MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Billy Donovan and the Gators know a thing or two about shattering glass slippers.
First, it was No. 11 seed George Mason, the underdog of the 2006 NCAA Tournament, which fell victim to Florida 73-58 in the Final Four as Donovan’s unit cruised to its first national title.
Last year, No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast — the media darling of the tournament that knocked off No. 2 seed Georgetown and No. 7 seed San Diego State in the first weekend of the Big Dance — faced UF in the Sweet 16 and was clearly overwhelmed. The Gators crushed the Eagles’ hopes, forcing 20 FGCU turnovers en route to a 62-50 victory in Cowboys Stadium.
Next on the Gators’ list of “Cinderella” opponents? No. 11 seed Dayton.
The 11th-seeded Flyers will square off against the No. 1 seed Gators in the South Regional final for a spot in the Final Four on Saturday at 6:09 p.m. in the FedExForum.
A win would lift Florida to its first Final Four since 2007 and avenge three straight Elite Eight exits. A win would lift Dayton’s program to new heights and advance it to its first Final Four since 1967.
Fair to say, the stakes are high for both teams.
But as much as members of the media have given Dayton the “Cinderella” label throughout this tournament, the Gators and the Flyers do not see it that way.
“Even if the team may be a Cinderella, I mean, that doesn’t have any bearing on what happens when the ball gets tipped up,” senior center Patric Young said. “The best team’s going to win. We know Dayton is a good team. Those teams we played in the past were good teams as well.”
Flyers guard Vee Sanford shared a similar sentiment Friday.
“The whole Cinderella thing is out the door,” Sanford said. “Nothing about the University of Dayton is Cinderella or small.”
No. 11 seed Dayton has proved during its tournament run that it is a quality group and not just some fluke. After two nail-biting wins against sixth-seeded Ohio State (60-59) and third-seeded Syracuse (55-53) in the first weekend of the tournament, UD did not skip a beat Thursday night, knocking off No. 10 seed Stanford 82-72 in the Sweet 16.
Because of its depth and ability to play unselfishly, this Flyers group has been dynamic throughout the Big Dance. Dayton normally plays a rotation of about 11 guys, ranking 60th in the country in bench minutes according the KenPom.com.
Thursday, 12 Flyers saw the floor — 11 scored — and third-year coach Archie Miller’s group had nine logging double-figure minutes. UD’s bench outscored the Cardinal’s 34-2 and shot 52.4 percent.
Donovan and the Gators watched film on Dayton and studied its personnel Friday morning. The Flyers’ depth stood out immediately.
“The thing that makes them unique and special in a lot of ways is they’ve gotten great production from a lot of different people, a lot of different points in time in the game,” Donovan said. “Whether it’s been offensive rebounds, it’s been a loose ball, hustle play, somebody knocking down a three, somebody making a steal and getting them out on the break. They’ve got a lot of versatility.”
Added Miller: “In some cases, some of the skill sets that come in off the bench are actually better. As they come in, more aggressive. … I’m not sure that you wear a team down, but I do think the more guys that you have, the harder you can play, the better off you’re going to be. No drop-offs.”
Saturday’s game could pose a hostile environment for the Gators. Dayton fans, only an eight-hour drive away from catching their favorite team, have poured in throughout downtown Memphis and should give the Flyers a pseudo home-court advantage against UF. During Thursday’s Dayton-Stanford game, the FedExForum was dominated by bright red and dark blue.
But that doesn’t worry Young.
“As fans, we want to see the underdog team, whatever sport, be able to knock down the David and Goliath-type story. But that has nothing to do with what happens in between the lines,” Young said.
“We’ve been in hostile environments before. Even if all the fans there are cheering for Dayton, we’re still going to stay within ourselves and stay focused on the moment one possession at a time. We won’t allow it to affect us.”
Especially with a shot at the Final Four on the line, Florida has no time for distractions — or to dwell on past Elite Eight failures against Butler, Lousiville and Michigan its last three seasons.
“We’re not going to let the past haunt us because they have no bearing,” senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “Of course, we’re going to learn from it, but going forward, we’re going to get ready for the next team."
Follow Landon Watnick on Twitter @LandonWatnick.