Three Keys To Beating Villanova

The Gators' resourceful win over the Hoyas Friday night showed why this team--even if it fails to beat Villanova in the Minneapolis Regional Final--has already carved out a cherished and elevated place in the history of UF basketball. But the NCAA Tournament only allows you to savor wins if they come in the second game of a weekend, not the first. History forgets the Sweet 16 winners if their Elite Eight appearances don't lead them to the Four-front of college basketball's Final frontier.

So while the Gators deserve lavish praise for their perseverance against the Hoyas, they have just a day and a half to get ready for the contest that, if won, will make their season complete: a battle for Indianapolis... and revenge... against Villanova. Because the turnaround time is short, and because there's unfinished business for Bil ly Donovan's team, let's spare the eloquence and sweeping sentimentality, and get down to the task of mapping out a Gator path to victory over the No. 1 seed from Philly.

This game's in the Hubert Horatio Humphrey Metrodome, and so it's entirely appropriate that Florida has its own "triple-H" formula for success against Jay Wright's Wildcats.

The first and biggest key? Hard hats. Winning this game won't be easy, so Florida will have to fight fiercely to win this game. After watching both Minneapolis regional semifinals, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to determine that this upcoming regional final won't be won with style points. This will be a street brawl, and the team that gets more rebounds and loose balls--especially in key situations--will stand a very good chance of winning. The only way the out-fought team wins this game is if it shoots lights-out from three. A case in point is how West Virginia played Texas dead even through 39 minutes and 55 s econds despite being outrebounded 45-16 (yes, a minus-29 margin for the Mountaineers). But of course, don't expect great shooting in a game that should feature more of the furious defense witnessed Friday night in both semis.

Villanova has battled the odds all season long by winning exclusively with guardplay. Guys named Ray, Foye, Lowry (and Mike Nardi, whose disappearance helps the Gators immensely; here's hoping he stays mired in confusion... and a slump) have managed to compensate for the loss of stud pivot player Curtis Sumpter, who would have made Nova a nearly unbeatable team. As it is, the Cats are still in their first Elite Eight in 18 years. That tells you how fearless Nova's guards are, especially since they often draw--and manage to contain--bodies of ballplayers that are tens of pounds wider and several inches taller.

For Florida to win, the backcourt of Green, Humphrey and Brewer must mix it up on even terms with Nova's guards, helping the bigs to crash the glass and get second-chance points. Speaking of those bigs, the Gators' big men need to use their size and width in the low post to outmuscle Nova's pivot players, who are extremely quick, active and long, but not that muscular. Craig Smith and Boston College were constantly bothered by the Wildcats' rotating, doubleteaming defense, but on the few occasions when Smith got an isolation play, he was able to back down a Villanova big man in the low post, especially on the play that almost won the game for BC with 12 seconds left in overtime of Friday's first semifinal in Minneapolis. Al Horford, Chris Richard and Adrian Moss must all make contributions on the glass in this game, and with size being Villanova's one big liability, the Gators--much like LSU in the Tigers' upset of Duke on Thursday night--would not be wrong in thinking that their best offense might be a missed shot against the Wildcats. Hard hats must be worn--and used--at all times in this game.

The second big key for a victory over Villanova is help. Help that comes in two forms, but which comes--in both cases--to the aid of Joakim Noah.

The first kind of help is the help Noah needs at the defensive end of the floor. Noah's extraordinary quickness and his exceptional reactions within six to eight feet of the basket are able to mask whatever defensive weaknesses this Florida team might have. Noah's excellence as a shotblocker and rebounder makes it somewhat easier for Billy Donovan to strategize on defense, because if Florida's guards take away the three from Nova's sharpshooters and dare the Foye-Ray-Lowry trio to penetrate, Noah is the guy who can block shots or alter them, much like BC's amazing flyswatter of a defender, Sean Williams. Billy D can tell his guards to focus on eliminating the three, knowing that Noah can help out the guards. But if that's the case, Noah--who must use himself to stop penetration and force difficult shots from Nova's guards--will need help on the glass from the Gators' other big men. Once again--the non-Noah interior players will have to be a backbone on the backboard for Florida. That's one kind of help Joakim Noah will need on Sunday.

The other kind of help Florida's star will need is the type of assistance that goes beyond the box score. While it's true that the last time a regional final was held in the Metrodome, the star of Dwyane Wade was born with a monster stat line against Kentucky, Florida doesn't need a hero who will go off for 30 points. All Florida needs is someone who will noticeably carry the load and enable Noah to have a full tank at the defensive end of the floor, where No. 13 will need to use the balance of his energy on Sunday afternoon. Sure, it would be nice if the letter-perfect Corey Brewer shows up for 40 minutes, but it's not just an issue of scoring. If Taurean Green has the same solid floor game he had against Georgetown, and if Lee Humphrey is accurate when he shoots the ball, things will open up for the Gators' offense in ways that will relieve Noah of the burden of having to carry the whole load. Maybe one player will have a career game, and maybe two or three players will work really well in concert with each other. You don't need too specific a blueprint, but somehow, the load at the offensive end has to be carried by someone other than "Frenchy." No. 13 needs help at both ends of the floor for the Gators to get a big W over the big "V."

The third key to victory is healing. Healing, as in, "resting from mortal combat and shrugging off battle scars." CBS' excellent production graphics from Friday night pointed out how Villanova out-substituted Boston College, 72-7 (at a point very late in the proceedings; Jay Wright surely increased that number even more before it was all over). On Sunday, the Gators' size and muscle--found in Horford, Richard and Moss alongside Mr. Noah--will need to be rotated and rotated often to stay fresh for this 40-minute Cat fight. The key coaching challenge of this game concerns Billy Donovan's ability to substitute in ways that can keep his bigs fresh in the face of Jay Wright's relentless use of his bench. Billy D's subbing and counter-subbing will become a constant search for balance between rest and effectiveness, between having a little more muscle and just enough speed. When you consider the enormous responsibility of Florida's interior players in this game--to overpower Villanova's smaller guards and provide vital help to Noah, who has been carrying the Gators in the tournament up to this point--Donovan has to give them a lot of minutes while simultaneously giving them frequent and ample breathers.

This brings up a simple point that all of you reading at home might already know, but which needs to be pointed out anyway, since it gets rarely mentioned on televisio n. (After all, when you're one game away from the Final Four, you can't take chances--you need to make sure.) In college basketball, the first dead ball after the 16, 12, 8, and 4-minute marks in each half is the point at which the TV timeout occurs. In the NCAA Tournament, TV timeouts are three minutes long. If you pay close attention to this sport, you should notice how the top coaches always take their players out just before each of these milepost times in a game. If there's a dead ball with 12:25 left in a half, a star who needs a break comes out. This buys that player about 5-6 real-time minutes of rest while minimizing the amount of clock time he's on the bench. Donovan and his staff need to be right on top of these kinds of things on Sunday, while also trying to find the right combinations of speed and size that can best fluster Villanova. By keeping his boys healthy and rested, Florida's coach can outdo Mister Wright and have his own dream date: a date in the RCA Do me on April 1.

Hard hats, help, and healing. They represent Florida's path to victory over Villanova. If the Gators take care of their "triple-H" formula, then the H.H.H. Metrodome will become, you might say, a "Villa Noah" for this special basketball team from Gainesville.

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