Billy Donovan, Still Winning

It was about two-thirty in the morning of April 3, 2007 when Billy Donovan finally emerged from the Gators’ locker room in the bowels of the Georgia Dome. Just a few hours earlier Donovan’s Gators had beaten Ohio State for their second consecutive NCAA Basketball Championship.

I had been in that locker room earlier, doing interviews and watching the team celebrate winning it all for the second year in a row. I had been in the media scrum getting post-game answers from Billy and had seen him in the big press conference set up by the NCAA.

Unapologetically, I’ve called Billy Donovan my favorite person in sports for a long time, and that night I was just looking to shake his hand and say thanks for the ride.

As he walked out he was clearly worn by the night’s activities but still beaming from his team’s success.

“Hey!” he said to me as he crossed the hall to shake my hand.

Amazingly, he was alone. No entourage, no family, no sports information staff.

“Great job,” I said as we walked down the hall.

“You know, that’s the most impressive thing I’ve seen in my career, “ I added.

Billy slowed down and turned to me to ask, “How so?” with genuine curiosity.

“It’s one thing to say you’re coming back to win it,” I explained. “It’s a whole other thing to actually do it.”

“That’s something isn’t it?” Billy said with a laugh.

Donovan was somebody I had gotten to know over the past decade. I had covered the ups and downs of the Gator Basketball program under his leadership for his first 11 years leading up to the national title runs.

At the time the TV station I was working for was the dominant station in Gainesville and Billy had appeared with me many times live on the early news. I was there when they lost to Michigan State in the finals in 2000 and had been in Indianapolis in 2006 when the Gators won their first National Title.

My photographer that night was Matt Kingston, my co-worker and close friend in the sports department. When we traveled together, Matt always figured out how to be in the right place at the right time to get the right shots and this night was no exception.

I noticed Matt backing up and the red light on his camera flashing as Billy and I walked into the lobby of the Georgia Dome. It’s an image that always made me smile when we needed to use it in a sportscast in the future.

I was waiting again a week ago Saturday as Donovan exited the floor after the halftime ceremony celebrating the naming of the court at the O’Connell Center in his honor. After a lot of selfies, handshakes and backslapping, Billy was making his way under the stands at the O’Dome. I was standing there, again with Matt, as he emerged with my hand extended.

“Hey!” he said with a familiarity that belied the five-year gap since I’d seen him last.

He bypassed my handshake and hugged me and said, “Wow it’s great to see you. Thanks for coming!”

“Wouldn’t have missed it,” I said as he and Matt embraced.

When asked over the past couple of years what my favorite thing to cover has been during my career, I’ve easily settled on the Gators back-to-back runs to the National Championship.

A college basketball team is easy to get to know. There are only fifteen players on the roster and usually only eight or maybe nine play. You get to know these guys. You develop trusting relationships. I had that with Joakim Noah, but more closely with Chris Richard. Matt and Walter Hodge were pretty tight. So we had good background on what was going on and were able to give context to the on and off-court happenings.

I told Billy that run was the favorite thing I covered in my career and recounted to him the story of walking down the hall in the Georgia Dome.

When I got to the part about “It’s one thing to say you’re coming back to win it. It’s a whole other thing …” Billy piped up loudly and we said in unison “To actually do it!” And we both had a big laugh.

“I remember that!” he said as he was squired away.

“They were an incredible group,” Donovan had said earlier that night. “Connected as a team, played for one another, highly competitive. I think that they should go down as one of the greatest teams of all time. They started off unranked and won a national championship. (Winning their first and second round games in Jacksonville.) Then won a national championship starting the season ranked No. 1 with all the expectations to do it. And they did it under both circumstances.”

Having hired Donovan early in his 25-year tenure as Athletic Director at Florida, Jeremy Foley was instrumental in floor naming project. He and current AD Scott Stricklin worked together presenting it to the University and flew to Oklahoma City to tell Billy it was going to happen last fall.

“What Billy accomplished here no one ever could have anticipated,” Jeremy said standing on “Billy Donovan Court.” “There’s probably a whole generation that thinks Florida basketball has always been on the map. He did it with an outstanding group of assistant coaches and an incredible support staff, but at the end of the day, Billy Donovan created something very special here.”

“During my time at Kentucky,” Stricklin said of his five years with the Wildcats basketball program, “I had a front-row seat for the impact Billy made, not just on the Florida program, but our league. You saw the kind of coach and person he was, and the respect he had around the country. This was just an obvious way to honor him.”

Those are big shoes current Gators Head Coach Mike White has had to fill. It could be intimidating, but While was nothing but supportive of honoring Donovan’s legacy.

“It’s a given,” White said. “To me, the way people revere him as a human being in this profession says as much about him as the games and championships he won. This is something that definitely needed to happen.”

“It’s really emotional for me, and I’m humbled and grateful for this day,” Donovan said to thunderous applause during the halftime ceremony. “When I look at my name down there, I don’t just see my name. I look at a lot of other people and their names. When you look down at the court, don’t just see my name; see your name there. You’re as much a part of it as well.”

Many of those people who were part of Billy’s 19-year run of success at Florida came back to honor him that night. From assistant coaches to former players, more than a dozen who played in the NBA, all were on hand, most to just say “thank you” for the impact Donovan had on their lives and careers.
“It’s crazy to just how great of a program he helped build and how it prospered under him,” former Gator Guard Chris Chiozza told ESPN. com. “I don’t know if there’s ever been something like this where you walk in and you see 15 NBA guys in here and we come together, we’re talking like we just played on the same team and most of us were years apart.”
Billy has continued his success in the NBA. Donovan has helped the Oklahoma City Thunder to a division title and a perennial spot in the post-season. They’re currently the 6th seed in the Western Conference but after a so-so start to the season they’ve been one of the hottest teams in the league since the first of the year. They’d won four straight and eight of their last ten going into this weekend.
“As coaches, in the end, it’s not about wins and losses,” Billy reminded everyone that night. “It’s about how our players talk about us. Those are the relationships that last and that’s what important.”
In other words, Billy’s still helping everybody win.
I do have one complaint about that night. And maybe it’s nit picking. Is the decal saying “Billy Donovan Court” too small? It’s great and looks like Billy’s signature. But maybe a little bigger?

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.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

March Madness in Town: What Fun!

“And in Jacksonville the Tar Heels are going to advance to the Sweet 16.”

Words most long-time residents and sports fans thought they’d never hear. But for the third time in 9 years the NCAA returned to the Arena for the second and third round of the basketball tournament known as “March Madness.”

“They won’t come back here until we get a bigger arena with better television access,” one observer sent out on Twitter this week. I wasn’t sure how he came to this conclusion since the NCAA has chosen Jacksonville as a regional site THREE times. Same arena, same “television access” and moreover same hospitality, same weather (great) and same conclusion: We’re a great spot for this event.

Everything about the NCAA Tournament is fun and Jacksonville is the perfect venue for five days of basketball, the beach and enjoyment. Somehow, the three times the tournament has been here the weather has been great. (Conversely when The Players started here in March it always seemed to feature some of the worst spring weather of the year).

While the city still lacks at least one more upscale hotel (a la the Hyatt downtown) we’re easy to get to for a lot of fans and something new for a lot of the visitors following their teams. Georgia State, UNC, Ole Miss and Wofford supporters had no trouble driving if they chose. Harvard (Boston, and please get me out of this snow!) Baylor (Waco, TX) and Xavier (Cincinnati) had easy flights, either non- or one-stop. Arkansas’s fans could drive or fly and escape their own pre-spring chill. Several members of the Crimson noted the Jacksonville weather in their opening press conference. They stayed at One Ocean so a peek at the beach and “being somewhere that used air conditioning” was a treat.

Whether it was a Bolles, UNF or JU, there were plenty of places for the eight squads to practice. The Tar Heels had dinner at Ruth’s Chris on the Southbank Wednesday night. No dealing with anything out of the ordinary when it came to weather or getting around. In fact, the JSO provided escorts for the team buses wherever they went.

Where we did drop the ball was allowing the Main Street Bridge to be closed on Thursday night and having no access to I-95 off the Acosta the same evening. I know the construction there on the interstate and surrounding roads has taken a long time but with this many people in the city from out of town, ease of getting around is paramount. Not just for this trip but to encourage people to come back. And the $30 charge for parking in the garages smacked of gouging a captive audience.

Much like when the Super Bowl was here and the NFL Owners stayed at the Ritz at Amelia and Amelia Island Plantation, most of the NCAA executives were at the Ponte Vedra Club or the Lodge, providing a nice home base other than their standard business hotel.

Having the food trucks by the arena was a good idea and it’s always a nice sight when people are walking along the river headed to and from the game. (Imagine if the Shipyards project ever gets built!)

I wish more fans had the opportunity to take advantage of the Wednesday shoot-around for all eight teams. It was a nice touch when Head Coach Roy Williams stopped UNC’s session early for a dunk and half court shot contest and then sent his players into the stands for pictures, to shake hands and sign autographs for those in attendance. “I thought there were a lot of kids there who would get a kick out of it,” he told me later.

Going to the NCAA Tournament is a treat and when they have it in your hometown, it’s really special.

Hopefully, they’ll be back. Soon.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Final Four Bigger in Big “D”

It’s just cliché enough to say “Things are bigger in Texas.” And it’s generally true. Bigger buildings, bigger roads (and lots of them), bigger traffic jams and certainly bigger aspirations. It’s not that bigger is better, but for their first time hosting the Final Four at ATT Stadium, the locals and the NCAA have decided to go big.

Having been here for the Super Bowl a couple of years ago I wasn’t totally shocked by the “bigness” of ATT Stadium in Arlington. It is massive. It’s a block away from where the Rangers play baseball and somehow it makes a Major League ballpark look small. It looks like it landed here to take over.

While the Final Four is huge and has gotten bigger in the past 10 years, it’s not the Super Bowl. No big international contingent, not many “Here because it’s happening” reporters. Most of the media is from the group that covers one of the four schools here (like us), from the local area (in this case Dallas (and most of Texas), student newspapers and electronic journalists from campus stations or from national publications.

When the Gators played in the 1994 Final Four at the Charlotte Coliseum, it felt like a basketball game. The arena was built for basketball and there was a quasi-intimate feel to the tournament. Bill Clinton attended as President to see Arkansas play and security was able to lock down every single person in the building while he was escorted to and from his seat. I don’t know if Barak Obama is planning on attending Saturday or Monday in Dallas but there’s no way security could ever bring things to a halt here. Way too big.

And that bigness has been an issue for teams in the past, moving from the confines of a gym atmosphere to a huge football facility where there’s no perspective or depth perception for anybody on the court. It takes some getting used to. As recently as 2009, the NCAA only allowed teams to have one shoot around the day before their game to get acclimated to the surroundings. Now, the teams arrive on Wednesday night for a full practice on Thursday, a shoot around on Friday and another Saturday before the game. Imagine shooting at a rim on a backboard in the middle of a vast field and that’s what it feels like at the Final Four. When Florida won their titles in Indianapolis and Atlanta, a huge drape was pulled across the middle of the football field; cutting the stadium in half and at least making it feel like a basketball court. No more. Imagine a 94-foot basketball court on the 50-yard line where the Jaguars play, and you get the picture. From the 35 to the 35 and only 50 feet wide (1/3 of a football field).

I’d include a picture of what it looks like at ATT Stadium but when I tried to snap a photo, I got a “NO!”

A really big “NO!” ‘Cause everything’s bigger in the Big D.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Gators in Elite Eight: Want More

As expected, it wasn’t easy.

Florida withstood a run by UCLA in the second half with poise and tough defense as they beat the Bruins 79-68 to advance to the Elite Eight for the fourth consecutive year.

“Done it before,” Will Yeguete said in the post-game locker room. “Go back to the hotel, get some treatment, get some rest, look at the scouting and go again. It’s fun.”

Taking a six-point lead to halftime, the Gators came out in the second half and extended that out to 11 as freshman Chris Walker made some unexpected contributions off the bench.

“I just try to be ready when coach calls my name,” Walker said with a big smile sitting in front of his locker. “I go in and play good defense, give some energy to my teammates, block some shots and then see what I can do on offense.”

Walker only played six minutes in the game but his 7 points were a necessary bonus with Patric Young and Casey Prather on the bench with foul trouble.

“We know when we go to the bench that the other five guys on the floor are going to play great defense,” Young explained to a media throng gathered around his locker. “I was a little frustrated so my role was more cheerleader than anything else. I did contribute a little there in the second half but this is really a team win.”

Prather agreed that the team gets the credit, not unexpectedly. “All the guys contribute. It’s been that way all year. Dodo, Kasey, Chris gave us big minutes. We’re just thankful that we get to play again on Saturday.”

UCLA’s early zone defense allowed the perimeter of the Gators offense open shots, and for the first time in this tournament, Michael Frazier II made them pay. Frazier finished with 19 points, hitting 5-three pointers to lead the Gators in scoring. Apparently he didn’t like the rims at the Amway Arena in Florida’s first two games but he found the ones at the FedEx Forum to his liking. When he scores like that, it opens up the floor for a lot of other offensive options for the Gators; and they have plenty.

“He’s (Frazier) been working really hard the last few days, working on his shot. He’s a shooter, so he’s got to get that confidence going,” Yeguette explained. “When he was open, he made it.”

For the fourth consecutive year, Florida is back in the Elite Eight, this time against Dayton (6:09 Saturday TBS from Memphis). The Flyers are in the Regional finals for the first time since 1984. The Gators on the other hand, are familiar with this position. It’s the one they’ve gone home from the last three years.

“It’s crazy that it’s here already, ” Young said about going back all four years of his tenure in Gainesville. “You never want to take it for granted but we’ve been blessed and we’re here again. Hopefully we can go farther this time.”

Against the Bruins the Gators leaned on some of the close victories they grabbed during the regular season. In fact, it felt like a late season conference game in the second half. They didn’t panic; they leaned on their seniors and advanced.

“The seniors really lead by example,” Dorian Finney-Smith said at his locker still sporting a Band-Aid over his right eye. “When they don’t panic, we don’t panic. It got to be a one point lead and we just settled down, played good defense and Scottie hit a couple of shots.

This team is accustomed to the quick turnaround and Donovan can look back over the last 8 years and see what worked and what hasn’t once the team got to this point.

Obviously, motivation won’t be a factor.

“I’ve never been to the Final Four,” Young said earnestly. “We’ve got a chance to be the best team in Florida history. We’ve got an opportunity to win a National Championship. What more motivation do you need to go out and play your best?”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Gators vs. UCLA: Toughest Test Yet

It’s like a traveling road show when teams go deep into the NCAA tournament. Like that old saying, this week it’s “If it’s Wednesday this must be Memphis.” Adapting to that kind of travel and schedule, new arena’s, new locker rooms, new environments favor a veteran team in college basketball and certainly the 2014 Gators are that. Lead by 4 seniors, they’ve played on the road, had late nights, strange schedules and bad plane rides in their careers. But it’s all gotten them to this place in the Sweet 16 against UCLA.

“You have to have a routine,” Senior center Patric Young said lounging in front of his locker on Wednesday afternoon. “Everybody has the little things that they do before a game and you have to keep doing those things. The coaches do a great job of setting things up so we don’t have to worry about a thing.”

Since the NCAA went to a standardized floor at all of the sites a few years ago, it was striking how similar the FedEx Forum looked like Amway Arena from floor level.

“The floor is always the same so it’s not much to worry about,” Senior Guard Scotty Wilbekin surmised right before the Gators shoot around. “The floor’s the same, the basket’s the same. We just need to be ready to play our best.”

It would seem the farther a team gets in the tournament, the tougher the competition might be. While that doesn’t always happen, in this case, UCLA will be the most difficult opponent the Gators have seen. Tall, strong, offensive minded, the Bruins like to score a lot of points while Florida is among the best at limiting their opponent.

Wilbekin broke it down pretty simply when asked about UCLA’s high scoring offensive game. “We’re going to play defense, be we’re also going to have to play offense They’re going to play offense, but they’re also going to have to play defense. So it’s just going to be a battle.”

Senior forward Will Yeguete said it might come down to a battle of wills. “We’re going to stick to our principles and just play the way we’ve been playing and we’re just going to have to limit them because we know they’re going to score tough shots.”

Three times in the last eight years Florida has eliminated UCLA in the NCAA tournament. In their title years the Gators beat the Bruins in the title game and in the semi-finals. Three years ago they ousted them in the second round. While some would think that means Florida has UCLA figured out, the players say none of that matters.

When asked, Wilbekin could recall an end-of-game sequence when Florida sent the Bruins packing in 2011 in Tampa. Other than that, he says it’ll have zero impact on the game Thursday night. “I don’t think it’ll affect the game at all honestly,” Wilbekin said while seated at the formal podium interview.

Pushing out all of the “distractions” as coaches call it will be a big plus for Florida. They’re still the #1 seed and top ranked in the polls. They’re the target for everybody and they’re the favorite. The veteran leadership on this team has helped them get to this point and has refocused the Gators on what’s possible.

“The coaches asked us who we wanted to be,” Young recalled from last week. “They reminded us that we have a chance to be one of the best teams in Florida history if we just focus on the things we can do. Play the kind of defense we’re capable of, do the little things. It’s right there within our grasp.”

Have they retained the mindset that propelled them to victory over Pittsburgh last Saturday in Orlando?

“I didn’t want to talk to anybody before the game Saturday,” Young explained. “I was just focused on going out there. I don’t expect to want to talk to anybody tomorrow either.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Gators Change Mindset, Beat Pitt

It really is all about defense for the Florida basketball team. And while that’s a given for most teams, the Gators have bought into it.’

“This was about to our standard,” Senior Patric Young said in the post-game locker room after Florida’s 61-45 win over the 9th seeded Pitt Panthers. “We can’t always control whether the ball goes in the basket or not on offense but on defense, we can play hard and we did that.”

Following a lackluster first round win over Albany, Head Coach Billy Donovan challenged his team on Friday during practice to come to the court Saturday with a different mindset.

“Yeah, Coach was really getting on us,” Scotty Wilbekin noted after the game. “He was challenging us and just asking us if that was the team that we wanted to be in these last couple of games that we have.” Wilbekin clearly responded to the challenge, scoring 21 points, 13 in the last six minutes of the game, leading the Gators to 10 steals and forcing 11 turnovers.

The Gators went on a 9-0 run in the second half to create a little breathing room and held Pitt without a basket for more than 5 minutes.

“I could see it in our guy’s eyes in the locker room before the game,” Sophomore Michael Frazier said about the change in focus for the top ranked Gators. “We were locked in and ready to go. Much different than Thursday.”

As big as Pitt is across the front line, Florida was able to control the paint, part of their focus going in. “We knew it was going to be a battle,” Will Yeguette said after the Florida win. “I think we did a good job boxing out and the guards got in there, got a lot of rebounds. So that helped us move those guys to get in there and rebound the ball and help us out.”

Donovan was determined to change how the Gators approached the game against Pitt after what he considered a sub par effort against Albany.

“We didn’t play to our identity there (Thursday) and I was disappointed by that because we really hadn’t done that all year long,” Billy explained. “I wanted to make sure they understood that and we got back to who we were. I don’t think any of them disagreed with anything I had to say.”

“Coach Donovan is the perfect coach in that sense,” Young explained when asked about the change in mindset. “He challenged us and he was right. Do we want to be that team we showed on Thursday? No. So we were able to get back to more of who we are today.”

Florida will play in Memphis next Thursday in the Sweet 16, most likely against UCLA. The Gators beat the Bruins enroute to both of their national titles and again in 2011 to advance to the Sweet 16. Florida will try to move into the Elite 8 for the fourth straight year. It’s where they’ve been eliminated in each of the past three seasons.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Gators “Survive and Advance”

It’s difficult to be such a favorite in college basketball. A team that shoots well, and executes their game plan, no matter what their talent level, size or speed, can make things difficult. Florida found that out in the first half against the Albany Great Danes in their first game in the NCAA tournament in Orlando.

Florida had every advantage you could ask for: size and speed and even depth, but Albany couldn’t miss for a while and kept it close. Maybe it’s the setting or the bigness of being the top seed, but the Gators looked out of sorts and a bit skittish in the first half. It wasn’t until about halfway through that they found their range, finishing the half shooting 56% and taking a 34-28 lead. Statistically, the Gators dominated across the board, but couldn’t shake the Danes. In some cases it was trying to do too much, and in others it was a bit of disbelief I’m sure that Albany was being so efficient. Anytime you’re the top seed, any lower seeded team slows it down, limits the number of possessions and if they hit their shots as the clock winds down, they can keep it close. That was clearly Albany’s strategy, and they kept it close.

In the second half it was more of the same but Florida was just too deep, too talented and in the end too determined.

It wasn’t pretty, but in this tournament it’s about “survive and advance.” Florida used 10 points from Casey Hill and a double-double from Patric Young to beat Albany in the first round 67-55.

“We survived but we won’t advance past Saturday if we play like that again,” Scottie Wilbekin said in the post-game locker room.

“Too often we were playing not to lose,” Michael Frazier II chimed in. “We have to go get it. We have to have that mindset.”

I asked Will Yeguette if Florida was aware that they’re the target as the top seed in the tournament. “We’ll get everybody’s best shot,” the Gators senior said. “But we know that. We just weren’t in sync. Give them credit but generally we were all on the same page. We’ll look at film and figure it out.”

It’ll be Billy Donovan’s job to determine how to get his team back into the mindset they carried through the end of the regular season and through the SEC tournament. He wasn’t happy with the defense in the first half, but felt like it was better in the second. And Albany had a lot to do with that.

“The way they play, you know it’s not going to be a high scoring game,” Donovan explained. “I thought we did a pretty good job of forcing the tempo.”

Once again, Young was the one able to put it in perspective. “Looking at this game, we feel moving forward that this isn’t going to be enough to keep our season going. And we know there’s more inside of us and more we can give. We didn’t have our style of of play for 40 minutes. We didn’t sustain that and we’re going to have to do that if we want to make the Sweet 16 because Pitt played exceptionally well today. Hopefully Saturday we’ll have a better mindset and focus.”

In the locker room, it felt like a loss. Which is probably a good thing. Florida hasn’t been beaten in over three months and their biggest hurdle coming into the tournament was finding new motivation to get back to their best basketball.

Every coach will tell you it’s easier to teach after a win. The Gators have the luxury of putting this in the win column (their 33rd of the year) with the players feeling like they got beat. They’re disappointed, understandably.

No better scenario for Donovan and his staff to hammer the message home again: Play well, or anybody can beat you.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Gators Ranking Doesn’t Matter

It would be pretty easy for the 2013-14 Gator basketball team to strut into Orlando with an attitude. They’ve won 32 games; they’re the only team to ever go 18-0 during the regular season in the SEC. They won the SEC tournament by beating Kentucky for the THIRD time this year and they finished the season ranked #1. Put their number one seeding in the tournament on top of that, and their resume for this season is already pretty impressive.

But they’re not like that.

At all.

“For us being number one is a great honor and a great compliment, but I really don’t know what it means,” Head Coach Billy Donovan said during his press conference on Wednesday. “We’re in a bracket, we’ve got to play tomorrow and that’s the only thing that really matters. When you’re in a one-and-done tournament if you have a game where you don’t play well, chances are you’re not going to advance.”

Sometimes you can get a bunch of different answers from players, but this Gators team stays on message. And that message comes from Donovan.

“Coach D does a good job reminding us that no matter what the rankings are every year, there’s upsets,” the SEC Player of the Year Scotty Wilbekin said prior to the Florida shoot-around at the Orlando Arena. “It really doesn’t matter once the ball goes up. Anything can happen, anybody can beat anybody.”

Patric Young has been on Florida teams that have had some success and plenty of failure. He was able to put Florida’s past record and their current ranking into perspective. “Our first three years here, we were never the number one team in the country, and when we finally achieved that this year, we were just like, okay, I mean, everything is the same, nothing has really changed.”

It’s probably good that the Gators ascended to the top spot in the rankings as early as they did, because they got used to the questions and the attention that goes with that lofty ranking. Donovan reminded everybody, including his players that all that goes with that kind of recognition is that everybody gives you their best shot.

Playing so close to home, Florida will have plenty of fans in orange and blue come game time and it’s pretty much as close to a home game that they could have gotten in this NCAA Tournament. While the players admit that’s a good thing, they’re trying to stick to their routine. One scribe inquired as to why the Gator hadn’t allowed the team Moms to come in and cook for the players.

Actual home cooking.

“We’re going to focus on what we’ve always done,” Donovan said. “We’re not going to change routine. Everything we’re focusing on is what we have the responsibility to do and that’s to prepare, to practice and get ready to play. All the other stuff, we’re going to focus on anything that helps us play our best tomorrow.”

That’s the sound of an experienced, successful coach. While the Gators have been on this route before, this team, this year, this coaching staff is uniquely different. No matter what experience you’ve had at the tournament, each year has it’s own pitfalls. Donovan’s job is to anticipate those things and navigate around them.

We’ll see how they respond when the ball goes in the air against Albany.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Gators in Orlando For NCAA’s

No 16 seed has ever beaten a #1 seed in the history of the NCAA tournament.

I thought I’d get that out there right away so if there is some kind of jinx, it’ll fade by game time on Thursday.

But the Gators won’t need it.

As the top ranked team in the country for the first time at the end of the regular season, Florida will beat Albany in their opener in Orlando of the NCAA tournament.

Unlike with the back-to-back national championship teams, this Gators squad doesn’t engender a lot of confidence when it comes to the fans expectations. Maybe it’s just the Gator fan mentality, maybe because they don’t have a part of their game that looks dominating, or maybe it’s because they’ve been scared to death at the close calls in the last three weeks. But the fact remains that Florida is still unbeaten since December 3rd when UConn threw up a prayer at the buzzer to beat them. Since then there are a half dozen games that this group of players would have let get away coming down the stretch.

“Absolutely,” Patric Young agreed after beating Kentucky in their final regular season game at home. “But this team believes in each other. We pump each other up. When other teams go on a run, we respond.”

And that’s the biggest difference. This team does respond. Instead of running from the ball with the game on the line, Scottie Wilbekin is looking for his shot. Michael Frazier II accepts, as Billy Donovan calls it, the “responsibility” to take that shot. Young is not afraid with the ball in his hands and can make things happen.

The ability to reach what you might think is the highest of highs, regroup and do it again, and regroup and do it a third time is the key to the Gators continued success.

“It’ll be talked about,” Donovan said when asked if it was the coach’s responsibility to manage the emotional ups of his team. “We all have a stake in that, and I like our guys attitude towards that. They’re concentrating on what they can do instead of all of the potential things going on around them.”

That’s what happens when you have a senior laden team. With Young and Wilbekin in the starting lineup with Will Yeguete and Casey Prather, the Gators put four guys on the floor who have been around college basketball for a while. All are stories that have a bit of redemption in them.

Young was so raw as a freshman it was hard to project him as any kind of offensive threat.

Wilbekin has been suspended from the team multiple times for breaking team rules and was told by Donovan after his injury early this year that if he didn’t change his game, he was going to the bench. Of course, he became the SEC Player of the Year.

Yeguete has battled knee problems and Prather was so far in the dog house in his first two years in Gainesville that most of the talk was about where he’d transfer to.

All have played pivotal roles in the Gators success this year.

But the thing I was most impressed with seeing those guys in person before, during and after games is how they actually stick together. When they’re going to do something, be interviewed, kiss the floor, cut the nets, they do it together.

It’s hard not to think of anything less than a National Championship as a failure. But that would be a shame if they don’t win it if that’s all they’re remembered for. This has been a fun team to watch and a fun team to be around. Donovan calls it the most satisfying, fun regular season he’s ever coached.

Let’s hope it continues.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Gators Still “Chasing Greatness”

“This is just goal number one,” Patric Young said with a big smile on his face after the Gators finished an undefeated regular season in conference play. Florida jumped out to a 21-point lead at halftime over Kentucky, weathered a 15-0 run by the Wildcats in the second half and finished with an 84-65 win on Senior Day at the O’Connell Center.

“I love Senior Day and I hate it,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said after calling this the best regular season he’s ever been a part of.

“That’s the best sendoff I’ve seen in my 18 years here for our 4 seniors. And with all of that emotion, I didn’t know how they’d come out and play.”

Donovan needn’t worried.

Jacksonville’s Pat Young got things started, scoring on a variety of jump hooks, dunks and short jumpers as Florida took control early. “It fired me up,” Young said of the Senior Day festivities before the game. “I just wanted the ball to get in the air to get started. I was ready to go.”

In a reference to the “one and done” history recently for the Wildcats under John Calapari, one fan held up a sign before the game, “Hey Kentucky, this is what Senior Day looks like.” Florida leaned on their seniors with Young getting 14 points in the first half enroute to their big lead.

“Coach told us it was going to be a dogfight at halftime,” senior guard Scotty Wilbekin said afterwards. “We believed him. Kentucky’s a good team, they can score. We just had to weather that storm.”

Wilbekin put an end to that 15-0 Kentucky run in the second half with a big 3-point shot. “I was looking for that” he noted as the lead was cut to just six. His shot pushed it back to nine with 12 minutes left in the second half. Young hit a hook from the lane and Casey Prather made a layup and a free throw on a great drive to the basket to push Florida’s lead back to 17 and they never looked back.

The Gators earned a first round bye in the SEC tournament by winning the regular season title. They’ll next play in Atlanta in a second round game next weekend.

“We’ll enjoy this for now, take tomorrow off and work on getting our minds and bodies right for the next thing we have to do,” Donovan said with a smile in his press conference.

The SEC played an 18-game conference schedule from 1967 through 1991 but no team went undefeated in conference play in that stretch. Kentucky (twice) and LSU went 17-1 over that period of time. Now that the league has expanded, the Gators become the first team to go undefeated through conference play. “We’re not perfect,” Donovan noted, admitting that the record says otherwise. “We’ve played some bad games and have managed to win. We can still better. Our goal is to “chase greatness” by being as good as we can be. The rest will take care of itself.”

When they’re that good, they’re unbeatable.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

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.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

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.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

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. […]

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

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.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

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 -

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 -

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 -

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 -

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 -

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 -

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 -

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?


Are they going to win the SEC Tournament?


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?


Who can they lose to?


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 -

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 -

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 -

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.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Harrick’s Demise

After a spate of college basketball transgressions have come to light in the last couple of weeks, the big hammer dropped on Monday when Georgia suspended their Head Coach Jim Harrick and withdrew the team from the SEC and the NCAA tournaments. Harrick has been suspended pending further investigation into academic fraud at the University, allegedly committed by his son and former assistant, Jim Harrick, Jr..

Harrick, Jr. was fired last week after allegations of grade fixing and extra benefits came to light during an interview given by former player Tony Cole. An investigation into those allegations showed some to be true, and in a pre-emptive strike, the University decided to fire Harrick, Jr. hoping the NCAA and the SEC would take notice of their quick action and give them some lenient treatment when it came to sanctions.

Apparently on Monday morning, the University President Michael Adams was made aware of more academic fraud, declaring two current players, Chris Daniels and Rashard Wright academically ineligible. Problems have followed Harrick during his career off the court. He was fired at UCLA for allegedly falsifying an expense report. At the University of Rhode Island, a sexual harassment suit was settled out of court, brought by a woman naming Harrick as the perpetrator. Now at Georgia, on his watch, the basketball program has been thrown into disarray after what looked like a promising season.

The Bulldogs were ranked 21st and had a third seed in the SEC tournament. Their withdraw gives Tennessee a bye into the second round and a second round game with Auburn. Vince Dooley knew of Harrick’s past problems when he hired him in Athens. At one point, Harrick couldn’t decide whether he was coming to Georgia or not. He wasn’t fired today because the Bulldog administration wants to have all of their I’s dotted and t’s crossed before they make a move that could be challenged in court.

Giving players extra benefits is something that’s almost a time honored tradition in college sports, especially basketball. But academic fraud is a whole other story. When Adams was given evidence about grades being handed out without a class actually existing, he didn’t have a choice but to make a bold move. They’re trying to salvage the future by giving up the present, withdrawing from the conference and NCAA tournaments. They’re falling on their sword early, hoping mercy will follow their actions. Firing Harrick, Jr. was the right thing to do. Firing his dad is the next step in the right direction.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Terps Fever

It’s the first time, ever that the University of Maryland has their basketball team in the Final Four. Not “since whenever” or “post-whatever” but ever, as in forever.

The Maryland basketball team is big news in Baltimore and Washington. The head coach is a star and the players celebrities. The football team is a sidelight (regrettably). The basketball team gets the headlines.

I wouldn’t call Maryland graduates “long suffering” because we’ve had plenty of highlights over the years. We just never have gotten to the Final Four. (By the way, I’m waiving the “we” rule as a journalist for this column only, unless of course, “we” win the National Championship. I suppose the only time you can refer to a team as “we” when you’re writing about it, is if you are a graduate of that school and you don’t live in the region, and your team is in the Final Four or playing for the football National Championship, or both. Gator alums can use “we” but only if they move out of the South.)

It’s an approach-avoidance thing to be a Maryland basketball fan. Anytime we ever got too pumped up, we were heartbroken. So, outside of Cole Field House, we kept our loyalty at arms length. We’d moan to each other about how terrible we could be, how stupid the coach was, including Lefty, (ever see Carolina use the four corners and drop into a zone so effectively against anybody else?) and when would we ever win a big game and go to the Final Four?

To outsiders, we were an enigma. Fans of a team that never got to the mountaintop. Heck, we were always stuck at base camp.

“Hey, the Terps are on Channel 20 tonight against N.C. State, want to watch?”

“No, I’ve seen that game. We lead by 15, Norm Sloan drops back into a zone and we lose. Happens every time.”

No zone busting shooter ever wore the red and black (and gold and white, all colors of the Maryland state flag.)

It was a ritual at the fraternity house (Pi Kappa Alpha) when I was a student at the University of Maryland. The basketball team was good, perhaps one of the top five teams in the country, and everybody wanted a ticket to Cole. The brothers would gather in the chapter room and hand in their student ID to the Sergeant-at-Arms. The “basketball committee” would then plan the strategy for getting tickets to the Terps game the next night. About five of the brothers would take turns going through the line and getting the free tickets handed out to the students. When the allotment was secured, they’d come back to the house, usually very late and very loud and decide who got to go to the game and if they were allowed to take a date.

It was serious business.

These were Lefty’s Terps, the “UCLA of the East.” The ACC had Dean Smith and Sloan as coaches and star players, many of them playing for Maryland.

Tom McMillan, Len Elmore, Brad Davis, and John Lucas were all on the same Maryland team. A team that didn’t even get a chance to go to the NCAA tournament. Only sixteen teams were in the tournament then, and only the conference tournament champions were eligible. Tickets to the ACC tournament were impossible to get because that’s where the basketball was best. Maryland lost to the Wolfpack in triple overtime, in what some call the best college basketball game ever. N.C. State went to the NCAA tournament, the Terps came home. We even turned down an NIT bid one year.

Now it’s a trip to the Final Four, and of course, Maryland’s first round opponent is the hated Duke. Three times this season the Terps had Duke on the ropes, but only once, on the road in Durham, did Maryland prevail.

I’ll probably scream at the television a few times Saturday night, threaten to revoke all of their scholarships and hopefully be happy at the end.

Getting to the Final Four is nice, but it’s not enough.

You see, just like any fan, I want to win it all.

For the first time, ever.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

The Tournament

Sixty-five teams and only one champion.
Sixty-four teams end their season losing; yet all think of it as a success.
We made the tournament!
We’re part of the dance!

The NCAA tournament rewards teams who have had successful regular seasons and have won their conference tournaments. They’re in the money. Upwards of $250,000 for each round, with the schools, and in most cases, the coaches sharing in the wealth. The more you win, the more money you make. Most coaches have tournament incentives built into their contracts. Bonuses for getting their team to the tournament, and more money for advancing through each round.

You ever wonder why coaches jump up and down and complain about seeding? The wrong seed in a bracket can make a million dollar difference to the school and in turn, take money out of the coaches’ pocket.

The players of course, get nothing.

Isn’t there something wrong with that? The players are doing the work, getting the glory, and many times the blame, but none of the money. A college education for free is the payoff for many, and for only a few, a shot at professional basketball. Pay the players something; give them some incentive as well.

Why only sixty-five teams anyway? Why not let everybody in? It would only mean two more rounds. Two hundred fifty six teams in the tournament, everybody with a chance to win the title. Then there’s no politicking, no Dick Vitale saying who should and shouldn’t get in, no committees to select and decide between the haves and the have-nots.

Expand the tournament all the way out. Let every team in. But of course, that would mean sharing the money, splitting it up even further. It might even put less emphasis on the regular season, and render the conference tournaments meaningless. But, there’s still money in all of that, and the tournaments could help determine the seeding in what would really be a “Big Dance.” That’s what college basketball is about anyway. Getting the team ready for the stretch drive, the playoffs, the conference tournaments and March Madness.

Is there a reason the “power leagues” get a majority of the berths and the others stand on the outside looking in? Of course, the best basketball is played in the big conferences. Going 80 in ACC play is just fine. Around .500 in the SEC? No problem. But who’s to say the sixth place team in the Big Ten is better than the second place team in the TAAC?

There will be upsets in the tournament but certain factors are true. No sixteenth seed has ever won a tournament game. Two came close last year, but lost by one point. A team seeded fourth or higher has the best chance, statistically, of getting to the Final Four.

The tournament is great fun. Every game is televised so it will all unfold right in front of us. It seems every office will have a bracket pool, legal or not. Even if you’re not a basketball fan. Don’t miss it.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Final Four Fantastic

Nothing is quite like the Final Four, and Indianapolis is almost the perfect setting for it. They love their basketball in Indiana. I mean really love it. Did you know that 16 of the 17 largest high school basketball gyms in the country are in the state of Indiana? You can feel how they love basketball there. Much like football is revered here, basketball is worshiped there. There might be an empty field somewhere in the state without a hoop hanging on one end, but I didn’t see it. I used to think it was kind of hokey how they felt about hoops. Not anymore. They’re into it, they study it. It’s not casual, it’s serious. They know the schoolboys, they know the moves, they know basketball.

Moving around Indianapolis, you can sense how the Final Four feels at home there. The police, the security guards, the waiters and waitresses, and everybody else it seems are perfectly comfortable talking hoops. The setup in Indy is equally comfortable. Big hotels downtown, all within walking distance to the RCA Dome provide a backdrop for fun. The shopping and the different restaurants and bars provide the outlet for the fans to spend their dollars. Indianapolis civic leaders really did quite a job re-creating the downtown area. The Circle Center mall pulls the whole downtown together, and is the focal point needed. Other cities (Jacksonville) could take a cue from Indy. Even though the game was in a dome, something nobody seems to like, the RCA Dome was set up very well for the games. It didn’t seem cavernous like the Super Dome. Hopefully Minneapolis will have the same feel next year.

The crowd at the Final 4 is different than other major events. It’s taller. No kidding. It seems everybody at the game has played the game at one time or another. There are actual fans at the game as well. It’s not all corporate America. The schools are represented, and there’s a real feel of excitement. Michigan State fans were the biggest group there. Faces painted green, wearing Spartan heads everywhere. What is their deal with Florida anyway? The Citrus Bowl? Steve Spurrier was looking for guys to play in the game, and the Spartans acted like it was the last game ever played when they won. Same thing in the National Championship game. Their fans took some perverse pleasure in running down the Gators, the state, and everything about the south in general. Maybe there’s not enough to do in Lansing. Or maybe it’s just jealousy.

Michigan State played the better game, was the better team and deserved to win the National Title. They had three seniors who played critical roles. Who has three seniors even on the team anymore? They hit the outside shot, pushed the ball up the floor against the press and had more composure in the clutch. They seemed on a mission all year, and fulfilled that with the ring. Morris Peterson was the best player on the floor. Florida’s young players seemed overmatched, including Mike Miller. Billy Donovan couldn’t hit the shots for them. He had them in the right situations and they couldn’t come through. Whether they return to the game next year is immaterial. What counts is he’s building the program with some excitement. Wow, Gator fans are actually looking forward to next year! In basketball no less!