Good Reasons To Believe Gators Can Go Far In NCAA

It is a relaxed and confident Billy Donovan who faced the media Monday morning in Gainesville, less than 24 hours since his Florida Gators dispatched of the Kentucky Wildcats in the championship game of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. Donovan has every good reason to be relaxed. Unlike the past four seasons, this is a team that has what it takes to make a run deep into the tournament. Forget how tough the bracket is. The Gators are poised.

They're poised enough to continue doing exactly what they've been doing since they regrouped after a loss in Lexington to those same Kentucky Wildcats back in early February. Since that game, when the Gators got shoved around in the second half by the Wildcats, Florida has played focused, intense basketball. They've made their run, winning nine of the last ten games, by keeping the focus simply on the next game. There has been no overlooking any team on the schedule. Florida has played the tough teams and the not so tough teams with the same kind of intensity. There has also been no looking ahead. The next game is always the one that's most important.

That's how they made it through the previous eight days, a stretch that began with a 53-52 win over Kentucky in Gainesville and ended with the 70-53 hammering of the Wildcats in Atlanta in the SEC championship game. The Gators opened the SEC Tournament with a blowout win over Mississippi State, a revenge game that evened the score for a loss in Starkville back in January, and a close call with Alabama, which came into the tournament ranked sixteenth nationally.

It was the most amazing eight days in non-NCAA Tournament history for Florida basketball. The Gators played and won four games, two against a team ranked in the top five, and the other two against one team ranked in the top 25 and another that spent most of the season in the rankings. All three teams are in the NCAA Tournament. It was the kind of week that gets a team ready for the next level.

"This last week, what they've been able to do against Kentucky twice, and then against Mississippi State and Alabama, who were picked to be the best in the league in the west, is really special," said Donovan Monday morning. "I'm happy for them, because of how hard they worked. To see those guys achieve and enjoy something that they've been trying to do for a long time, to see it come together, was really magical. For a whole week, our team played at a really high level."

Florida will open its NCAA Tournament play against Ohio University, champs of the Mid-America Conference. Although the Gators are in a bracket that includes teams like North Carolina, UConn and Kansas, Florida will rely on what's gotten the Gators this far: focusing on one team at a time.

"I'm not worried about our region or who we might play," said Donovan. "Our focus is only on Ohio University. That's all we can worry about right now. If we're fortunate to get to some of the teams they're talking about, that's great. But right now, we're not there. The only thing we need to be focused on is playing on Friday."

The Gators need to keep their focus entirely on Ohio U. The past four years of NCAA Tournament play have been rather unkind for Florida. The Gators are 2-4 in the tournament since that magical run to the championship game in 2000. The expectations going into the NCAA tournament have been high, but the results haven't matched up. However, if you take a look at each of the last four seasons, you can see why there should be far more optimism this season than any year since 2000.

Consider the following:

2001: Even with the loss of Donnell Harvey and Mike Miller to the NBA, the Gators still had the nucleus of a team capable of making a deep NCAA run. Brett Nelson and Teddy Dupay gave the Gators two outstanding guards. There were a pair of outstanding defensive specialists in guard Justin Hamilton and forward Major Parker. Udonis Haslem, Brent Wright and Matt Bonner formed a nice group of inside players. Hamilton was lost to a blown out knee against Georgia; Dupay had back surgery but played on fumes the final month of the season and Brent Wright blew out his foot in a strange incident with a sneaker that has since resulted in a lawsuit against Nike. Florida got a tough win against Western Kentucky in game one, but in game two against Temple, Florida just didn't have the depth to stay with the Owls.

2002 : Haslem and Dupay were seniors and Nelson was coming off a sophomore season so good that everyone held their collective breaths until he announced he would forego the NBA for one more year at UF. The freshman class took a hit when top signee Kwame Brown elected to go to the NBA draft. Still, with Bonner and Haslem up front to go with Dupay and Nelson, the Gators figured to be a force by tournament time. Dupay got suspended for gambling and that affected the chemistry and emotional disposition of the entire team. Nelson's shot went south and it never came back. The emotionally spent Gators lost to Creighton by a single point in two overtimes in round one. Nelson had plenty of shots that could have won it but he was 4-19 from the field.

2003: White left the team because he couldn't handle the presence of Christian Drejer, considered the best high school player in all of Europe. Drejer, Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh gave the Gators another outstanding recruiting class, but there was no real help inside for Lee. Bonner was 6-10 but more of a three-point threat. Nelson only got worse every game and became increasingly insignificant. Roberson and Walsh carried the team offensively. Lee improved significantly as the season progressed, but he was still not the force inside that Haslem had been. The Gators were soft and had serious defensive problems. They beat a totally outmanned Sam Houston State team in round one, but Florida was physically manhandled by Michigan State in the second round. Proof that Nelson's game deserted him is in the stats: 16 minutes, 0-4 from the field.

2004: Bonner was gone and Lee bulked up to 255 pounds to become the banger on the inside. On paper that seemed like a great idea, but in reality the extra bulk slowed Lee down and took away from the things that he does best, which is use his quickness and mobility. It wasn't until late in the season that Adrian Moss began to give Lee some help on the inside. Freshmen Mohammed Abukar and Ryan Appleby were total busts and they've since transferred. Chris Richard proved helpful but couldn't offer enough inside minutes to take the load off Lee and Moss. When Drejer left the team in February, the Gators were forced to play freshman Lee Humphrey, known for his three-point shooting but at 6-2, a full seven inches shorter than Drejer. The Gators were forced to become a zone team because they couldn't defend and they really only had seven players capable of taking the floor. They made an admirable late season charge to get to the SEC championship game, but in the NCAA tournament, they were emotionally spent and incapable of anything more than just that one game with Manhattan, which they lost.

So that brings us to the 2005 season and instead of a team that is filled with problems and question marks, the Gators are playing as well as a team as any unit Florida has put on the floor since 2000. Unlike the past four seasons, the Gators have no injuries and they don't have any emotional issues. And unlike the last two seasons, no one dares accuse this Florida team of being soft.

There are no guarantees that the Gators can make it deep into the tournament, but the signs point to Florida doing well. The Gators are a nice blend of veterans and freshman. Does that ring a bell? In 2000, Florida had one senior, Kenyan Weaks. Florida got veteran leadership from Wright and Parker, not to mention their tough physical presence. Dupay, Mike Miller, Haslem and Hamilton were two years into the program and there was the enthusiastic play off the bench from the freshmen: Nelson, Bonner and Donnell Harvey. Florida was a solid ten deep.

Fast forward to 2005. Florida has a lone senior in Lee and he's been superb since the beginning of SEC play back in January. The Gators get veteran leadership from both Roberson and Walsh who are like microwaves, able to heat up quickly and carry the team once they are hot. Florida has physical presence off the bench with Moss and Richard, plus they have the incredible energy and talent of freshmen starters Corey Brewer and Horford. Off the bench, Florida gets enthusiasm and energy from sophomore Humphrey and freshmen Taurean Green and Joakim Noah. Florida is a solid ten deep.

The 2000 team was young, talented and a great defensive team that could also light it up offensively. The 2005 team is young, talented, and a great defensive team that can light it up offensively.

The defensive styles are different. The 2000 team played press till they puke defense and just relentlessly hounded the other team all over the court. The 2005 team has not shown that kind of pressing ability but they have shown they can grind it out defensively in the halfcourt better than the 2000 team.

In 2000, everyone thought the Gators would wilt in the tournament because they had Illinois, Duke and Oklahoma State in their bracket. In 2005, plenty of pundits are saying the Gators will wilt in a bracket that includes North Carolina, Kansas and UConn.

The parallels are numerous and they all give reasons to believe that this is a team that will exceed the accomplishments of the previous four years in the NCAA Tournament. This is the hottest team that the Gators have put on the floor at tournament time during the Billy Donovan era. Because of the past history, the expectations will be tempered somewhat, but if Florida comes away with a first round win against Ohio, expect them to rise significantly on Sunday when Florida would play the winner of Villanova and New Mexico.

It could be a fun run.

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