Key To UF's Success? Do It With Defense

The numbers tell the story from Sunday afternoon. The Florida Gators held the Villanova Wildcats to 18-73 shooting from the floor and 24.7 percent shooting just won't cut it in big games. Go a little bit further inside the numbers and it's even more revealing. The Wildcats were 4-23 from the three-point line and 3-20 from the paint. The two places Villanova thrived all season long were denied by Florida's well-prepared, fundamentally sound defense.

Part of Florida's game plan was the same as it has been ever since a team meeting after losing to Alabama back in February --- take the three-point shooters out of the game. In the nine games since that embarrassing loss in Tuscaloosa, the Gators are 9-0. The nine opponents have combined to hit 55-206 on three-pointers, a really rotten 26.7 percent. In NCAA Tournament play, the numbers have gotten worse each game. South Alabama hit nine three-pointers and Wisconsin-Milwaukee hit seven but neither team was over 50 percent. Georgetown and Villanova combined for 9-44 from three-point land this past weekend.

Coach Billy Donovan felt that taking the three-ball away from the Wildcats was essential and he was willing to live with giving up some points inside the arc although he wanted every shot contested.

"Our whole thing with them was, you know what, if they pull up and take jump shots in the lane, if they take runners in the lane and we are giving up two, we are going to live with that," said Donovan. "But we are not living with threes!"

So the job for the Gators was to defend the perimeter, force the Wildcats inside the arc and contest their shots. What happened once they got inside was a strong dose of the continuing emergence of Joakim Noah and Al Horford as intimidators. Noah and Horford combined for seven blocks but they caused at least 20 other bad or altered shots.

And, once the Wildcats got into the paint, there were no open shooters on the perimeter to kick it out to. Florida simply smothered them.

"They were great on defense," said Villanova guard Mike Nardi, a dead-eye three-ball shooter who was 1-7 from beyond the arc and 2-11 overall. "They really got on our guards. When we penetrated, they didn't leave us on the perimeter and we didn't have any good looks."

In the nine-game run to the Final Four, the Gators are holding opponents to 59.9 points per game. Villanova's 63 points are the most given up by Florida in the NCAA Tournament and the 71 scored by Arkansas in the SEC tournament are the most any opponent has scored during Florida's nine-game win streak. During the nine-game streak, not one team has hit for 50 percent for the game. Teams are making 36.7 percent of their shots in the past nine games.

RE-THINKING THE SEC: Ever since the first preseason magazines came out we've been reading all these stories about what a down year it is for Southeastern Conference basketball. This is supposed to be a transitional season because of massive talent defections to the NBA, graduation and the like. At least that's what we've been hearing all along. So if the SEC is having such a down year, could someone please explain how it is that two SEC teams are in the Final Four?

And if the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big East Conference and Big Ten Conference are so good, could someone please explain to me how it is that there isn't a single team from those three leagues in the Final Four?

Duke, we were told, was a shoo-in for the Final Four but LSU dispatched Coach K and the pride of the ACC quite handily. Florida, we were told, would wilt under the pressure of Villanova's guards but the only team that wilted Sunday was the team from the vaunted Big East Conference.

Think about this for a moment. Florida went 13-6 (counting the SEC Tournament) against SEC teams. The Gators are 18-0 against the rest of the nation.

Take a look at the rosters of the other 10 teams in the SEC and you'll see a league dominated by freshmen and sophomores, too. Florida and LSU have proven to be the best the SEC has to offer but teams like Arkansas, Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee aren't that far behind. South Carolina, which gives everybody fits, had a below .500 record in the SEC but the Gamecocks beat Florida twice, made it to the SEC Tournament finals and plays Tuesday night in the semi-finals of the NIT.

This doesn't look like a league that's down by any stretch of the imagination. Young talent? Sure. No talent? Not by a long shot. The SEC will be even better next year. Count on it.

QUICK QUIZ: This is especially for those among you who are still not convinced that Billy Donovan is one of the nation's top coaches and the Florida basketball program is not one of the very best. Here's the question --- can you name the schools that have made the Final Four multiple times from 2000-2006?

Stumped?

Here they are: Michigan State has done it three times. Duke, North Carolina, Maryland and Kansas have each done it twice.

Florida has ALSO done it twice.

Arizona? UConn? Syracuse? Sorry. Only one time each for those schools.

Getting to the Final Four is very, very difficult.

"Take a look at all the really great coaches who never even got there once," said Bill Donovan, Billy D's dad, a former great player for Boston College in the early 1960s. "I really don't think a lot of people understand how tough it is to get to the Final Four. It's something you should really cherish and remember all your life because you may not get there again."

SOME VINDICATION FOR TAUREAN: When they were high school seniors, all the state's attention was lavished upon Darius Washington of Edgewater. Washington completely overshadowed Taurean Green, who was playing at Cardinal Gibbons in Fort Lauderdale. When Washington chose Memphis there were plenty of so called "experts" that said Memphis got a stud while Florida got a "pretty good player" in Taurean Green.

Washington's played fairly well in his two years at Memphis, but Green has proven that he's one of the top point guards in the nation. The way Taurean handled the Villanova press truly opened the eyes of the national media. They came away wowed with his ball handling skills and loved both his decision making in the open floor and the way he played outstanding defense.

This weekend, Taurean will be playing in the Final Four with a bunch of teammates that like him, pretty much flew under the national recruiting radar. Washington and his high profile Memphis teammates will be watching on television after delivering probably the worst offensive showing since the implementation of the shot clock against UCLA in the Oakland Regional Final.

Taurean's dad, Sidney, a former All-American at UNLV that spent quite a few years in the NBA, says that flying under the recruiting radar has proven to be a blessing for Taurean.

"It's made him humble, more coachable and probably more determined every time he goes out there to play harder and show everybody that he can play this game," said Sidney, who was an assistant coach at Indiana this past season. "I give a tremendous amount of credit to Billy [Donovan]. If you want to talk about the perfect coach to teach and nurture a player, he's the real deal.

"When Billy came to recruit Taurean, I told him you'll get a coachable kid who will do everything you tell him to do and he's a winner. Billy's taken it from there, given him the right kind of coaching and encouragement and look at Taurean … look at all these kids. It's amazing to me how well coached they are and how well they respond to good coaching. I'm just so proud of all of them."

TITO SAYS AL'S GOING NOWHERE: One of Florida's happiest fans was Tito Horford, Al's dad. Tito left the University of Miami after his sophomore year for the NBA, a huge mistake. He never developed into the player that everyone thought he could be. He certainly needed more seasoning and fundamental work at the college level.

That's why Tito says Al will be back at the University of Florida next year.

"He's where he belongs at Florida," Tito said while celebrating Florida's win over Villanova. "I don't want him to make the mistake I made. I left too early. Al can stay at Florida where he's getting great coaching and develop. There is no rush to go to the NBA."

CHOP CITY USA: Leave it to those zany Villanova fans to provide comic relief in the middle of a tight game. As the Wildcats were making their first half run to get back in the game, some inspired Villanova fans got their entire section in the end zone doing the Seminole chop in response to the Gator chomp. I guess they don't have access to newspapers in the north or short memories, otherwise they would know that Florida has won the last two (three if you aren't willing to give the Noles a win for the Swindle in the Swamp) football games and the Gators have all but owned the Seminoles in basketball.

They went at it pretty hard in the first half and tried to get it going again in the second half, but a dunk by Horford and one by Noah more or less silenced them. By game's end, the Villanova student section was doing its best imitation of FSU fans by heading to the exits rather than hang around to see the bitter end.

NICE CITY, HORRIBLE VENUE: Two thumbs up for Minneapolis, the capital city of the American tundra. Even if it is cold there most of the year, it's a great city with some of the nicest people you will find anywhere. Great restaurants, great bars, plenty of entertainment … now if they just had a decent venue to put on an event like the basketball regional. The Metrodome is horrible and that's giving the place a lot of credit. The seats are basically bad and the sightlines are even worse. The way they configure things for basketball, the replay boards are distant and difficult to see.

There were 22,000 people at the games Friday night and 21,000 there Sunday for the championship. For those kind of crowds, it would have made much greater sense to host the regional at a place like the Target Center, which is a legitimate basketball facility that seats roughly 20,000 and where there isn't a bad seat in the house.

SKY WAS BLUE, THE SUN WAS ORANGE: If there was an omen about things to come Sunday it was a blue sky and a bright orange sun. Gator colors. It had to be a Gator kind of day even if it was cold.

Temperatures in Minnie Hapless rose all the way to 48, which had the locals walking around in shorts and tank tops --- I'm serious … they thought it was a heat wave --- and talking about how great the weather was. Meanwhile, I was wearing a sweater and a leather jacket.

When I left this morning, the rain was turning to sleet. The Gators were leaving town so no need for any more of that sunshine and "hot" weather.


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