When the brackets were released back Sunday a week ago, the Florida Gators were seen as a team that probably would win one game but might struggle to get out of the first weekend. Well think again.
Not only have the 4th-seeded Gators beaten East Tennessee State and Virginia in blowout fashion to advance to the Sweet 16, but #1 Villanova and #2 Duke have been eliminated. Suddenly the East Regional bracket is wide open and Florida’s chances to make it to Phoenix for the Final Four look pretty darn good. The Sweet 16 games at Madison Square Garden pit an exciting but erratic 3-seed Baylor against a surprising South Carolina team that send shockwaves through the college basketball world by whacking Duke Sunday night. Florida’s opponent will be Wisconsin, which eliminated Villanova, the overall #1 seed for the entire tournament.
A Wisconsin-Florida matchup is far more favorable for the Gators than Villanova. The Gators have a serious quickness advantage that should offset Wisconsin’s size advantage. Baylor can probably match the Gators in quickness, but for the Bears to get to the Elite Eight game, they’ll have to beat South Carolina, which has suddenly figured out how to score the basketball (93 and 88 points in their last two games after averaging a little more than 70 a game in their first 32).
The Gators are 1-1 vs. South Carolina this year. If UF had simply hit one 3-pointer (they were 0-17) and three more free throws (they were 15-28), the Gators would have swept the series.
Florida still has to go to New York and win two games, but the idea of beating Wisconsin and either Baylor or South Carolina seems far more likely than beating Villanova and Duke back-to-back.
COMPELLING CASE FOR CHIOZZA AS MOST INDISPENSIBLE
As the Gators begin their preparations for their Sweet 16 matchup with Wisconsin in New York on Friday, a compelling case can be made that Chris Chiozza has become Florida’s most indispensible player. In Florida’s wins over East Tennessee State and Virginia in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, Chiozza scored 21 points, pulled down 9 rebounds and handed out 8 assists while turning the ball over just 3 times. He was 7-13 from the field overall, 3-4 from the 3-point line and 4-5 on foul shots all while teaming up with Kasey Hill to lock down T.J. Cromer of East Tennessee State and London Perrantes of Virginia.
Chiozza’s statement play of the weekend came against East Tennessee State with 8:54 remaining. A long rebound off a 3-pointer was tipped forward by Devin Robinson. Two ETSU players converged but almost out of nowhere came Chiozza, who split the two ETSU guards and streaked to the other end for an easy layup.
Chiozza was making plays like that all weekend, but that’s something he’s been doing since the LSU game back on January 25. That game in Baton Rouge was the first after the Gators had lost two straight games and it was a turning point for Chiozza and the entire team.
As Florida coach Mike White recalls, Chiozza came to his office to have a serious conversation.
White recalled that Chiozza told him, “Hey Coach, I haven’t been myself. I haven’t been playing well. I don’t know what’s wrong. I’m focused on the wrong things.”
Chiozza followed that up by telling White, “Coach, I’m going to do whatever I have to do just to help this team win.”
White said, “And naturally he starts playing his butt off and since then he’s been the best version of Chris Chiozza.”
Since that conversation with White, Chiozza has averaged 9.7 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. His assist to turnover ration is 67-25. He’s hit 32-41 from the foul line and 47.6% from the field overall. When Chiozza comes into the game it’s an instant burst of energy that seems to pick up the entire team.
He gives White the luxury of two very fast and very experienced point guards. Hill is the starter while Chiozza comes off the bench but they play a lot of minutes on the floor together and that creates serious problems for opponents.
Virginia, for example, was totally overwhelmed by the speed of Hill and Chiozza. The Cavaliers couldn’t get into their offensive patterns because Hill and Chiozza kept making their point guards kill their dribble 4-5 feet past the 3-point line. While Hill was good on the defensive end, it wasn’t his best offensive performance so Chiozza essentially took over the team in the second half and kept Florida’s offense going at a faster pace than Virginia could keep up with.
If the Gators are to advance beyond Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 round Chiozza has to come up big on both ends of the floor. What the last 15 games have told us is he’s ready for the task.
ROBINSON HAS PLAYED HIS WAY INTO THE FIRST ROUND
If the NBA Draft were about stats, then Devin Robinson would be urged to remain in school for his senior season. The NBA doesn’t go by stats, however, and that’s why Robinson’s stock is rising very, very fast, to the point that many NBA scouts believe he has played his way into the first round. If you go by what he did in Orlando in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, you might agree.
In Orlando, Robinson went 15-25 (60%) from the field and 4-9 (44.4%) from the 3-point line while grabbing 18 rebounds and scoring 38 points. Contrast that to season averages of 11.4 points and 6.3 rebounds, shooting 47.9% from the field overall and 39.4% from the 3-point line.
All eyes will be on Robinson this weekend but if he continues to play at this level his draft stock will go through the roof. He could get bigger, stronger and more consistent if he comes back to school for his senior year not to mention help the Gators perhaps win an SEC championship or make another deep NCAA Tournament run. But coming back also brings with it risks. What happens if he gets hurt? What happens if he has a season-long slump and the shots just won’t fall?
Devin is a smart kid who has rock solid parents who are going to help him with any decision he makes, but if the first round is fairly close to a sure thing, then he needs to go. The money for players drafted in the first round is guaranteed
THREE SEC TEAMS IN THE SWEET 16; THE ACC 1
The Southeastern Conference put five teams in the NCAA Tournament while the Atlantic Coast Conference had nine. Now that we’re on to the Sweet 16, the SEC has three teams moving on to the Sweet 1 and a 6-2 record while the ACC is 7-8 with only North Carolina advancing. Quite frankly, the SEC should be 7-1. There is no excuse for Arkansas losing to North Carolina on Sunday.
ON TO THE SWEET 16
#3 Baylor (27-7) vs. #7 South Carolina (24-10)
#4 Florida (26-8) vs. #8 Wisconsin (27-9):
#1 Gonzaga (34-1) vs. #4 West Virginia (28-8)
#2 Arizona (32-4) vs. #11 Xavier (23-13)
#1 Kansas (30-4) vs. #4 Purdue (27-7)
#3 Oregon vs. #7 Michigan (26-11)
#1 North Carolina (29-7) vs. #4 Butler (25-8)
#2 Kentucky (31-5) vs. UCLA (31-4)
Predictions to the Elite Eight: In the East I like Florida and Baylor although it’s seriously tempting to go with an All-SEC final. In the West I like the Zags and Arizona although Xavier is capable of springing an upset. I can’t see anyone in the Midwest beating Kansas. In the South, I give a shaky vote to Kentucky, in large part because I do not want to hear Lonzo Ball’s dad running his mouth, and in the other game a shaky vote to a North Carolina team that’s up and down.
WARNING SIGNS: GATORS SWEPT BY AUBURN
It’s too early to go into full panic mode but the warning signs have been there all along and after the Gators were swept by Auburn this weekend, Kevin O’Sullivan has to come up with some answers or the SS Gator baseball ship is going to spring some more leaks. The Gators are now 13-8 overall but 0-3 in the SEC and even more disturbing, 0-6 away from the friendly confines of McKethan Stadium. As a team, the Gators are hitting a dismal .240. Mike Rivera is below the Mendoza line (.190) but proven hitters JJ Schwarz (.205) and Deacon Liput (.203) are barely above it. O’Sullivan still has to find reliable relief pitching, too.
The Gators face Stetson in DeLand on Tuesday and then play host to mighty LSU for a weekend series.
UF SOFTBALL 29, SOUTH CAROLINA 1
The #1-ranked Gators (26-1, 5-0) totally dominated South Carolina in Columbia, winning 6-0, 13-1 and 10-0. The Gators have a 0.56 team ERA and have posted 18 shutouts in 27 games.
Sunday, Aleshia Ocasio and Delanie Gourley (11-1, 0.82 ERA) combined to pitch a no-hitter in a 5-inning run rule win highlighted by 5 RBI by freshman third baseman Jaimie Hoover. Gourley pitched a 2-hit shutout to win the first game of the series. Kelly Barnhill (10-0, 0.23 ERA) pitched a 2-hitter Saturday, a game in which Nicole DeWitt and Kayli Kvistad each homered and drove in 4 runs.
In other UF sports: Florida’s 3rd-ranked gymnastics team finished second to LSU in the SEC Championships in Jacksonville … Florida’s #1 ranked women’s tennis team bounced back from a shocking loss to #6 Georgia on Friday with a 4-0 win over Tennessee … The 4th-ranked Florida men’s golf team won the Chris Schenkel tournament in Statesboro, Georgia over the weekend, by carding three straight days of 6-under par for a 2-stroke win over second place and host Georgia Southern … The 16th-ranked men’s tennis team improved its record to 11-6 with road wins at Ole Miss and Arkansas over the weekend.
COACHING MOVES AND RUMORS
Kevin Keatts to North Carolina State: Everybody wanted Dayton’s Archie Miller but Archie said thanks but no thanks so rather than a protracted coach search NC State wasted no time scooping up Keatts from UNC-Wilmington.
Mike Hopkins to Washington: Hopkins has been Jim Boeheim’s top assistant at Syracuse for years and was the designated coach in waiting. Boeheim apparently doesn’t want to retire just yet and Hopkins concluded he’s not going to get any younger. He’s a good fit at Washington, which hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since the 2010-11 season.
Brad Underwood to Illinois: This was all about the money. Underwood, who took Stephen F. Austin to an 89-14 record in three years on the job, was paid only $1 million a year at Oklahoma State, where he went 20-13 in his first season. When Okie State’s AD bungled a re-write of Underwood’s contract and Illinois dangled a 6-year deal worth $3 million, it was time to say adios to Stillwater.
LSU talking to Will Wade: The word out of Baton Rouge is that LSU has gotten into serious negotiations with VCU coach Will Wade. Nevada coach Eric Musselman was thought to have the inside track on the job but apparently he’s become the frontrunner for the vacant job at California.
Indiana coaching search: The wish list includes Archie Miller (Dayton), Chris Mack (Xavier), Gregg Marshall (Wichita State), Steve Alford (UCLA) and Butler’s Christ Holtmann.
Just a week ago there were experts predicting this would be the year Leonard Hamilton takes Florida State to the Final Four. Obviously these folks failed to delve into Hamilton’s history. On those occasions when his teams get into the NCAA Tournament, they typically lose in the early rounds. Secondly, Hamilton’s teams never have the guard play that it takes to make a deep run in the tournament. It’s nice to have big guys who come alive at tournament time but the teams that win always have outstanding guards. FSU’s guards stink.
Okay, how many of you had South Carolina knocking off Duke to advance to the Sweet 16? The Gamecocks’ 88-81 win over Duke is a bigger shock than #1 overall seed Villanova losing to 8-seed Wisconsin. Hats off to former Miami High coach Frank Martin, who coaches the Gamecocks. Duke was considered the team with the most talent in the entire country, which makes the South Carolina win even sweeter.
Maybe I’m just a little bit old fashioned, but I take particular delight when a team loaded with one-and-dones (see Duke) loses.
I still can’t believe Arkansas blew it against North Carolina.
Lost in the shuffle Saturday was Ole Miss (22-13) beating Syracuse at the Carrier Dome in the second round of the NIT. So much for all that talk about how Syracuse deserved to be in the big dance instead of the NIT.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
Now that we’re down to 16 teams in the NCAA Tournament, who are your picks to make the Final Four?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
Chuck Berry died over the weekend at the ripe old age of 90. He was one of rock and roll’s true pioneers whose influence was immeasurable. Today’s music is a Chuck Berry concert at the BBC Theatre from 1972. He was already a legend then but