For the Gators to make it to the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament, they will have to play 40 minutes the way they played the last 18 of Thursday’s first round win over East Tennessee State.
Yes, the Bucs are from the Southern Conference, which has the 15th best conference RPI according to Realtimerpi.com, but they can play and they were a good first round test for a Florida team that floundered somewhat in the last couple of weeks of the season when the Gators lost three of their final four games. ETSU was more than capable of springing an upset and the Gators avoided that trap, the importance of which cannot be understated.
After 22 minutes of playing like a team that was ready to fall into the upset trap, the Gators came to life a couple of minutes into the second half and began playing like the team that ran off nine straight wins following two-game losing streak in January.
Although Florida scored 80 points, it was the defense that stood out the most starting with Kevarrius Hayes, who scored 7 points, grabbed 7 rebounds, blocked 2 shots, altered at least 5 others and came away with 6 steals, a UF record in an NCAA Tournament game. It’s not like Hayes was going against chopped liver, either. Hanner Mosquera-Perea, a transfer from Indiana, and Tevin Glass, a transfer from Wichita State, could play effectively in the SEC but Hayes neutralized them as the Gators outscored ETSU, 36-28 in the paint.
On the perimeter, the Gators allowed the Buccaneers to hit 4 of their first 8 3-point attempts and 3 late bombs after the game was already in the bag. In between, East Tennessee was 2-13 from the 3-point line and it was during that time that Florida took over the game and ran away with it.
Defense led to offense. Florida consistently beat the Bucs to 50-50 balls. There were long arms in the passing lanes and any time the Bucs tried to get the ball inside, quick hands were swatting the ball away, leading to steals that were converted into fast breaks. The official numbers showed UF with a 20-5 advantage off turnovers and an 18-2 advantage on fast breaks.
The Gators got to the foul line 27 times (made 21) while East Tennessee got there only 10. That discrepancy had plenty to do with the fact the Gators kept driving the ball to the basket. East Tennessee coach Steve Forbes warned on Wednesday that his team was prone to fouling and Florida took advantage on Thursday.
“We didn’t do a great job of that,” Forbes said. “That’s always an issue.”
THE GAK ATTACK
Freshman center Gorjok Gak played the most productive 7 minutes of his still young Florida basketball career. Gak scored 4 points on a pair of dunks (one in each half), got to the foul line (missed them both but getting there was the important thing), grabbed a rebound and made a key defensive play by getting a long arm in the passing lane to create a steal. That may not sound like much, but the points and the minutes allowed Hayes to rest on the bench so he could be fresh at the end.
If Gak can give the Gators 5-7 productive minutes against Virginia Saturday that will greatly enhance Florida’s chances of advancing to the second weekend.
TO BEAT VIRGINIA
Virginia struggled with the quickness of UNC-Wilmington. The Seahawks had a 14-point first half lead and were on the verge of blowing the doors off the ACC Cavaliers when they departed from their game plan. The combination of ill-advised shots and some botched defensive assignments left 3-point shooters wide open allowed Virginia to get back in the game, but it was close to the bitter end.
Virginia didn’t turn the ball over much against the UNC-W full court pressure, but it was obviously troubling because the UVa guards couldn’t match the Seahawks quickness. That forced Virginia coach Tony Bennett to take out his big guys and play long stretches with a 5-guard lineup. If Virginia has to go five guards against the Gators, Florida will punch its ticket to the Sweet 16.
To beat Virginia, the Gators have to play with a measure of discipline offensively. Virginia slows the game down and turns it into a grind with very physical man-to-man defense. Undisciplined teams tend to do one of two things – either shoot way too early in the shot clock or wait until the shot clock is down to 5 or fewer seconds, then rush up a shot they shouldn’t take and probably can’t make.
For Florida to win, the Gators cannot turn this into a 3-point shooting contest. UF has a distinct quickness advantage and should be able to drive the basketball and get to the foul line. The more jump shots UF takes, the fewer free throw chances and the more Tony Bennett can stick with his starting lineup. He’s got a limited bench. Also, Kevarrius Hayes is better than UVa big man Jack Salt. He’s a better leaper and certainly quicker. Hayes can’t get in a hurry but if he’s patient and uses his better footwork, there are points he can score in the paint. If Hayes is good for double figures scoring, Florida should win this game. If Hayes stays out of foul trouble, he will be the defensive intimidator in the paint and force UVa to shoot jumpers.
Florida can neutralize Perrantes with quickness. Perrantes is very smart and plays at a very high level, but when UNC-Wilmington got in his face he was most uncomfortable. None of the UNC-Wilmington guards can stay with Kasey Hill or Chris Chiozza.
The final key will be limiting the clean looks Marial Shayok gets from the 3-point line. He’s a big guard who’s pretty strong and will have a height advantage on KeVaughn Allen but he’s not particularly great moving without the ball. Allen should be able to overplay him and take the 3-point line away.
VANDY BLUNDERS ITS WAY OUT OF THE TOURNAMENT
Vanderbilt got into the tournament pretty much on the strength of beating the Gators three times. For whatever reason, the Commodores had Florida’s number this year and that got them into the tournament even though they had 15 losses on their resume. The Commodores were knocked out in the first round by Northwestern, 68-66, because Matthew Fisher-Davis couldn’t read the scoreboard. With 15 seconds left and Vandy up 66-65, Fisher-Davis deliberately fouled Northwestern’s Bryant McIntosh. Why did he do that?
“I actually thought we were down one,” Fisher-Davis explained. Aren’t Vandy fans always complaining that it’s unfair that they have to recruit kids with such high IQs and the rest of the SEC can get kids in who aren’t nearly as smart?
It was tied. McIntosh hit both free throws to take the lead and give Northwestern its first NCAA victory ever in its first tournament appearance in school history.
BEWARE OF MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE
Last year when it was a 15-seed, Middle Tennessee State knocked off #2 Michigan State in the first round, a monumental upset that sent shockwaves through the tournament field. Michigan State was the darkhorse choice of a lot of experts who thought the Spartans might win it all. This year as a #12, the Blue Raiders are at it again. Thursday they took out 5-seed Minnesota, 81-72, to advance to the second round where they will face 4-seed Butler, another team they’re capable of beating. Although Minnesota was a dubious #5 and Butler isn’t the strongest of the 4-seeds, for Middle Tennessee this is a serious accomplishment if the Blue Raiders can advance to the Sweet 16.
IMPRESSED WITH/NOT IMPRESSED WITH
Butler: The 4-seed Bulldogs came into the tournament after two straight losses. They shot well, played great defense and dominated the boards against a very good Winthrop team.
Saint Mary’s: Nobody in his right mind wants to play these guys. If they can hit some 3-pointers their game with Arizona will be very interesting.
Xavier: The Musketeers bludgeoned Maryland. They’ll give Florida State fits and if they can hit some outside shots, they can beat the Seminoles Saturday.
Iowa State: Monte Morris might be the best player you’ve never heard of. When he fills the stat sheet Iowa State is very tough to beat.
Arizona: As Lauri Markkanen has expanded his game to include rebounding and defense, the Wildcats have become one of those teams you really don’t want to play.
Northwestern: Okay, so the win over Vandy was a gift, the fact that Northwestern is 1-0 now in its NCAA Tournament history is something to be impressed with. You only get one chance to win your first game ever and the Wildcats did it.
Wisconsin: The Badgers aren’t sexy but they sure are good. A couple of holdovers from their NCAA runner-up of two years ago make them a threat against anyone they play.
Middle Tennessee State: Remember the names Giddy Potts and Regan Upshaw. They are better than anyone on Butler’s team and a good reason why the Blue Raiders might make it to the second weekend.
Villanova: Nova was ahead of Mount St. Mary’s by a single point at the half. They won by 20 but Jay Wright can’t be pleased with 20 minutes of bad basketball.
Gonzaga: The Zags played bored. If they play anything close to that against Northwestern Saturday they will go home early.
Florida State: The Seminoles are going to have all sorts of trouble with Xavier on Saturday. Dunk City gave them more than they wanted and that’s not a good sign.
West Virginia: The Mounties beat Bucknell by only 6. It’s important to win and move on but that’s the only thing that will make Bob Huggins happy.
Notre Dame: Princeton was down by 1 yet tried a 3-pointer at the buzzer? There was time to drive the basketball and get a decent shot. The Irish should have lost.
Purdue: The only thing interesting about Purdue is Caleb Swanigan. Take him away and the Boilers are barely a .500 team.
Virginia: The Cavaliers had real problems with UNC-Wilmington’s quickness and had to play more than half the game with no one taller than 6-5 in the lineup.
INDIANA FIRES TOM CREAN
Tom Crean won two Big Ten championships in the last five years but at Indiana basketball is about what have you done lately. Crean didn’t do enough lately and when Indiana was knocked out of the NIT in the first round, that was the end of a 9-year gig. Crean is actually a pretty good basketball coach who, in retrospect, probably should have stayed at Marquette or else taken a job at a place where basketball isn’t such a pressure cooker.
Indiana, like Illinois, can forget Cuonzo Martin, who was being mentioned as an ideal fit at both places since he played in the Big Ten at Purdue and is a branch of the Gene Keady coaching tree. Martin took the Missouri job.
Indiana intends to aim high. Some of their fans think they can back up a Brinks truck to Billy Donovan’s house in Oklahoma City and lure him back to the college game. I think Billy will return to college basketball, but not at Indiana. Another name you’re likely to hear is Fred Hoiberg, who is probably wondering what the hell was I thinking when he took the Chicago Bulls NBA job. Gregg Marshall of Wichita State will also be mentioned but is Indiana willing to pay the $4 million plus it will take to lure him away from a place where almost can’t get fired? The realistic candidates are probably Archie Miller of Dayton, Chris Mack of Xavier and Chris Holtman of Butler.
As for Illinois, the money is there to hire someone like Marshall, but why would Marshall go to a school that ran off Bruce Weber? Scott Drew at Baylor? Maybe that’s a better choice but he could also end up on Indiana’s short list. Word is that he’s ready to depart Baylor. He’s a Midwest guy who played for dad Homer Drew at Valparaiso.
Meanwhile at LSU, there is talk that Tom Crean might be a guy worth looking at. That tells me Eric Musselman might be looking at staying on the West Coast and taking the Washington job or possibly Cal, although I can’t imagine why anyone with a functioning brain would take that one.
If I were a betting man, I would put money on UF athletic director Scott Stricklin hiring Mississippi State associate head coach Johnnie Harris as the women’s basketball coach. She’s a lights out recruiter and has a good chance to repair some fractured relationships with high school coaches in the state of Florida.
Sports Illustrated is speculating that Wichita State may leave the Missouri Valley Conference to join the American Athletic Conference. The AAC has 11 basketball members (Navy is in the league for football only) so this would be a nice fit. Wichita State dominates the Missouri Valley. Could the Shockers dominate a better league too?
East Tennessee coach Steve Forbes says mid-majors who intend to compete with the big boys have to aggressively look to graduate transfers to give them a boost. “Getting that experienced guy who can step right in and play can be a game changer,” Forbes told me. “We have to develop our own players but getting an experienced player who fits a need can really offset a graduation loss.”
QUESTION OF THE DAY
What team impressed you the most on day one of the NCAA Tournament? What team impressed you the least?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
Nobody defines the funky music of New Orleans better than Malcolm John Rebennak, the 76-year-old pianist that is known as Dr. John. Dr. John was already a New Orleans legend when he released his “In the Right Place” album in 1973. I couldn’t wait to buy the album back in 1973 and I’ve been listening to it ever since.