Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators Back in Final Four

It is the same result but a very different way of getting there. The Florida Gators are back in the Final Four but their trip to Atlanta in 2007 is very different than their trip to Indianapolis in 2006. What they’re hoping for is the same finish, a national title next Monday.

This time around though, Florida has come from behind in each game and looks vulnerable. It has a very different feel to it. It’s not a magical ride, but rather a grind as Florida feels the heat as the defending champion.

“Keep hating,” Joakim Noah shouted at the end of the win over Oregon in the regional semi-final in St. Louis. “We win, we eat,” Noah screamed to the approval of the Gator fans in attendance.

Florida is playing the “hated” card to perfection.

“It was a lot harder this year because night in and night out, we got people’s best shot. We’ve had to adjust and it’s just been really tough,” Corey Brewer said. “It’s been really rewarding because we’ve got the same five guys back and basically the same team. We just love playing with each other, and it feels so good to get back to the Final Four.”

Remember, this is a team that decided to come back together foregoing professional basketball and the millions of dollars that entails to play together again, to enjoy college and to try and win a championship, again. Getting to the Final Four could be enough, but this group has tasted the title and wants it again.

They routed UCLA in the title game last year and they draw the Bruins in the semi-finals this year. UCLA is a very formidable opponent, again particularly when you look at the match-ups on the perimeter and how they’ll try to defend Noah and Al Horford inside. The Bruins can also run so it’s a tough match for Florida.

I’ve said this all along and it was evident again against Oregon. When Florida plays the way they’re supposed to, they’re nearly unbeatable. While Horford carried them in the regional semi’s, it was Lee Humphrey and Taurean Green carrying the load in the finals. Humphrey had seven three pointers and 23 points, enroute to becoming the all time three point scorer in Florida history. Green was hot early, forcing the Duck’s defense to cover the 3-point line and keeping the lane from being clogged.

It’s hard not to like this Florida team. Billy Donovan has done a masterful job of keeping them grounded all year long and they’re still saying the right things when it comes to what their goals are. They don’t have that bright eyed “Wow this is neat” exuberance of last year, but it’s been replaced with a steely determination. They’ll need it this week against UCLA.

They’ll be the late game Saturday night in Atlanta.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators in Sweet 16

So far the first two games have been about perfect for the Florida Gators. Jackson State was a perfect first game opponent. The Gators couldn’t figure it out early. Not only that, they had that nervous edge where they couldn’t quite score and had that look of doubt on their faces.

And that’s good.

“You need to have that edge, that nervousness in every game,” Joakim Noah said before the Gators left for New Orleans. “We know that 10 or 15 minutes and you’re off, it can all be over. We don’t want to go home.”

Florida beat Jackson State easily in the second half running away and scoring 112 points. That’s because they played like they’re supposed to in the second half. It’s pretty easy when it comes to Florida basketball these days. When they play like they’re supposed to, they’re nearly unbeatable. When they don’t, just about anybody can beat them.

Same thing against Purdue in the second round game. They couldn’t quite deal with the defensive pressure. They were on edge and couldn’t hit anything early in the game. But once they started playing like they’re supposed to, they went through Purdue without any problem.

“I’m going to let them enjoy it,” Billy Donovan said from New Orleans. “It’s because they wouldn’t be enjoying it if the outcome were different.”

I really don’t know what to make of this Florida team. I don’t know if the opponents have figured something out about them, or if other teams got better, but this isn’t the same run as last year. Certainly, teams are defending Lee Humphrey on the perimeter and making Taurean Green take the shots from the outside. Billy Donovan has responded by putting Al Horford, Noah and Chris Richard in the game at the same time.

Florida’s out-rebounding everybody but their scoring touch has been off in the first half. They shot 65% against Purdue in the second half and it allowed them to move into the Sweet 16. Perhaps more importantly they didn’t turn the ball over in the last ten minutes of the game.

Next up is Butler, another team Florida should beat. Maybe they’ll like the rims in St. Louis better.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gator Hoops Update

It’s no secret that I root for the Florida Basketball team. Billy Donovan is one of my favorite people in sports and I’ve never made any secret of that. So when they lost three of their last four, I watched with interest to see what Billy might reveal about his approach to this “rough patch.”

“I’ve said all along that this is the toughest eight game stretch we’ve faced since I’ve been here at Florida,”

Donovan said after the loss to Tennessee. “At Vanderbilt, at LSU, at Tennessee, all tough environments and we’ haven’t responded as well as we would have liked.”

So did he run them? Did he scream his guts out at practice? Probably not. Billy probably appealed to their pride, their sense of history, there sense of self. Donovan doesn’t treat everybody or every situation the same. He’s smart and he’s sharp and most importantly, he’s honest.

He never called out any of his players. Al Horford was the only one playing anywhere near what he was capable of. Joakim Noah looked like he was operating at around 80%, Lee Humphrey was off, Taurean Green wasn’t running the show and Corey Brewer was trying to do too much. That’s the strange thing about this Florida team. It’s a real team without any real “go-to” guy or any singular star. So when they’re disjointed, they look terrible and just about anybody can beat them. But when they’re playing like a team and running the offense the way they’ve been taught, they’re nearly unbeatable.

So with this as a background I watched the Kentucky game in Gainesville on Sunday. Would the Gators remain unfocused and just another contender or would they recapture some of what made them champions last season? You could tell from the opening tip that Noah was a different player than he’s been in the last two weeks.

Donovan admitted that he wanted the team to enjoy winning the SEC regular season championship, something they hadn’t done before. So he let them cut the nets down and savor the title. But he also said later that the team seemed to relax after that and played like a team with nothing on the line.

Against Kentucky, Noah was big when he needed to be, hustled, cajoled his teammates and generally ran the show from the outset. Green acted like he had plenty to play for. Humphrey was still off but hit enough shots to make a difference. Most importantly, he kept shooting. Corey Brewer was still his wild self, but made enough spectacular plays to offset his crazy play. And Horford was his steady self.

Not surprisingly, the Gators took a 43-all tie at halftime and ran it up to as much as a 13 point lead in the second half enroute to an 85-72 win. Noah and Green had 17 points, Noah and Horford had 10 rebounds each. But it was the energy and the enthusiasm that was the difference.

Somewhere in that mix was Billy Donovan.

Florida now has some momentum for the SEC Tournament in Atlanta this week and some regained respect when it comes to the seedings for the NCAA Tournament. I still think Florida will get a #1 seed if they get to the championship game in Atlanta. They have quality wins, they won the regular season conference championship and they had a little “rough patch.”

Last year was last year but they did lose three straight before winning their final 11 and the NCAA title. Unless they lay an egg in Atlanta, the Gators should be the top seed somewhere.