"Ls up for them hittas"
— Lil Durk, "L's Anthem"
Florida's been here before.
It's the school's fifth Final Four in the last 19 years. It's Billy Donovan's fourth since 2000 — only Roy Williams and Tom Izzo have more. Donovan assistants and Florida athletic department personnel remember the 2006 and 2007 Final Fours well.
These Gators haven't.
Casey Prather, Will Yeguete, and Patric Young were high-schoolers in 2007, when Corey Brewer, Al Horford, and Joakim Noah led Florida to its second consecutive NCAA Tournament title. Scottie Wilbekin was an eighth-grader, three years removed from the fateful decision to skip his senior year of high school and enroll early at Florida.
And they have struggled and suffered on their way to this stage, this 6:09 p.m. Eastern game on TBS and TNT against UConn, this last step before the last game of the college basketball season.
I've written about all of that at length before, about the trials and tribulations and growth that made this crew of four seniors "The Four," indelibly etched in the minds and memories of Florida fans as among our favorite players ever.
But those seniors are not the whole of this team.
Michael Frazier II has worked his ass off for this team. He is first to shoot before the game — every game — and works hard enough to impress Ray Allen, his favorite player.
Kasey Hill has made himself into potentially Billy Donovan's finest point guard ever by slowing down and fighting through injuries. He turned his ankle early this season, got healthy, suffered a groin injury, got healthy, suffered turf toe, and is now playing as well as he has all year despite that last malady.
Dorian Finney-Smith bided his time. He transferred from Virginia Tech in 2012, and sat out the 2012-13 season per NCAA transfer rules. He's still biding his time: As a starter, next year, he may well be the focal point of Florida's offense, and play himself into an NBA Draft selection. But Florida's crowded frontcourt has better defenders and more consistent scorers right now, and he will be the best sixth man in Dallas, after being the best sixth man in the SEC and the best sixth man in many years for the Gators.
Like Scottie Wilbekin, DeVon Walker could've left after last season; unlike Wilbekin, he wanted to. Walker's transfer was announced in early May, and rescinded a week later, as he reconsidered his place and role at Florida. With Eli Carter and Dillon Graham being forced to take injury redshirts early in the fall, and Chris Walker failing to enroll until December, DeVo became Florida's spot-duty defender and emergency point guard off the bench.
Chris Walker has been Florida's Red Bull for the frontcourt time and again of late, playing seven good minutes here or five great ones there. He's still young, and raw, and far from the player he's eventually going to be — Walker has both given Gators reason to be inordinately excited about his development at Florida and given NBA scouts all the red flags they need to not draft him. But he is not the lost boy he was on the court for his first few appearances anymore, having been taken under Patric Young's bulky wing and dedicated himself to the craft of defense, and that improvement has made him a playable member of Florida's rotation.
It wasn't that long ago that Jacob Kurtz was one of those players, too: He played 21 minutes at Wisconsin when Florida met the Badgers with Wilbekin and Finney-Smith still suspended, and played another six minutes at UConn. Since then, he's played fewer and fewer minutes, mostly in garbage time, going back to being one of the nation's best walk-ons when the rest of his team was healthy and eligible.
He played another minute last Saturday — against Dayton, in the Elite Eight, in the first half. His role can still include critical moments.
Nearly every team that gets to this level in college basketball does so with players sublimating themselves to the wants and needs of their team. To get this far, by winning four games in two sets of two over three days in unusual locales against varied teams, you have to do that.
Florida's not selfish; we know that well. But UConn's not selfish, either, and neither is Wisconsin, or even Kentucky. Shabazz Napier is UConn's star, but his team knows it can count on him. Frank Kaminsky is Wisconsin's go-to player, but has emerged slowly, finding his role over time. Kentucky has a constellation's worth of stars, and has spent a season figuring out its proper formation.
There are posts like this to be written about the Huskies and the Badgers and the Wildcats; I believe that wholeheartedly.
I believe this, too: Those teams aren't anything like these Gators.
The Ls you see in the picture above? Florida's been throwing them all season, not just since the wins and the rankings and the championships and the snipped nets.
Hand signs meaning "Life, love, and loyalty" displayed by Gators in picture below. Derived from Chicago rappers' Lamron (reverse it) crew and sign. Always thrown up, never taken.
But that's not the whole explanation.
Chicago is producing some of the nation's best rap right now, mostly in a subgenre called "drill" music, which orients itself around crews — gangs, really — and around posturing about who is hardest and realest. Some of it is performative; some of it is in keeping with Chicago's dismaying, dizzying recent history of violance among young men. When Lil Durk commands "Ls up for them hittas," he's talking about his buddies .. who shoot guns, and sometimes people.
And yet, in that tumult, and borne of some of that illegality, there is strength and resilience. Ls don't stand for lasciviousness, larceny, and looting; they stand for life, love, and loyalty. They're shows of affection, softness from boys and men who have grown up on hard roads.
Florida's taking that definition. These Gators throw and show Ls — and some have had them tattooed on their person — because they love each other.
There's a chance that Florida could lose tonight — a good one, in fact. The Gators are playing a UConn team with one incredibly good player and several very good ones, and that team already shot the lights out against the Gators once. Sure, the Gators UConn will play on Saturday are not the Gators who lost to the Huskies in Storrs — but who else can say they beat these Gators, even in their reduced form? Only Wisconsin.
And if Florida gets past UConn tonight, the Gators might well lose to either Kentucky or Wisconsin on Monday. Those teams, too, are good at basketball — good enough to give them a chance against Florida, still the nation's best team.
For me, preparing for all of the potentialities of a game — wins, losses, and all the flavors thereof — means considering all of them as possible. A loss tonight is possible.
It's not likely. It's not what I would bet on. But it's possible.
It is impossible for that hypothetical loss to change anything about these Gators.
Florida plays basketball as beautifully as I've ever seen it played. The Gators share the ball well, share defensive duties even better, and play smart and hard for every second they're on the court. They play for each other and play together. I could not ask for anything more from a team I root for, except maybe results.
And the results won't change my feelings for this team.
I don't think they'll change how this team feels about itself, either.
Florida didn't come all this way to lose. It came to make a mark, make memories, make these seniors' final season the best in their lives.
"I don't think any team wants to go to the Final Four and be like, "All right, we made it. That's it,'" Young said last Saturday, after finishing off Dayton. "We're going to go ... into the game fearless."
The opposite of fear is not bravery. It is love, tinged with respect. That love powers this Florida team.
Win or lose, that love will last forever. Ls up for these Gators.