VETTEL: Saturday Will Be Sweet

The last time the Gator Basketball Team reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, they did so by beating Lon Kruger and Illinois 93-to-76 in Winston Salem. Kruger has had several job changes since then while Billy Donovan has built the Gators into a perennial contender. Come Saturday he'll go for his third trip to the second weekend of the big dance.

Florida needs a win Saturday for a number of reasons, but certainly not to validate Donovan or this team. Florida needs a win to re-establish the Gator name among the elite programs in the nation. Florida needs a win to build momentum for 2006-07 and beyond. Florida needs a win to generate another week or more of positive publicity and national exposure.

But more than anything else, Florida needs a win to get much of the state, regional and national media to shut up.

Not that it isn't a valid criticism of the Gators to go five straight years without advancing past the first weekend of the tournament, it is. But too often the criticism is lacking in context. While it is true Florida has been eliminated by lower-seeded teams in the past five tournaments, the Gators were facing extenuating circumstances in each case. That's not making excuses, because the last thing Billy Donovan needs is me defending him. But the lack of context creates the perception Florida has just failed. However if you put tournament setbacks in the context of injuries and fatigue you would reach a different conclusion. It least I think you should.

That said; the best thing about winning over the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) would be ending that line of conversation. Just like Florida's 1987 bid ended conversation about why the Gators had never made it to the NCAA Tournament. Just like the '89 team ended decades of frustration and brought home a conference championship. Just like last year's Gators finally took home the SEC Tournament trophy. This Gator team can deliver a big "shut up" to critics of the program.

Wisconsin-Milwaukee a Better Version of U.S.A.

Watching the two games in Jacksonville Thursday I came away thinking that the Panthers are quite a bit like the Jaguars of South Alabama. They like to press and force tempo. They like to shoot the "three". Their best players are their perimeter guys.

Yup, they are a lot like the Jaguars team that Florida just trashed 76-to-50. Except that they are better at everything. Their guards are better. Their big guys are better. They rebound better. South Alabama was experienced, but UWM is more experienced with five senior starters and two of their top four reserves also being seniors. They have more seniors than Piccadilly Cafeteria at 5:30pm.

Looking at their schedule they faced just two ranked teams during the season. The Panthers lost opening day at Memphis by 27, and later fell falling to Wisconsin on the road by six. Their best wins are over Butler and Missouri State. Their four-point win at Montana looks better after seeing what the Grizzlies did to Nevada.

Two Guys Are the Key

Boo Davis and Joah Tucker are two "wing" guards/small forwards who are very impressive players. They are both good athletes and excel on both ends of the floor. They also both go to the glass, helping the Panthers to a plus-6.5 rebound margin during the season. In UWM's 82-74 win over Oklahoma, they combined for 50 points, eleven rebounds and five steals. They got to the free throw line a remarkable 26 times, making 21.

Davis is the better long-range shooter, having made 89 this year, connecting almost 40 percent of the time. Tucker (6.1) is the stronger rebounder.

Supporting Cast Capable

While keeping Davis and Tucker closer to their regular season productivity (33 pts.) as opposed to what they did Thursday (50 pts.), the Gators have other guys that have to be dealt with.

Center Adrian Tigert is not all that big at 6'7" but his production is pretty big time with 12.9 points and 7.4 rebounds a game. He had 14 and five against Oklahoma, but seemed overmatched at times on the defensive end.

Chris Hill runs the point and is a pest on defense. UMW forced 18 Oklahoma turnovers and that's a number Florida needs to stay well below. The Gators wisely used the size and ball handling skills of Horford and Noah to help negate the South Alabama press and I look for more of the same in this one.

Five Keys to Moving On

  • Go big and early ----- Gators don't need to wait until a halftime butt chewing to get the offensive focus into the paint. Horford and Noah combined for 20 second-half points against South Alabama after just ten in the first 20 minutes.
  • Value each possession ----- Gators kept turnovers against South Alabama to just eleven. That would be a perfectly acceptable number Saturday.
  • Forget history ----- The Gators insist they are not trying to make up for the past few years when the Florida Basketball Team did not advance past the opening weekend. That's good, but I'm not sure I'm convinced. A little amnesia can be a healthy thing.
  • Energize the crowd ----- There will be thousands of Gators in arena but it's not like they're all Rowdy Reptiles. It was a fairly quiet bunch Thursday and that's not the best way to maximize a home court advantage.
  • Keep Hodge busy ----- The freshman guard played 22 minutes Thursday and that was very important. He played solid minutes and did not commit a turnover. Plus, he's a good defender and keeps Green and Humphrey from getting too tired. His minutes will again be very important.

Well that's the way it shapes up. The best chance at weekend number two since the amazing run of 2000 is there for the taking. UWM is a good, talented and experienced basketball team. It won't be a blowout. But the Gators playing at a high level will not lose on Saturday.

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