On The Road With John Rooke: Florida

The easy way out is to say "the referees hammered us." But that doesn't tell the whole story of the Friars' trip into the swamp to face the defending national champions.

It's true, this was not one of the finer moments for three Big East-based officials (Tony Greene, Doug Shows and Tim Clougherty), who may have been intimidated by the crowd, the caliber of players on the floor, or a combination of both. To the victor, go the spoils – or in this case – to the champs, goes the benefit of the doubt.

Florida's dominance in the 85-67 win over Providence wasn't so much on the scoreboard as it was at the free throw line. The Gators, with a future NBA front line featuring Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Chris Richard off of the bench, played very well. Head Coach Billy Donovan even said as much after the game to Joe Hassett and yours truly – while on the air during the radio post-game show – that his big men played their best game of the year. What was not mentioned from the Florida point of view was the disparity at the line, a 23-7 advantage in made free throws that ultimately proved to be the difference in the game.

Add to the fact that countless physical transgressions were called on one end of the floor, but not on the other, and you have a game that was unevenly called…at best. To their credit, however, the Friars did no complaining afterward (though the Friar faithful in attendance were more than ready to take up the argument), and immediately turned their attention to Maine on Saturday.

After a fast start by the Gators, the Friars quickly settled down into their offensive and defensive sets. Playing a 2-3 zone defensively, getting to the outside shooters (team average of 43% outside the arc) was a priority, and left the "Beef brothers" inside in one-on-one situations. Florida did not get to be national champs by not knowing how to find an Achilles heel, and their post players made the Friars pay with deadly accuracy. Noah and Horford have dynamite quickness, with deceptive strength, and both know how to finish around the basket from close in. The difference was that while the Friars were able to get good looks at the basket on the offensive end, especially in the paint, they simply could not finish.

Down by six at halftime, the Friars quickly fell behind by double digits in the 2nd half, and ultimately were done in by a devastating stretch where the Gators managed a 17-3 offensive run…in conjunction with PC's inability to capitalize on open shots. Still, no one felt manhandled by the champs. Perhaps it can best be described as a unanimous decision – but this Friar team was never dealt a knockout punch.

Bright spots for the Friars start with the play of sophomore guard Weyinmi Efejuku, who led all scorers in the game with a career high of 22 points. Efejuku has 59 points scored in his last three games, and as Joe Hassett likes to often point out, when he realizes how good he can be, he'll be scary. He was, and will be for many opponents this season, a difficult match-up even for the lightning-quick Gator guards. Geoff McDermott, who was visibly agitated by the loss, produced his 3rd double-double of the season with 11 points and 10 rebounds. There was plenty of fight in these Friars from start to finish, and while it is disappointing to lose, it was not disheartening to watch them play. This was simply another piece of the puzzle, as Tim Welsh and his staff try to put together a team that can challenge the beasts of the Big East, whether at home or on the road. Eventually, they'll need to learn how to overcome adverse conditions – just like they had on Wednesday night.

Of course, this being the first road trip for the team this season, there was an assortment of College personnel and boosters aboard the team's charter flight into Gainesville, FL on Tuesday night. So, let's start out with a blanket statement about the University of Florida:

"We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto."

Or, how about:

"So, this is how the other half lives?"

No one is really complaining about what Providence College doesn't have. It is, however, a great experience to see what kind of effort is put into big-time state universities in order to compete with like-minded programs. Athletics, in places like Florida (with a student body of more than 40,000), certainly revolve around the football program – which is getting ready to step into the spotlight and play for a national championship, just like the basketball team did last April. Even the volleyball team is preparing to play its' way into the Final Four this weekend – and the Gators will play host to the tournament.

But basketball is not an afterthought in Gainesville, as you probably know. It isn't treated like the ugly step-sister in so many dysfunctional families. Rather, hoops are embraced in this football factory, thanks to PC's own "Billy The Kid." A national championship will do that for you.

The Friar athletic department took advantage of this trip into Florida's famed "swamp" by inviting several boosters along for the ride aboard the team's charter flight, and among the activities on game day were a tour of the University of Florida athletic facilities.

Yes, there were a few wide eyes. But, if you aspire to be a "big dog," you have to learn how to run like a "big dog." And that is part of the reason behind these road trip invitations. The Friar athletic department continues to make strides, but there are bigger steps to take down this road.

Game Notes:
The student section at the O'Connell Center (dubbed the "O-Dome") is as raucous as they come. Situated across from the team benches, they were literally breathing down the necks of all three broadcast crews, home and away radio (that's us) and the TV announcers. Prior to the game during team warm-ups, there were some rather unique and creative criticisms of the Friar way of doing things…and let's just say, we shouldn't repeat those here! But afterward, most of the knowledgeable students in the crowd were very impressed, particularly with Efejuku's play…It was great to have Billy Donovan "interrupt" our radio post-game show, coming up to embrace Joe Hassett and then shake hands with myself and the statbeast, John Zannini. His show of affection certainly startled the loud student section seated behind us. We did our best to inform the listeners what Billy was trying to tell us (that his kids haven't had a better game this year). It was also quite startling to have someone come up from behind with a "goose" for our gander – former Friar assistant coach Larry Shyatt…Weird moment: Looking for a soda machine in our hotel, we were startled to find one with a Gator national championship logo on it, complete with a picture of Donovan cutting down the nets from last April. I suppose you know you've made it when your likeness is reproduced on a soda machine…former Friar center Abdul Shamsid-Deen was in attendance, coming from Georgia where he currently lives with family to see the Friars play. After spending the ‘90's playing all over Europe (and winning a couple of championships in Germany with former URI star and current women's coach Tom Garrick), Shamsid-Deen told us during the halftime show that he is hoping to get into coaching. He's currently a science teacher, and he will be up for the 20th anniversary celebration of the '87 Final Four Friars (he was a freshman on that team) in May…the team dinner on Tuesday night before the game was a great example of how this team gets along with each other. Freshmen sat with lettermen, rather than hang by themselves, there was constant conversation that eventually turned into a lot of laughter, and it was clear to see that these players truly enjoy each others' company. Some teams just don't like each other – and we've had some of those teams at Providence. But this team enjoys each others' company, perhaps moreso than others in recent memory. They were all business at the shoot-around Wednesday morning, and were eager to put this game behind them on the trip home…Hassett mentioned on the post-game show "I think Maine is in some trouble for Saturday night."

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