HOOPS: Billy Ball Returns To The O'Dome

Every time Keydren Clark moved Wednesday night, there was someone in his face. If it wasn't Taurean Green hounding him all over the floor it was Lee Humphrey or Corey Brewer. You get that kind of respect when you've led the nation in scoring two straight years and the Florida Gators showed the pint-sized scorer from St. Peter's plenty of respect.

The Gators opened their season in the 2K Sports Coaches Vs. Cancer Tournament with the daunting task of shutting down Clark, a 5-9 dynamo who can become just the third player in NCAA history to lead the nation in scoring three straight years if he repeats what he's done the last two years. By the time Clark took a seat on the bench with four minutes to go in the game, he had been hounded into a 4-17 shooting night and just 11 points as Florida won its season opener, 80-51, before a crowd of 9,117 at the O'Connell Center.

Florida will face Albany Thursday night at the O'Connell Center in round two of the tournament. Albany was a 90-73 winner over Oakland in the first game. If the Gators beat Albany Thursday night, they will advance to New York next week for the semi-finals and finals of the tournament in Madison Square Garden.

Florida's game plan was to totally disrupt Clark, who has a career average of 25.8 points per game and 2,218 career points. By forcing Clark out of his game, it took the rest of the St. Peter's players out of their normal roles. Clark was often forced almost to midcourt so shooters who normally set up on the wing and low blocks were having to leave their comfort zones just to help Clark. St. Peter's never got into any kind of offensive rhythm.

"It was no secret about Clark and his ability to score," said Florida Coach Billy Donovan. "We tried to do as good a job as we could limiting his quality shots, limiting three point shots and trying to make him a driver."

Clark managed only two points in the second half and he was 0-5 from three-point range.

Although the Gators used a total team approach in limiting Clark's production, sophomore point guard Taurean Green drew the main assignment. Green played Clark aggressively, taking away the three point shot and forcing the little guy into the lane where the Gators could help out with long armed defenders who swatted away six shots during the game.

"He [Green] really was on Clark most of the time and he really did a great job," said Donovan. "It probably took his focus away from offense and more on defense but he really ran our team nicely."

Green finished a very productive night with eight points, six assists, four steals and three rebounds. He hit 2-5 on three-pointers.

"He really was a good floor general for us tonight," said Donovan.

The defensive effort on Clark energized the young Gators who have only one senior on the roster in 6-9 center Adrian Moss, Florida's most experienced player and an emotional leader on the team. Moss injured his knee a couple of weeks ago and he was expected to be out until December but apparently he heals quite quickly. When he entered the game for the first time with 15:02 in the first half, there was an instant energy lift for the Gators.

"I think I am a fast healer," said Moss, who contributed two points, one rebound and one assist in very limited action. "Whatever it is, I'm going to find it in my blood profile and I'm going to make a million dollars off it."

Florida stuck with its defensive plan fairly well in the first half but the Gators really didn't get it going offensively until the second half when they came out of the locker to go on a 27-7 tear in the first 10 minutes to stretch the lead from 37-27 to 64-34.

It was the defense that keyed the big run as the Gators forced bad shots or turnovers then beat the Peacocks down the floor on the break. It wasn't an unusual sight for either 6-9 Al Horford or 6-11 Joakim Noah to get the defensive rebound and then dribble out of the pack to start the break. Getting the ball up the court quickly was part of the game plan that the Gators executed to near perfection.

Donovan said it is part of Florida's game play for the big guys to start the break whenever possible. When the big guys rebound and can get at least three or four dribbles up the court, the Gators have the speed to make the defense to offense transition quickly.

"I really like when those guys rebound and start the break because they make pretty good decisions," he said. "As long as they don't turn the ball over, we change ends of the floor pretty quickly when they do that."

When the big guys started the break, it allowed the shooters to get their feet set and their shoulders squared up beyond the arc before defenders could account for them on the break. The result was a very good 9-21 night from the three-point line for the Gators.

"Any time we can make a team take a bad shot or get a rebound or make a steal we want to get out on the break as fast as possible," said junior guard Lee Humphrey. "We want to let our shooters spot up and let our big guys run the floor and really try to go outside first, but if we have open threes, take them."

Humphrey spotted up often enough to knock down four threes in seven tries. He finished the game with 14 points, one of five Gators in double figures. Sophomore Corey Brewer led the way for Florida with 18 points while Chris Richard had 11 and Horford and Noah had 10 each. Horford led Florida with 10 rebounds and three blocked shots while Noah had nine rebounds.

Florida displayed a totally different team personality than the Gators have shown any time since the 2000 season when Florida made that great run to the NCAA championship game. That 2000 team was famous for its press till they puke defense that ran teams into submission. While this Florida team doesn't have the overall talent that the 2000 team had, the Gators fit the mold of a press and shoot team perfectly.

The adaptation to the press and shoot team is another sign of the maturing of Coach Billy Donovan. For years Donovan was thought of as a strong on recruiting, light on coaching type but in the past couple of seasons he's proven he can adapt and win with his personnel. The Gators of last season won 24 games and the SEC Tournament walking the ball up the floor and catering to the offensive skills of Anthony Roberson, Matt Walsh and David Lee.

This team doesn't have that one standout offensive player and it definitely isn't suited to walking the ball up the floor. Instead, this year's Gators will play a lot of transition basketball and balance out the scoring by finding its points from different places every night. Donovan isn't bothered by the lack of a dominant scorer and he likes the makeup of this team.

"I think we have the potential to be good at three things," he said. "I think we have the potential to defend, to rebound and the thing I enjoy offensively is we're a very unselfish team."

The unselfishness was evident in the stat sheet. The Gators had 29 made shots from the field and 19 assists, a two assists for every made shot ratio that every coach in the country would like to have.

Donovan is looking for a team that has maybe as many as seven or eight players who are capable of getting double figures any given night with four or five of them carrying the load every game.

"It doesn't have to be the same guys every night," said Donovan.

The return to playing Billy Ball, which means the Gators will press all over the floor and run at every opportunity, using their fast pace as a defensive weapon that wears opponents down, is just what the coach needed and wanted.

"I want the ball pushed," said Donovan. "That's how I like to play. You have to tweak and change to put the kids in the best position to take advantage of their strengths."

The strength of this team is running the break and forcing an up-tempo, open court game.

"I don't know if our team last year, the last two years was conducive to do that," said Donovan.

This year's team, however, is a perfect fit for that style. Consider game one of the 2005-2006 season a formal announcement that Billy Ball is back and here to stay.

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