
"We're really excited just to have this opportunity to be here," Young said. "Of course, at the beginning of the year, it's our goal to make it here, and the fact that we have this opportunity – we're not going to let the moment get bigger than us, staying locked in and focused on what we need to do.
"We're just very blessed and fortunate to be a team that can put themselves in this opportunity to play for a Final Four again. Going to prepare and do the best we can, especially as a senior class, because it's our last go-round to make it to that next step."
With an opportunity to purge some painful history, Florida can make good on several of coach Billy Donovan's favorite mantras: be present in the moment, shrink the focus to each possession and each play, and let the cumulative effect of each possession build up until you win.
"Stay in the moment and stay connected as a team," Wilbekin said. "I think since this year has started, we've done a good job of doing that, so we're just carrying that with us."
The fact is, this is the chance to fulfill a potential many saw for Florida's four-man senior class when it arrived in Gainesville four years ago. Young was one of those who believed.
"From Day 1 our freshman year I said, 'We can be great, we can do it,' " Young recalled. "Now we're doing it. I don't know if I could see the future, but I had a belief in us."
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