Gators Looking to Carry Over Defensive Effort

The Florida Gators can advance to the NIT Final Four for the third time in school history with a win against Arizona State tonight, but in order to do so, they'll have to bring the same kind of team defense they've shown in their first two tournament wins.

Arizona State doesn't focus on offensive, averaging 67 points per game (10 fewer than the Gators), but the Gators are going to have to slow down the Sun Devils on their own home court. And the road hasn't been kind to Florida this season. The Gators have lost their last five of six games outside of the O'Dome and traveling across the country to an unfamiliar arena doesn't make matters easier.

"It will be a different atmosphere," Florida point guard Jai Lucas said. "Going somewhere new, you don't really know what to expect."

Arizona State was one of the teams snubbed from the NCAA Tournament and earned a top seed in the NIT. Like the Gators, they're out to gain some respect, but Florida is playing it's best basketball of the year. In the first two rounds of the NIT, the Gators held San Diego State and Creighton to 49 and 54 points, respectively. Those are the fewest points scored against the Gators since Georgia Southern back in mid-December.

"We're just doing different stuff from what we did before," shooting guard Walter Hodge said. "We're concentrating more on defense. Before we were concentrating more on offense and it was a regular practice. Now, we're doing more defense than offense."

"I think we're just playing harder," Lucas said. "The way we've been practicing is helping us play harder. We're practicing the hardest we've been practicing all year, and it just carries over to the court. I think that's one of the things that has helped us play better over the last two games."

Since UF's loss to Alabama in the first round of the SEC Tourney, it's been on the practice floor as well as on the court that the Gators have stepped up their efforts. And in each of their two NIT home games, the Gators added a defensive element to their pre-game warm-ups.

"I think we have a new approach," Lucas said. "With the new approach we've taken, I'm anxious to see how good we can be. We're going on the road to play a Pac-10 team who could have been in the tournament."

"We're focused," Hodge said. "We're on edge. Any day we know we can get beat and we don't want to go home. We're just trying to keep on playing games so we can keep on practicing and work on getting better."

All season long, Billy Donovan has been talking about Florida's defensive deficiencies. With the way their playing in the NIT, the season regular season could have had a different outcome if the team recognized it earlier.

"The past is the past," Hodge said. "We're at the point now where we're learning what we need to get better and now we'll know how to get better for next year."

Tonight's NIT match-up with Arizona State may not be the game the Gators envisioned at the beginning of the season, but they still have a chance to make school history. Florida has never won the NIT and as long as they keep winning games, they get to continue to practice and improve before next season rolls around.

"We understand that there's a Final Four on the line," Lucas said. "It may not be the Final Four we were hoping to reach but it's still a Final Four. As long as we're on the court playing for something, that's what we're striving for. We're excited to get things done."

"If we win this tournament, it will be the first time the school has won this tournament," Hodge said. "But we don't really talk about it, we're just focused on getting better."

There was a lot of talk about whether it would be more valuable for the Gators to lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament or win several games in the NIT. With the way the NIT has gone for Florida, it seems clear that this team needed the extra practice and the extra games.

"At first every one was down, but the way we're playing, everyone's excited to see how far we can get," Lucas said. "It's going to be a great challenge with the way we're playing. We can see where we are with this new attitude we have, and it's going to be one of the best challenges for us right now."

It appears the Gators finally have a little chip on their shoulder. They're using that chip not just to get better, but to also get a little of the respect that they may have lost during the last month of the season.

"It's obviously a different energy around the whole program right now," Lucas said. "Everybody's pumped up right now. When you get that around a program, it's hard to stop."

Questions or comments? Contact FightinGators.com's Chris Chmielenski


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