LSU is in the big show, but not as the 11 seed the Tigers were in their last foray to the Final Four (1986). George Mason is that Goliath-busting 11 seed now, while LSU is, by most accounts, the experts' choice to knock off UCLA and advance to Monday night's title game.
UCLA, historically the heavy in virtually every Final Four it has entered, is the low-key, under-the-radar team in this year's Hoosier State hoops hoedown. The ugly Oakland Regional Final win over Memphis--in stark contrast to the Bruins' beautiful victory against the same Tigers in the 1973 title game--has people worried that the West Coast, not the Big Ten, will take basketball back several years at a Final Four staged in Indy. The last time the Final Four came to the RCA Dome, Michigan State beat Wisconsin, 53-41, in the least watchable Final Four game anyone had the displeasure of seeing in quite some time. Six years later, hoops honchos are concerned that Ben Howland's boys will cause an alarming amount of damage to the rims and leave the nylon untouched.
And then we come to Florida. In UF's previous two Final Fours, the Gators were expected to compete, but not win the title. Formidable No. 1 seeds--Arkansas in 1994, Michigan State in 2000--walked away with the hardware, while Florida's teams gave maximum effort but fell short of the ultimate goal. UF's overall performa nce, relative to its ability, was probably better in 1994--when Andrew DeClercq took Duke to the brink--but Florida won its national semi in 2000 over eighth-seeded North Carolina, giving the Gators their first Final Four win.
This year, however, the Gators are the odds-on favorite to win the whole enchilada, and with good reason. In a sport where matchups rule, the Gators have clearly demonstrated an ability to win regardless of the style, pace or score. The Gators have quickness and size and length, and only LSU can come particularly close to matching UF in all three areas. UCLA lacks the size, and George Mason lacks both size and quickness, particularly in the frontcourt. No wonder the Gators aren't the overlooked team in their third Final Four appearance.
So with that history lesson over, here's the UCLA legend whose storehouse of wisdom offers the Gators their big key against George Mason: his name is John Wooden.
Yes, the Wizard of Westwood has helped inspire countless coaches over the years--including a former Gator football coach who shall remain nameless--with his "pyramid of success" and a host of wise sayings. Bill Walton recalls Wooden saying, "Failing to prepare is preparing to fail." That might be Billy Donovan's personal challenge heading into Saturday's game against the Little Patriots That Could. But from a larger overall perspective, the biggest key for the Gators in the Final Four lid-lifter on Saturday is provided by another Woodenism: "Be quick, but don't hurry."
Here, in short, is the tricky part of Florida's game against the mid-major party crasher from the Colonial Athletic Association: the Gators' challenge isn't necessarily mental toughness, but patience. Mental toughness admittedly has multiple forms, but one generally thinks of mental toughness as something that applies to underdogs or, at the very least, to teams in an even matchup. On paper, th e Gators do not have an even matchup with George Mason. And at an event as electric and exhilarating as the Final Four, the challenge is not about bringing enough energy to the building in the first place. No, the real challenge of playing on a stage this big is avoiding the temptation to bring too much energy to the RCA Dome.
Why is this a potential problem? Let's try to flesh things out a bit more.
Why did George Mason beat Connecticut? Long story short, GMU wanted the game a thousand times more than the moody, surly and joyless Huskies. The Patriots got most of the loose balls against a much bigger team that just didn't show any swagger or pride throughout the NCAA Tournament. Gator fans will therefore look at GMU's win over UConn and say, with considerable justification and accuracy, "We got Goerge Mason right where we want 'em on Saturday! You simply need passion to beat the Patriots, and we clearly won't dog it the way UConn did! We will play a hig h-energy game and take away Mason's threes the same way we took away Villanova's threes at the defensive end of the floor in the Minneapolis Regional Final. The matchups are all in our favor." All the analytical statements are true enough, but there is one way for George Mason to win this game, and as a result, it's precisely what Florida must guard against on Saturday.
The George Mason game Billy Donovan should study (and which Florida fans should think about) in preparation for Saturday's national semifinal is not the win over UConn, but the win over North Carolina in the second round of this NCAA Tournament. Think about it: what did GMU do to win that game, despite the presence of UNC's Tyler Hansbrough and what was generally considered to be a stronger Tar Heel team? The answer: pressure UNC's young guards with a halfcourt trap, thereby getting them to either commit turnovers or hoist up threes early in the shot clock, without running sets or getting into the f low of the halfcourt offense. The bad shots and wasted possessions Mason forced from Carolina represented the difference in the contest, as the Patriots held the Tar Heels to 44 points over the game's final 36 minutes. Jim Larranaga's team didn't beat Roy Williams' crew with offense; the Mason men won with defense. Florida needs to keep this in mind on Saturday.
After all, look briefly at the matchup between GMU's offense and Florida's defense. The Gators figure to dominate this particular battle. If UF could lock down Villanova's perimeter shooters this past Sunday, Billy Donovan's boys should certainly be able to clamp down on Lamar Butler, Tony Skinn, and Folarin Campbell on April 1. And if GMU's interior players--Jai Lewis and Will Thomas--were able to get off uncontested shots against UConn, they will now have to encounter the best shot-altering force in all of college basketball: Joakim Noah. UConn coach Jim Calhoun said, even before his team's encounter with George Mason, that shot blocking would be a huge key against the upstart 11 seed from Fairfax, Va. Throughout 45 minutes of play, however, the Patriots encountered virtually no shot-blocking resistance from Connecticut. Saturday, however, the Gators have, in the form of No. 13, the most consistent interior shot blocker in the United States, the guy who--as a weakside helper or as a strongside low-block defender--can reliably alter or swat away shots within six feet of the basket. All in all, every George Mason strength on offense is effectively countered by Florida's defense. The Gators will not lose this game at the defensive end of the floor.
Therefore, the key discussion of this game concerns the matchup between Florida's offense and Mason's defense. The only way UF can lose to the Patriots is by displaying a combination of poor ballhandling and horrible shot selection. With enough wasted possessions and, moreover, bad shots (either low-percentage shots or shot s that are taken without good floor balance) that enable Mason to get ample runouts and easy transition baskets, Florida can fritter away its huge defensive advantage in this game. It's not so much a matter of mental toughness as it is a matter of patience. Having enough passion and desire will not be a concern for the Gators; the key will be for a young team--a smart team, but a youthful one nevertheless--to have an appreciably sober mentality on a day when emotions--and adrenaline--can easily run wild and ambush players who are normally levelheaded. It's about mental relaxation for the Gators, not mental toughness; Florida must avoid pushing too hard, whereas other teams might worry about not pushing themselves far enough.
It is said that basketball is a two-headed game. At the defensive end, this sport requires awesome intensity; at the offensive end, basketball requires a much more brainy and cerebral personality. With this having been said, Florida's team make up--in terms of its overall skill sets and its collective psychological profile--lends itself to great defense much more readily than great offense. On Saturday, then, the Gators need to treasure the ball and avoid the fate experienced by North Carolina and its guards against George Mason's pressure. Even more specifically, Taurean Green--who does have a penchant for shooting quick threes on some occasions (his discipline and floor games have been superb in this tournament; that trend must continue on Saturday...)--must be extremely selective as a shooter and allow both Noah and Al Horford to make plays around the tin. Green--along with Lee Humphrey--will need to become a big-time scorer if the Gators find themselves in Monday night's title game. But in order for UF to advance to that round, Green will need to display some discipline against George Mason in the semis.
What was particularly noticeable in UF's destruction of Villanova on Sunday was how Noah and Horford complemented each other as passers. Neither player is a dynamic or overwhelming one-on-one scorer, but in tandem, Noah and Horford create easy baskets by sharing the ball with each other, particularly in "draw-and-dish" fashion. Saturday, Florida's two main men in the middle should be able to play over the top against a smaller George Mason defense. With Corey Brewer--who will outsize his man--entering the ball into the post from the wings, and with Noah and Horford operating in the paint--either on opposite blocks or in high-low stack formations--Florida should be able to play over the top throughout the entirety of the game. This does mean, though, that Green and Humphrey--within the framework of this particular matchup--should not be expected (let alone asked) to post big numbers and take an accordingly high number of shots. Florida's smallest players will simply need to ta ke care of the ball and take away the three at the defensive end of the floor. Nothing more.
If Taurean Green has one assignment at the offensive end of the floor on Saturday, it is simply to avoid getting trapped near the sidelines or the midcourt line. As long as Green keeps the ball away from those "extra defenders," GMU's traps or gimmicky defenses won't create the turnovers and easy baskets that represent the Patriots' only real hope of winning. As long as Florida settles into its halfcourt sets, the Gators should be able to work the ball into the low blocks and play this game over the top on virtually every offensive possession. With their size, length and quickness in the frontcourt, the Gators will be able to expose the main difference between an SEC power and a team that, for all its virtues, is still--at the end of the day--a mid-major. Taurean Green might like to run, and Florida might have much more quickness than the upstart Patriots, but at the end of the day, the guards have to allow the big men to operate in a halfcourt game. The Gators--while quick--cannot afford to hurry. They cannot allow Mason to manipulate tempo and tempt Green into taking "fool's gold" threes that, if not made, will play right into Jim Larranaga's hands.
Intelligence more than intensity. Offense more than defense. Discipline more than desperation. Patience more than passion. These are the mantras for Florida entering the George Mason national semifinal. A passionate team won't need to worry about being overconfident or competing hard enough. The Gators simply need to have their guards get out of the way, and let the big men do the dirty work with a performance that, literally and figuratively, would be an "over the top" effort on a larger-than-life stage. Then, the Gators will find themselves one win away from a national championship... and Taurean Green can dream of pushing the ball upcourt and launching threes again on Monday night. B ut until the Gators punch their ticket for an extended weekend stay in Indianapolis, their point guard--while possessing considerable quickness--must avoid the temptation to hurry. If he doesn't, Florida--with sadness and shock--will hurry out of Hoosierland on a Saturday night plane flight that no one wants to experience.