Gators Swamp Virginia, Head To New York

When the game is only two-twenty minute halves, streaks can go a long way. Either way. Florida went on a 21-0 run against Virginia in their second round NCAA game in Orlando while the Cavaliers were scoreless for eight minutes. That combination put the Gators up by 19 on their way to a 65-39 win. Florida now heads to New York and Madison Square Garden for the Sweet 16 and a match up against Wisconsin next Friday.

“We’ve found that edge,” Guard Chris Chiozza said in the winning locker room. “We’re back to that team that went on that winning streak in the middle of the season. It doesn’t matter who scores, we’re giving them the ball.”

Using their trademark defense and scoring in transition, the Gators kept the pressure on Virginia from the opening tip. Florida Head Coach Mike White predicted it would be “smash-mouth, half-court” basketball and it was clear the Gators were prepared for that kind of game.

“I think we just had to get them uncomfortable and play our tempo,” Devin Robinson said at the post-game press conference. “We just tried to stay aggressive on defense and get in transition as best we can and that turned to great offense.”

On the other hand, Virginia couldn’t keep up with Florida’s speed as evidenced by Justin Leon and Robinson scoring in double figures midway through the second half. Both finished with 14 points and a double-double.

“So proud of Justin Leon,” Gators White said after the victory. “He got a double-double, was 3-6 from 3’s but this was his best game defensively. Best game as a Gator.”

In their first round game against East Tennessee State, Florida led the Bucs by one at halftime and looked like the team that had lost 3 of 4 to end the season. Since then, they’ve looked like the team that went on a nine game winning streak through February with eight different leading scorers.

“All year we’ve had multiple people lead us in scoring,” Canyon Berry said in front of his locker. “Just that depth adds something to our team, being able to come in one night, Kevaughn gets 25 and the next night it’s Devin or the next night me. Hopefully we all can have a good night next round. We can beat anyone in the country when that happens.”

Against Virginia, the Gators had significant minutes from nine different players, all who scored. As an example of Florida’s balanced attack, their leading scorer, Kevaughn Allen, who averaged nearly 14 points per game in the regular season, had 4 against the Cavs. He and Canyon Barry, Florida’s two leading scorers, combined for 11 points. Still, the Gators have outscored their opponents 112-72 in their last 60 minutes of play.

“We got a couple bounces our way but that’s about as good as we’ve played defensively this year,” White said in the understatement of the night.

By the way, in Orlando on Saturday night, FSU and Virginia were a combined 5 of 36 from beyond the arc and lost by a combined total of 51 points.

FSU Can’t Shoot, Loses To Xavier

Smooth and organized never described the 2016-17 Florida State basketball team. Even by Head Coach Leonard Thompson’s own assessment, the ‘Noles liked to “pressure the ball and be aggressive.” That made any deficit look erasable. Except when the opponent shoots 66% in the first half and pretty much keeps it up for the entire game.

That’s what happened to FSU in Orlando in their NCAA second round matchup against Xavier. The 11th seeded Musketeers hit two-thirds of their shots in the first half, and nearly 70% of their three-point attempts trough the midway point of the second half enroute to a 91-66 win and a trip to San Jose for the third round of March Madness.

“We just didn’t hit shots,” FSU’s Terrance Mann said in the post-game press conference. “It’s tough when they hit all their 3’s and we struggled.”

Relying on their speed and length, Florida State just couldn’t match Xavier shot for shot, hovering around the 40% mark from the floor and barely using shots from beyond the arc as a weapon, trailing by 10 at the half, 44-34.

After intermission it was more of the same, with Xavier keeping up the assault from the three-point line and driving to the basket when given the opportunity. The 11-th seeded Musketeers had five players score from beyond the arc, led by Kaiser Gates who was 4 of 5 from the 3-point line.

“Xavier did a really good job of clogging the lane,” FSU Head Coach Leonard Hamilton said. “We got great looks from deep but we just couldn’t buy anything.” FSU finished the game 4 of 21 from beyond the arc.

Down by 20 points with just over 7 minutes to play, the ‘Noles hit back to back three’s but Xavier answered with baskets and free throws of their own to push the lead to 75-53. Dwayne Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes lead FSU scoring with 20 and 16 points respectively but never got the hot hand against a smothering Xavier defense.

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Gator Hoops: Short of Ingredients

Watching the Florida/Penn State game the other night I finally figured out why the Gators can’t seem to get over the hump when it comes to a decent opponent who’s having a decent night: they’re just not that good. As much as you want to put a “program” label on Florida, Billy Donovan has come up short in the last two seasons, missing on some recruits and consequently missing the NCAA’s.

There are good players on the Florida team, but it seems inconceivable that the Gators could win back-to-back National Championships and not make the tournament the next two years. (That’s the first time that’s ever happened by the way.)

I do agree when the “’04’s” announced that they were coming back for one more year, it dampened a lot of recruits enthusiasm for Florida and it threw a wrench in “the plan” as far as building from year to year. But this team is just incomplete. In one half of the game, transition and the 3-pointer, they look completely skilled and very confident. But when it comes to the other half, rebounding and the half court game, they look lost.

People point to the loss of Maurice Speights as a big blow to the program. Perhaps, but I think Billy was glad to see him leave. Not getting Patrick Patterson to be a Gator had an impact on the building process, but the lack of a big man, anywhere on the court, has impeded Florida’s road to success.

Alex Tyus is a nice player but disappears for long stretches at a time. Chandler Parsons is inconsistent and a real post player backs him down every time. Ray Shipman and Kenny Kadji are both skinny guys who might be good but even Donovan says they can’t go up and down the floor more than a few times before he has to bring them back to the bench.

I keep hearing that they’re getting this guy and that guy and that this player or that player will develop for next season. Perhaps. Billy knows that getting the best players is important, and combining them in the right year is equally important. He learned a lesson on Kwame Brown and even Donnell Harvey.

Nick Calathes is a very good player on an average team but he can’t lift everybody. Erving Walker can shoot the three but has no idea how to go to the basket.

Maybe we were spoiled by the ’04’s. Looking back they were such a complete team, inside and out, offense and defense, half court and fast break. I suppose nearly any team pales in comparison to them. But Florida’s got enough going for it to capture big recruits and become a real “program.”

Billy is the right coach and the right recruiter.

If he’s going to be the right “chef” when it comes to cooking up wins. He needs to put the right ingredients in the pot.

Right now he’s a little short.

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Billy’s Magic

“I told Jeremy Foley at the end of the season that I wasn’t really interested in another college job but that the NBA intrigued me. If the right situation came up in the league, I’d explore it.” And with that, Billy Donovan explained why he made the jump from the Gators to the Magic.

It’s not a huge jump geographically, and that played a part. Donovan’s family likes the Florida lifestyle (there’s even a thought that Billy might commute to Orlando from Gainesville) and he has a real familiarity with the Magic. “I’ve had a chance to see the Magic on television a lot living in this state. I want to build on what Brian Hill has started,” is how Donovan talked about his first steps as the Magic head coach.

I’ve always thought that the Magic job would be the one in the NBA that might interest Billy. Certainly the $5.5 million a year, 6-year deal didn’t hurt, but apparently Billy’s talks with the Magic’s management and ownership showed him a commitment to win, and that’s why he called it a “special opportunity.”

The Magic don’t have a first round pick this year, (it went to Detroit in a trade) but they apparently are willing to spend money on free agency, they have a nucleus that got to the playoffs this year (at 40-42) and they have Dwight Howard. Howard is a star, no question and is a Billy Donovan type of player. He hustles, he goes after loose balls and he runs the floor. I’m sure that played into Donovan’s decision.

I don’t think there was any deception or intrigue going on here. It’s not Billy’s nature. He didn’t do anything out the back door, but he didn’t announce his intentions at every turn either. But that’s just business.

He is leaving Florida in a bit of a pinch at this point in the year. The recruiting season is over but so is the “coach moving” season. Everybody’s in place for next year, leaving the Gators in an awkward position when looking for a coach. John Peppery would be a natural, but he’s just been hired by Arkansas. Anthony Grant could be considered, even though he’s been at VCU for only a year. Remember, Donovan was only at Marshall for two years before Foley plucked him from the Herd to coach the Gators.

The Florida job is a very good job at this point, so I’m sure the number of applicants will be large, and Foley always has a short list, just in case. Apparently there’s a new rule in the NCAA that will allow this year’s recruits to go elsewhere if they don’t want to play for the next coach at Florida, so Foley has to move quickly.

The Gators had reported last week that Donovan signing an extension was imminent. They were working on a 7-year deal that would pay Donovan about half of what he’ll be making in the NBA. But it didn’t get signed, probably because Billy was waiting to see what jobs in the NBA might be open, and he knew that the Magic position was a possibility. It might even be that the Magic made their move knowing that Donovan would be interested.

Orlando General Manager Otis Smith knew that his job was on the line so he made the move and hired the one guy who could excite Magic fans and give him a chance to win.

Don’t fault Donovan for keeping his options open. If this didn’t come along, he’d have signed with Florida and been comfortable there. But at 42-years old, Billy wanted to challenge himself, to see if he could make that jump.

No college coach, save for Larry Brown, has ever been successful in the NBA, but Donovan could be the exception. He’s smart, a hard worker, and loyal to his players. It’ll be fun to see him try and implement his system and bring his energy to the pros. They’ll play tough defense and run and he’ll give them a chance to shine on offense. I think it’ll be fun.

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Gators Times Two (Plus 1)

“I’m telling you, that’s inspiring,” is what I told Billy Donovan as we walked out of the Georgia Dome Monday night. Billy looked at me and chuckled but then realized I was serious. “I really appreciated you saying that,” he said as we continued to chat about how different and special this team has been. […]

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Florida Vs. Ohio State II

“We’re just a mediocre team that wins a lot of games,” Chris Richard said with a sly smile after Florida moved into the National Championship game with a ten-point win over UCLA. Richard was responding to the question I asked him about playing defense, something the Gators didn’t get much credit for while playing through the NCAA tournament.

“We take that personally,” Chris said. “Everybody was talking about UCLA’s defense but we think we play pretty good defense too.” Walter Hodge, Taurean Green and Corey Brewer all echoed the same sentiments. So that’s what Billy Donovan used to motivate his team against the Bruins! They were playing hard but things weren’t going their way early in the game.

“It was a defensive kind of game,” Brewer told me outside the locker room. “What was it 6-2 ten minutes into it?” While the defense was strong, Florida wasn’t hitting the shots they were getting, but the lead by six at halftime anyway. “It’s my job to hit those open jumpers,” Lee Humphrey explained. “We’re going to create chances and when I get them, I have to knock those down. I got plenty of good looks in the first half but they just didn’t go. I started making them in the second half.”

It was interesting to see the Gators take over the game in the span of about five minutes in the beginning of the second half. They played their inside/out game, getting the ball into the post to either Joakim Noah or Al Horford who were instantly double-teamed. As soon as that happened, the guards would go to the open spot on the perimeter and the ball would come back out to them, leaving an open look at a 3-pointer. Once Humphrey and Green found their range, the game was over.

Plus, Brewer was feeling it from the outside and when that happens, he’s unstoppable. “I was comfortable and got into the flow early,” Brewer said.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the game was Richard who was called on early when Horford had some foul trouble. But that wasn’t his only role because occasionally he was in the game with Noah and Horford giving the Gators a rather imposing front line.

“I’m a senior and I want to go out with another championship,” Chris told me outside the locker room. “I just wanted to play hard and contribute.” That attitude has the Gators in the title game again with Richard getting put backs and slams and key rebounds epitomizing what the Gators are all about.

“We like it when our teammates play well,” Humphrey explained. “We like to see each other score and have success.” That’s such a simple phrase but so different from just about everything that’s going on in sports these days that it could easily be laughed off as just talk, but with this team, it’s true.

In a twist that just doesn’t happen, Florida will play Ohio State for the title, this time in basketball. The Buckeyes beat Georgetown with a steady game both inside and out. Greg Oden virtually didn’t play in the first half because of foul trouble, but it didn’t seem to matter. The Buckeyes get into the flow without him and have enough perimeter shooters with Lewis and Conley to run with anybody.

I like the Gators on Monday night but it won’t be a walk.

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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.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators: National Champs

It could be more exciting, but I doubt it. The first half of the Championship game had everything you could ask for in a basketball game. Up and down play, physical match ups, unparalleled intensity and a packed, enthusiastic house. The only thing it didn’t have was good shooting. UCLA hit 29% while Florida was a 44%. The Gators were tough on defense though, contesting every shot and making it especially difficult near the basket.

In the first half, Joakim Noah had 5 blocks, the most in one Championship game for any player. And it wasn’t just Noah. Al Horford, Chris Richard and especially Adrian Moss were big for big men in the first half. Moss, the somewhat forgotten senior on this young team lead the Gators with 9 points in the first half. He added 5 rebounds and the Gators lead 36-25 at the half.

The second half started much like the National Semi-final with the Gators hitting threes and increasing their lead. Lee Humphrey and Corey Brewer hit back-to-back threes to give Florida an 18-point lead at the 17-minute mark. They maintained that lead at the 15-minute mark after a monster slam by Noah. It looked like a walk, but he stepped forward and back and forward again with his left foot and hammered it home right-handed. Al Horford and Chris Richard worked a double-team pass underneath with a thunderous two hand dunk to give the Gators a 20-point advantage.

At the nine-minute mark, Florida lead by 17 after UCLA’s second three pointer of the night. The Gators are running some clock on each possession and UCLA is pressing all over the floor, trying to create turnovers. Another three cut the lead to 14, but Noah followed with a slam and the Gators were up by 16 with just over 8 minutes to play. They’ll trade baskets with UCLA at this point, but the Bruins are finding their shooting touch. The Gators held things together despite some frenetic play by the Bruins. They took some wild shots but were patient enough to run some clock when they needed to.

Al Horford hit two free throws to give the Gators a 14-point lead, and Lee Humphrey backed that up with a three pointer putting the lead at 15 with a minute and a half to go. The Gators beat the press and finished it off with a dunk by Noah to lead by 17 with one-minute left to play. Florida finished it off by being aggressive and “going to the rim” as Billy Donovan told them and won their first National Championship by a 72-57 margin.

I got a chance to stand on the court as the team celebrated and cut down the nets. It was fun to see such sheer joy among the players, young men playing a game, and among the coaches and administrators, older men trying to shape lives. Florida was never the media darling or the people’s choice in this tournament. They were always the upstarts, the team that was playing over their head and about to get beat.

When did you think, “Hey, we can beat these guys,” I asked Chris Richard in the post-game locker room. “At the tip,” he quickly answered. “Everybody was talking about UCLA and their athletes and their defense and we wanted to show everybody that we were the best defensive team in the country. We gave them a little bit too much respect, but we jumped on them early and never let up.”

“Right when the game started,” Al Horford chimed in. “We knew they were a good team, but we executed what we wanted to do and there wasn’t anything they could do about it.”

“It’s never been about the other team,” Joakim Noah added. “It’s about playing basketball, possession by possession and doing the little things right. When we play our game, it doesn’t matter who the opponent is, we’re not going to get beat. The Gator boys are hot!”

Billy Donovan met us outside the locker room and echoed his team’s comments. “I wanted them to want to play. Not to look at the clock and wish the time away, because then you stop competing. I told them, ‘we want to play like we don’t want this to end. Stay aggressive, go to the rim. Like we say, ‘lay-ups, dunks and Lee Hump!”

Florida’s second half line reflected that aggressive attitude: Nine dunks, one lay-up, four threes and six free throws.

“It’s not so much that I wanted them to “earn it” although I did use that word, I wanted them to go out there and be what they could be. It’s not about the National Championship. That comes after the game. It’s about this challenge, this opponent, and this game. A lot of people were saying ‘how’s Florida going to score, what are they going to do,’ after seeing UCLA on Saturday, but not a lot of people were talking about what we could do. We wanted to show them who we were tonight, and I think we did that.”

I got a huge kick out of Florida winning this title, partly because it makes my friends and family happy and partly because of my affection for Billy. Knowing the kind of work any successful college basketball coach puts in, and knowing the kind of guy Billy is, it was fun to watch him and everybody else associated with the program enjoy it so much. Plus, in a tournament, it happens right in front of you, not through some disembodied vote.

So congrats to the Gators, National Champs!

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Billy Donovan’s World

“It’s not about me,” is how Florida Head Coach Billy Donovan began his answer. One of the hundreds of scribes covering the Final Four in Indianapolis wanted to know just what it would mean to him to win the National Championship. “That’s something I want to make very clear,” Donovan continued. “It’s not about me, it’s about the players, the University, the fans, it’s about the process. I’m just a part of it.”

You might know that Billy Donovan is one of my favorite people in all of sports. He might be at the top of the list. He does all of the things I think are right about sports at any level, particularly at the collegiate level. He’s passionate about what he does; he follows the rules, and stretches them to his advantage. He’s not too worried about what everybody else is thinking about him or his program. And he cares deeply about his family, his players and the people he works with.

Donovan is not universally liked in his profession or among the media. Some claim he’s a cheat. Others say he’s on the fringe of breaking the rules at all times. I don’t think he’s either of those. I think he just went out and figured out how to do things differently and a little better. He out-worked a lot of coaches and they didn’t like that. They wanted to sit back and keep the pecking order the same. You know, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke, etc, etc. But Donovan didn’t buy into that, instead going around the country targeting guys who would fit into his program at Florida, regardless of who else wanted them.

He endured a lot of criticism and ire of other coaches when he signed Mike Miller out of South Dakota. Miller to Florida? Donovan must have cheated to get him. Actually, Billy was there before everybody else, 12:01 on the first day he could talk to a player, arranging to meet him and his family in the middle of the night. During a “no contact” period, Donovan would stand across the street from a player’s school, just to wave at him as he left class. That’s what it takes to separate you from the pack. \That’s what it takes to build a program.

“Coach (Rick) Pitino advised me not to take the Florida job when I was at Marshall,” Donovan explained. “Too much work and maybe not enough understanding of what it’s going to take to built a program.” Pitino might have been right, but he underestimated both Donovan’s ability and resolve, and Athletic Director Jeremy Foley’s awareness of what it would take.

By necessity, Donovan deals with the underside of college basketball when it comes to recruiting, keeping in touch with the people “on the ground” when it comes to the pipeline of the best players in the country. But notice there aren’t a lot of “projects” on the Florida roster, either as players or as people. Not that Donovan hasn’t had those in the past. But he’s looking for guys who are willful and of course, talented.

“I want us to do well, but I’m as concerned about how these players develop as people, as husbands, fathers, coaches, whatever they become. I want them to enjoy each other, practicing together, being part of a team. But their development as people is more important. I want them to look back on their time at the University of Florida and think that it was a positive part of their life where they learned a few lessons and I helped them along.”

How many coaches are going to give that soliloquy when asked about the impact of a “National Championship.”?

As a basketball coach, Donovan is trying to build a program. One where the alumni players come back and support what he’s doing. In his first ten years, he hasn’t had many players he’d want to come back. But this team, the 2006 squad, he loves. And rightfully so. Even if they never win it, they’ll be the foundation Donovan builds his program on, being contenders each year and sending guys out into the world ready for what it might throw at them.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

No Basketball Jones Here

Good stuff for the past five days in Jacksonville for the NCAA first and second round games. Hard to imagine a better setting for four days of basketball and some R and R for fans. If you’re on the NCAA site selection committee, there are not too many better places for a visit in early March.

Mike Sullivan from the city and Joel Lamp from JU did very good work in setting up and organizing the Arena, the games, and all of the logistics. Except for one electrical snafu where part of press row lost power on Thursday, things seemed flawless surrounding the entire event. So good in fact, that they’re going to bid for the first and second round in 2009 or 2010. The bid goes in front of the committee in April with the announcement coming in July.

The NCAA has very specific rules about what happens at each venue. When I walked into the Veterans Memorial Arena it was a somewhat surreal experience. I kept thinking I was somewhere else but I was in my hometown at the NCAA’s! Sounds hokey I know, but it’s pretty amazing to think that Jacksonville was able to host the first and second round of the tournament without some kind of over bearing effort that taxed everybody and everything in town. It was just another thing that happened.

Unthinkable as little as five years ago.

Florida’s appearance here after winning the SEC tournament certainly added to the excitement, but the tournament was sold out even before the Gators were selected to play here. There was enough excitement and enough buzz around the event to sell it out just as an event. Fans came from all over the country, following their teams and in some cases just looking for a new place to see the NCAA’s.

A friend of mine was visiting from Long Island and came down on Southwest. If you’ve flown Southwest, you know they’re a little goofy and one of the flight attendants asked how many people on the flight were headed to “the basketball.” About 25 people raised their hands and none were headed to see a particular team. Just coming to town to see “the basketball.”

The crowds impressed me. Not necessarily the size, because you see empty seats all over the country, especially at first round games. But by the conversations and the enthusiasm I saw at every turn around the arena. People were into it. They didn’t know UW-Milwaukee from the University of Mars, but they were interested in what the Panthers could do. Of course I also saw every Gator fan, regular or otherwise inside the Arena at the two games. Some I see at basketball games in Gainesville. Others couldn’t name two players on the team outside of Joakim Noah. But that’s OK. I never mind band-wagoner’s. The more the merrier.

Florida fans’ obsession with football actually is an obsession with winning. And Billy Donovan has brought winning to the court in Gainesville. The Gators are headed to Minneapolis for the Sweet 16 and perhaps beyond. They’re good enough to keep winning, but they’re young and things can go awry with a young team quickly. Either way, it was fun when the Gators were here.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Time To Move On

It’s not unexpected, this “better than it should be” run that comes to a sudden end. But when you’re in a bit over your head, you know it from the beginning. Eventually, that pretty girl that took a liking to you is going to dump you out on the street, and without a lot of sentimentality. She was too good for you anyway, and you knew it. But there was something in the back of your mind that said you just might be up to the task. Oh, she’s high maintenance alright. The instant you have any kind of a relationship with her, everybody’s a critic. What does she see in you? It won’t last anyway! She’s just using him! And it’s all true, except you’re having your fun in the meantime and soaking it all in.

Perhaps that’s a little overly dramatic, but Florida’s run to and in the NCAA tournament had all of the trappings of a relationship you knew was going to end, you just didn’t know when.

Two months ago, Gators fans and detractors were wondering if they were going to make the NCAA tournament at all. Florida was getting beat by teams they weren’t supposed to get beat by out of conference and just making the Big Dance seemed to be on a remote horizon. They didn’t play defense or rebound very well, and even their head coach said they didn’t “play smart.” Fast forward to the end of the regular season and Florida overcomes a 17 point deficit to beat South Carolina in Columbia. They’re scoring, they’re playing defense, they’re rebounding and in turn, they’re winning. Without much offense, they beat Kentucky in their final regular season game, and then run through the SEC Tournament, beating Kentucky again, this time in the finals to win the tournament for the first time ever. They get a four seed in the NCAA Tournament and instantly become “the team nobody wants to play.”

In other words, the head cheerleader is now dating the third stringer who has suddenly become a starter! But you knew it would end, just not how it did.

The Gators were supposed to get beat by North Carolina in the Sweet 16. Instead, their season ended in the second round, again, this time losing to Villanova. Granted Villanova was also a “team nobody wants to play” but Florida seemed to forget everything that put them on that late season run, all at the same time. They didn’t rebound, they didn’t play defense, and once again, their offense disappeared. Florida’s leading scorer, Anthony Roberson had five points. One basket and two free throws. Matt Walsh had 12, but none in the first half.

Something has happened to those guys in NCAA Tournament play. It seems they haven’t scored a meaningful point in the Tournament since they came to Florida. With two fouls, Billy Donovan took Roberson out of the game midway through the first half. And the Gators went on their best run, pulling within one at 44-43. But all the effort just to get there took its toll as Florida didn’t score a basket for the next seven minutes and eventually lost, 76-65. Donovan called it “a better feeling than last year. We went down fighting.”

But it’s still a second round loss, a quicker exit than should be expected around Gainesville. David Lee is the only senior on the team, but he might not be the only player leaving. Roberson and Walsh have made some noises about turning professional, but where are they going to play? A six foot point guard has to fill it up night after night, and Roberson hasn’t done that in his career at Florida. There are a million six foot guys who can handle the ball and are streaky shooters. Walsh doesn’t have a position and would have to elevate his game to get to be Larry Bird-lite.

So would you rather them leave so you can get on with it, or stick around another year to see if they can get past “second round-itis?” Are they part of the problem or are they part of the solution?

There’s been a lot of talk about team “chemistry” this year, something that seemed to disappear during the loss to Villanova. And this is where Billy Donovan comes in. He’ll have to figure out what to do with these guys if they stay which might be a bigger task than replacing them if they leave. Freshmen Taurean Green, Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer all got quality minutes this year and showed they could play. Chris Richard was a contributor as was Adrian Moss.

It’ll play out in the next couple of weeks as Donovan gets some answers and zeros in on the recruits he needs. They need another big scorer and if they get that, Donovan will tell Walsh and Roberson to move on. And he probably should. The only constant in college basketball these days is change and for Florida it would be a change for the better.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators Get It Right …

As the ball bounced around the rim on Kentucky’s last shot, you couldn’t help but wonder how if it went in it, whether it would change either team’s season. For the Wildcats, the ball in the basket means a win, some momentum, the continuation of a streak against Florida, but perhaps more importantly, almost a lock on a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. For the Gators, it meant confidence, momentum, a lock on going to the tournament, a decent seeding and momentum in the SEC Tournament this weekend in Atlanta.

Florida’s been a strange team, but playing their best basketball right now. And they’re not a run and gun fire away team any longer. They’re looking for the high percentage shot and they’re playing great defense. After the win over Georgia, I said on the air that they scored 50 against the Bulldogs but if they “did that on Sunday “against Kentucky, they’d lose by 30.

Actually, they’d have only lost by two.

The difference is Billy Donovan knows what kind of team he has, and he’s convinced them that that’s what they are. I know that sounds confusing, but hot shot high school players pick schools where they’re going to shine. Anthony Roberson, David Lee and Matt Walsh didn’t come to Florida to run a half court offense and play great defense. But with those three, Al Horford and the combination of any of the other guards and forwards, the Gators are a tough, half court team that can play defense. That’s how they held the Wildcats to just 52 points. Donovan recognized that early in the year, perhaps as early as the Louisville game at home. He knew his team was young, but the Cardinals showed him that his current crop can’t run the floor for 40 minutes and keep up with great offensive teams. The only way they do that is if Walsh is hitting his threes and Roberson is over fifty percent from the floor. That was happening too infrequently, this team got smarter, and Donovan convinced them that’s how they were going to win.

Playing hard is something that has become a hallmark of any Donovan coached team. They’ll hustle, jump on loose balls and throw themselves all over the court. That can take a toll on the offensive end, especially if you’re constantly trying to run coast to coast and find the 3 on 2 breakaways on every possession.

So is Florida going to win the National Championship?

No.

Are they going to win the SEC Tournament?

Maybe.

Playing as the number two seed, they get the bye and will have to play three games in three days instead of four in four days as a lower seed.

Who can they beat in Atlanta?

Anybody.

Who can they lose to?

Anybody.

So the paradox continues.

They can’t be a slow starter no matter who they play in the second round on Friday. David Lee as the lose senior and Roberson and Walsh as the team leaders and juniors have been in this situation enough to know that going 1000 mph from the opening tip is the key to winning any tournament games.

They kind of remind me of that old golf saying: “I’d like to play my normal game. Just once.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Donovan’s Scowl

Anytime there’s big time basketball in Gainesville these days, its worth going. Saturday’s Florida/Louisville match up had all the story lines you could want. The enigmatic Gators, unranked against the talent-laden, highly ranked, Rick Pitino-coached Louisville Cardinals. Pitino’s coaching of Louisville is akin to Steve Spurrier returning to the college football field as the coach of Florida State. His coaching career has been somewhat nomadic; not Larry Brown-esque, but he’s made a few stops. And he’s left a trail of successful assistants behind, including Billy Donovan. Donovan is now 0-6 vs. Pitino after his Gators fell 74-70, a stat he blew off immediately.

“In four of those we had no chance,” Donovan said, referring to his contest as the head coach of Marshall and his first couple of years at Florida. “It was like going up against them with you at point guard,” he added, referring to a local writer who doesn’t resemble a basketball player.

In the game against Louisville, the Gators gave themselves a lot of chances, but never closed things out. “We couldn’t get over the hump,” is how Donovan described it. But it seemed to be most of their own doing. They’d get within two, or even one, then throw the ball away, have a bad offensive position or do something stupid, like committing an intentional personal foul. “Our basketball IQ isn’t as high as it could be,” is how Donovan explained it after some thought.

There were a lot of dynamics working at the game that made Donovan’s post-game press conference a little strained. Losing to Miami the week before didn’t sit well with the Florida Head Coach although it was a case of a couple of players getting hot and the Gators not being able to respond. But Donovan was a little testy, and a little overly critical of his team. He referred to them as “they” a little too often, and besides the IQ comment, either was calling out his team in a subtle way or trying to lower expectations in Gainesville.

“We’re a good, solid basketball team,” is how he described his combination of youth and experience. “This team doesn’t have the talent of Donnell Harvey, Mike Miller and Kwami Brown. They work hard, they’re great kids, they have enthusiasm and they want to compete, but when they get in games like this, their talent doesn’t carry them, because they’re not overly talented.”

I thought that was a bit harsh, but pretty much right on the mark. Donovan continued his lecture, either directed at the media, the fans, the administration, the players, or some combination thereof. “There’s a perception around here that we have all world talent. You want to see all world talent? Go to Michigan, Illinois, North Carolina, and Kentucky, that’s where you’ll find it. We don’t have that. We have good, solid players who want to improve and we keep working on it.”

It’s less upbeat than I’ve seen Donovan over the years he’s been at Florida. Granted, I don’t go to every game, but he’s usually more upbeat, puts a positive spin on things, even when they’re bad. He could be a victim of his own early success, getting the Gators to the Championship game in 2000, and getting out in the early rounds of the NCAA’s ever since. But it seemed a little deeper than that. Perhaps he’s a little tired of the sniping that goes along with the Gator program, whether it’s football, or basketball.

Everybody’s an expert, and everybody’s a critic. “People compare this team to the 2000 team,” Donovan said without defining, “people.” “But they’re not close.”

So are we expected to sit back and watch the team not “get over the hump” because they’re not that good, or be happy with them playing hard and smart, no matter the outcome? Actually if they play hard and smart the outcome will be more positive than negative, even against big name teams, like Louisville. Anthony Roberson, David Lee and Matt Walsh were all-preseason somethings, but they are fitting or giving the leadership players of their stature should. Lee is a good player, but could be better, if only by demanding the ball more. His three point attempt at the end of the game was criticized by Donovan and a couple of his teammates, but in that situation with time running out and an open shot, I didn’t have a problem with it, except that it was an air ball.

Roberson needs to look for his shot more and Walsh needs to be a part of the team instead of appearing to try and win every possession himself. When he’s hot, he’ll beat anybody in the country, but when he’s not, which is more common, he’s got to get into the flow of the game with the rest of his team.

Freshman Al Horford can play, and Donovan’s confidence in him showed as he left him in down the stretch in the second half. Taurean Green is also poised for a freshman, and the rest of the first-year players look like they can contribute. “Sometimes you’re caught,” Donovan explained, “Do I play them a little and let them take time to develop experience, or do I throw them in there and live with the mistakes they’ll make as inexperienced players?”

It was a rhetorical question, but can easily be answered. Play who you think can help you win Billy no matter they’re class standing.

Hopefully that’ll make Billy a little happier.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Final Four Thoughts

Having picked Uconn to win it all, I thought it was funny that I found myself rooting for Georgie Tech to at least give them a game. But the Huskies were clearly the best team, and the predictions about the Final Four were right: The real championship game involved Duke on Saturday. They didn’t make a lot of headlines during the regular season, mainly because they were injured but once they got everybody back healthy, the Huskies validated how a lot of people felt about them.

Emeka Okafor, “Mr. Perfect” as dubbed by his teammates, was a force that was almost Walton/Alcindor-like in the championship game. He moves like David Robinson, but doesn’t have the outside jumper Robinson has. But with his size and work ethic on the court, he’ll be a great addition to any NBA team. In fact, the Magic could really use him to start rebuilding.

One thing about NCAA basketball that is starting to grate on me is how much attention is lavished on the coaches. Jim Calhoun is a good coach, no doubt because he’s taken Uconn to two National Championships. Maybe it’s just Billy Packer, but stop sucking up to these guys like nobody’s business. They’re coaches. They recruit and motivate and install a system but the players play. The players win and lose games.

Maybe it is just Packer. He’s starting to drive me crazy. I didn’t have a problem with his opinion regarding St. Joes and their number one seeding. He was right. They couldn’t have played in The ACC, The Big Ten or The SEC and had the kind of run they had during the regular season. But he constantly hits you over the head with a lot of “I’m smarter than you” talk.

The only guy with more of that attitude is Jay Bilas. Wow is that guy off the charts with his idea of self-worth. Look up condecending in the dictionary and his picture is right there. As my friends would say, “Typical Duke guy.”

I like Brad Daugherty. Straightforward, doesn’t take himself too seriously and even though he had a very solid college career he doesn’t sit there just waiting to tell everybody how he would have done it or how he would have made that play. Dick Vitale is really a character. Predictable, but fun, and knows what the game is about. He’s become part of the fokelore of college basketball, but in a non-offensive way. College kids like him and long-time fans get a chuckle out of him.

I heard people already predicting next year’s top teams on the radio today. Kansas is supposed to be loaded, Duke has just about everybody but Duhon coming back, and Georgia Tech will be tough again. But who really knows? Some freshmen will back out of their commitments, others will go to the NBA and some of the established players expected to return, won’t. But boy was college basketball fun to watch this year.

Hopefully Bill Donovan will get his team in order and be competitive again and my alma mater, Maryland contends again with all of those young players. That would really be something. For me, at least!
Commentary by Sam Kouvaris.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Blame It On Drejer

Don’t the Gators wish they could blame it on Christian Drejer. They got to the NCAA tournament with a solid late run, especially in the SEC tournament, and fell flat on their face, again, in the first round. This time the opponent was Manhattan, a popular upset pick, but it didn’t look like Florida out there on the floor no matter who was sitting on the other bench.

“They just competed harder than we did,” Florida Head Coach Billy Donovan said in his post-game press conference. “I thought we were getting on a roll,” David Lee echoed, “but obviously I was wrong about that.” And Matt Walsh added, “I don’t see how guys can get to this level, to this tournament and not play all out.”

So who are they talking about? Obviously there was something missing in Florida’s effort, and both Lee and Walsh, along with Donovan were able to identify it. Who knows? Maybe you could say it was Anthony Roberson, or Bonnell Colas or Adrian Moss. But watching the game, none of those players looked like they were dogging it. But they also didn’t seem to grasp how you have to elevate your game in order to play in the tournament. Getting there is one thing, but making an impact is something else. The Gators haven’t made an impact in four years, losing in the first or the second round each time. Don’t underestimate the getting to the tournament part. It’s a big accomplishment to go back year after year. But twice, against Creighton and this year against Manhattan, they’ve been the fifth seed and have been upset by a number 12.

Getting beat by somebody who’s hot, who has a hot shooter, or hit a lucky runner at the buzzer is one thing. But getting beat to lose balls, having a short front line outrebound your frontcourt by nearly 3-1, is unacceptable. The phrase about competiting is just a euphemisim for chemistry and heart. And you can’t teach or recruit that. That has to come from within. The Gators tend to look around for somebody else to get the rebound or take the big shot when they’re faced with a challenge. That’s supposed to happen to the 12th seeded team, not the one who got to the title game of the SEC Tournament. But that’s been Florida’s M-O and unless things change drastictly in the off-season, they’ll be labeled as “soft” until they go out and change it. And as an athlete, or a coach, perhaps no label is more damming than that. “You’re soft,” is like saying, “you’re gutless.”

One thing Florida does have going for them is Billy Donovan himself. He won’t stand for it, and will find out who wants to play and who doesn’t. Maybe he’ll change his recruiting focus, looking for a couple more big bodies, but either way, you can expect Donovan to challenge himself and his players to make sure what happened in Raleigh doesn’t stick to them for long.