HOOPS: No Pressure, All Resourcefulness

As the Florida Gators prepare for the 2006 NCAA Tournament, Billy Donovan might need to do something courageous: confront recent history in an event that has brought more sadness than Madness to March. By looking at past tournaments, the point guard on one Final Four team and the head coach of another--the Gators' 2000 squad, also the last UF team to reach the Sweet 16--can put his young ballclub in position to make the second weekend of the Big Dance.

Forget Indianapolis' RCA Dome, the site of the Gators' most recent Final Four appearance and the location of this year's season-ending party. Before getting to one Midwestern metropolis with a big dome, the Gators need to get to another one: Minneapolis and the Metrodome for the regionals. Indeed, the beauty and richness of the NCAA Tournament--found on so many levels--are partly the resu lt of the fact that the Tourney isn't one seamless, uninterrupted event. Instead, the Big Dance is, as Roy Williams of Kansas and now North Carolina has noted in the past, "three two-game tournaments."

Ohio State has no room in the discussion for the Gators right now. Ditto Villanova (whom the Gators know well from last year) and also Boston College, the school Florida beat to reach its first Final Four back in 1994 under Lon Kruger. Right now, Florida's whole basketball world is focused on South Alabama, and then--once business is taken care of--the winner of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Oklahoma. These four teams are peas in a very small pod... literally, given the official use of the term "pod" by the NCAA to refer to subregional sites and the clusters of teams therein.

So as the Gators try over the upcoming weekend to get back to the Sweet 16 and stamp themselves as an elite team, the key for Donovan is not his X and O strategies, but the way in which he is (or isn't) able to properly motivate his team.

It's all about motivation and mental toughness for the Gators in March. Always has been, always will be. Why did the 2000 team make its run to the final against Michigan State? Because when Mike Miller hit that shot against Butler, the weight of the world was removed from Florida's shoulders. They played liberated, free-flowing basketball thereafter, and it showed. Donovan can and should reference that season as a perfect illustration of what happens when a team has fun and doesn't view the Tourney as a grim pressure-packed duty.

What has happened since 2000 only serves to prove the point that much more. Florida has clearly felt the weight of the moment creep around its neck in successive tournaments. The look of pressure, of tension, of uncertainty that is so unmistakable in the spotlight glare of March has been plastered over the faces of Florida players wearing home-white jerseys as higher seeds against determined competition. Whether it's the Temple look from 2001, the Creighton look from '02, the Michigan State look from '03, or the Manhattan look from '04 (nothing to be ashamed about last season, in which the Gators fought off "the look" against Ohio after winning the SEC Tournament), Florida has felt the weight of March, and the Gators haven't been able to shoulder the burden.

This year, with an extremely young team that has once again excelled and, moreover, pulled off the tremendous feat of defending its SEC Tourney crown, Donovan needs to emphasize but one point over and over again: there is no pressure. Seriously. How can a young group that has done so much and, frankly, overachieved consider this season a failure, regardless of what it does in the Tourney? Past Florida teams had the chops to make a deep run, but didn't. This team certainly has the talent to make a huge run, but no one will be critical of this Gator team if it doesn't put it all together in this tournament. Next year, with even more seasoning, will bring lofty expectations, but this year has already been a fantastic success, largely because of the past weekend's happenings in Nashville. Donovan has to tell his boys to run free and play with joy. Not only is it the right motivational approach, but it's something these kids have earned as well. Looking at this tourney as a reward, not a burden, is something the Florida coach has to tell his kids over and over and over again, especially with this weekend's games being close to home in Jacksonville.

This tournament, at first glance, reminds me a lot of 2003, when the Gators stayed in Tampa as a high seed (No. 2) and had a looming second-round date with a name program, Michigan State. Tom Izzo's Spartans were a team that had underachieved, but they still had a reputation for being supremely tough and physical. Michigan State might not have been a supremely skilled team three years ago, but those Spartans--like just about any other Izzo-coached team--were not going to lose a tournament game for lack of effort.

This year, the Gators once again have opening round games in their home state, not too far away from Gainesville. John Pelphrey and South Alabama will offer Florida a legit threat in the first round (it's worth noting how both of UF's Final Four runs began with shaky fir st-round wins against inspired opposition; in 1994, of course, the Gators were seeded third, just like this year's team, and barely beat 14th seeded James Madison in Uniondale, N.Y.), but unless the house falls down, a second-round date with Oklahoma is likely. The comparisons between the Michigan State team of 2003 and the OU team of 2006 are evident and legitimate. Sooner coach Kelvin Sampson, like Izzo, preaches defense and rebounding. If OU has an identity on the hardwood, it's based on hustle and elbow grease. The Sooners might not be able to hit the side of the barn at times, but they will crash the glass fearlessly and often. At the other end of the floor, Oklahoma--at its best--will grind down its opposition and win not by virtue of pure skill, but by dint of a better work ethic and a deeper level of determination.

Florida lost so decisively to Michigan State in Tampa three years ago because the Gators folded under Michigan State's relentless defensive pres sure and the Spartans' ferocity on the glass. When MSU punched UF in the mouth, the Gators--who reacted to their struggles with shock instead of roused anger and improved focus--faded away and went gently into the night. Izzo hadn't out-strategized Donovan so much as the Spartan coach had motivated his team to a clearly superior degree. Izzo's magic is still alive in East Lansing, given that the Spartans have made deep runs in the tournament in recent years--Elite Eight in 2003, Final Four last year--from not-so-lofty seeding positions: seventh (2003) and fifth (2005). Florida's one great tournament under Donovan, of course, came from the five slot in 2000.

So as you can see, there's more than a little to this business about not feeling pressure in March. Teams that are excited rather than tense are the teams that allow their talent to spill out in full flower over a 94-foot hardwood canvas. This is precisely what accounts for both the cinderella runs of lower-seed ed teams in the Dance, and also the fact that all four No. 1 seeds have never made the Final Four in the same year, a rather staggering fact when you consider that the first two games in the tournament should be cake for a top seed. Let's put this in perspective: since 1979, when seeding was instituted, there has never been a case in which all four top seeds won two games in the regionals on the same weekend... not even from '79 through 1984, when the tourney had just 48 teams and the higher seeds had a first-round bye. Pressure gets to the big dogs, while confidence fuels inspired performances from upstarts and underdogs. This is why the NCAA Tournament has become the compelling yet amazingly unpredictable event it is. Florida's been part of the Madness and the Sadness, the agony and the ecstasy. As a result, Donovan needs to take the pressure off his team's shoulders.

As a final note, then, if there's one key player you should look to for Florida in this Dance, i t's clearly Joakim Noah. No, not because he won the SEC Tournament on Sunday (though it wasn't surprising that he did), but because of his bloodlines.

Noah's father, Yannick, wasn't just an athlete, but a championship athlete. Not just a tennis player, but a man who--though not at the level of contemporaries John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl and Jimmy Connors--found enough within himself to win the 1983 French Open. It's not easy to carry the expectations of a nation (and we're talking a real nation, not a fan base called "Gator Nation") in an individual sport. Think of tennis player Tim Henman at Wimbledon, and also of Yannick Noah's good friend, women's tennis star and Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo. These and other individual athletes have found it very hard to win major events, and when the action has come home to native soil, the noose has tightened exponentially. But in the late spring months of 1983, Joakim Noah's daddy managed to take a high-pressure situation and turn it into beautiful, free-flowing tennis that expressed Yannick Noah's beautiful game. Pressure might have made Yannick "run faster and jump higher," as Rick Pitin o (someone Billy Donovan is a little familiar with) once said. But maybe pressure wasn't really there in the first place. Maybe Yannick Noah (not a Hall of Famer) beat future Tennis Hall of Fame inductee Mats Wilander on that afternoon in Paris because he viewed the occasion as an opportunity, not a burden. After seeing the way Joakim Noah competed in the SEC Tournament final on Sunday--and how Noah was the one Gator who didn't have "the look"--it becomes a thousand times more obvious that he is the spiritual center of this team and the man Billy Donovan needs to rely on for on-court emotional leadership

Pressure? What pressure? The Florida Gators have already had a wildly successful year, and if Billy Donovan and Joakim Noah use their own histories as teaching tools, there's no reason UF can't play more pressure-free basketball this next weekend in Jacksonville. And if the past is any guide, when Florida plays pressure-free ball, deep NCAA runs happen.

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