After watching what UCLA did to LSU last night, what were your first thoughts?
Billy Donovan: "Well, it was obviously extremely impressive. The last time we played LSU, they were a little bit undermanned in the SEC tournament. Darrel Mitchell was hobbled with a sore ankle. Tyrus Thomas didn't play in the tournament because of his ankle injury. So I would say the LSU team that we played in the SEC tournament was definitely undermanned. Clearly from start to finish in our league, they went 14-2. They were the SEC champions. They were the best team in our league. With Mitchell on a hobbled ankle, Tyrus Thomas not playing, we ended up winning by 15 or 16. But it was a one- or two-point game with four, five, six minutes to go. We made a couple shots and were able to get on the break and pulled away. I think what LSU did last -- what UCLA did to LSU last night was extremely impressive."
When you were at Providence, how would you have rated yourself as a defensive player? How did you come to your defensive philosophy, get the Gators to play defense like this?
"I was a defensive stopper. I shut guys down, that's what I did. Didn't shoot it very much. My feeling, really from a defensive standpoint, every team practices what they do offensively every single day. Because they practice what they do, over the course of a season, they become very good at what they run. My philosophy defensively is to try to take teams out of what they practice every single day, whether it be through pressing, through three-quarter court pressing, through trapping pick-and-rolls, trapping the low post, trying to do things to disrupt the course of the flow of a game. I think what that hopefully does is creates transition opportunities for us, creates maybe steals to get out into transition. But more than anything else, my feeling, the way I like to do it, is to try to disrupt the flow of what you're doing on offense."
Could you talk about what you've seen in Ben Howland's defense, just how unusual that is for a school like UCLA to play that Big East style of gritty defense.
"Well, I think UCLA has won a lot of national championships. I don't think you win national championships without playing defense. I'm sure Coach Wooden's teams played very good defense as well. They are very, very disciplined with the way they play defense. They help each other extremely well. They like to take you out of what you want to do. They're very, very physical. They have a great ability to be very physical, body you, take you off cuts. The biggest thing to me that I love about their defense is they're a great help team. They really rotate to each other. They really help each other. I think one of the big keys in defense is a lot of times guys are afraid to leave their man and give help because they're worried about the next guy rotating to their man. He certainly has got them rotating and helping one another. I think that they'll be as good of a defensive team tomorrow night that we've played all year. They do an outstanding job.
"You hear people talk all the time that it's East Coast to West Coast. It's almost I take it as like the West Coast kids don't want to play defense. I don't know if I necessarily agree with that. I think what he has done is taken his style, his beliefs from Pittsburgh and now has transformed it into UCLA. But I think the big thing in any system or any style, there's a lot of ways to skin a cat, a lot of ways to play. I think really what it comes down to as a head coach is what your belief is in it, how strongly you believe in what you do, and that belief has to go through to the players so the players see this is the way we're going to play because you have a belief in it. That to me is the most important thing. It's very clear his beliefs and the way the game needs to be played on the defensive end of the floor, he has great belief in it. I think his team has great belief in it."
Jordan Farmar has said he was going to Florida until Ben Howland -- until he met with Ben Howland at the last minute. Did you think you were confident you were going to get him? What did you see in him then as a recruit? How do you feel he has developed?
"He's really made a poor choice, didn't he (smiling)? No, I'm happy for Jordan. He's in a great situation. He's gotten a lot better as a basketball player, as I knew he would. He's a hard-working kid. Jordan never told me that he was coming to Florida. Although he did visit, I felt like we had a good visit on our campus, we did spend time recruiting him. I think at that time UCLA was probably in a transition period a little bit.
"I think when you're from out west, UCLA represents certainly a whole lot in the state of California, but nationally, UCLA program with Coach Wooden, the coaches that have been there after, the success of the program, what it means, I think with Ben probably coming in there and getting a chance to develop a relationship with Jordan, where his vision was at UCLA, how he thought he -- where he thought he was going to take the program, how Jordan would fit in, it probably for him felt like, hey, listen, that's great. I always think it's very, very difficult for a young man to come all the way across the coast. It's hard. Especially when you have programs that are out west as an Arizona, a Stanford, UCLA, very, very good programs. I think Jordan liked the University of Florida a lot. But at the same point, maybe with what Ben was able to talk to him about after he got the job, maybe made him feel a little bit more comfortable, staying close to home to play."
For Taurean Green and Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah plays with a lot of emotion, enthusiasm. The first time you started playing with him, when you saw that, what was your response to it and has there ever been one time where he's gotten so emotional that it kind of stunned you for a second?
Taurean Green: "He's an emotional guy. He's such a great competitor. He always wants to win. I remember in one of the practices last year, he got upset a little bit, threw the ball at the wall or something. I forgot what happened. No, it's not because he's frustrated. It's just because he wants to win. Every time he goes out and competes, we know what we're going to get out of him emotionally."
Corey Brewer: "He's just a fun guy to play with because he brings it every night. He has all the energy. He's going to play the same way no matter what. He's just going to bring it every night. I just love playing with him."
The players who haven't had much to say so far, what do the letters and the name of UCLA actually mean to you? Their greatest success came before you guys were even born. You're from another generation. How do you look at their program?
Joakim Noah: "Well, I know that they have great tradition, they had a lot of great players go through that program. But I don't think that helps you win the game tomorrow. So right now it's not about tradition, it's about playing basketball, playing the sport that we've been playing since we were little kids, just enjoying playing, enjoying every moment, enjoy playing on the big stage."
Lee Humphrey: "Very aware of UCLA's history. ESPN Classic, all the great players that they've had at the school. I think they've got a lot of really good players now, very talented team. Should be a fun game tomorrow."
How important do you think UCLA's tradition and history is as far as maintaining that program, luring recruits? How important is building tradition for you at your school? Would winning a national championship go a long way toward establishing that tradition?
Donovan: "It's obviously very difficult to win a national championship, to be able to win six games. When you look at UCLA's program, I'm much older than these guys, that I understand what UCLA basketball represents. But I also think, and I don't know the last time they won a national championship, I know when Jim Harrick was there, but I'm not so sure when it was before that. I never felt like UCLA has ever struggled in recruiting because they're not winning national championship after national championship after national championship.
"I just think what's happened in college basketball, you've got Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA. Those programs in terms of their tradition I don't think have really struggled or ever struggled in recruiting. They've been able to do a fabulous job. We realize that, I think like Joakim said, the tradition doesn't have anything to do with tomorrow night, but I think it probably has something to do to their players, because their players understand what they're representing in terms of what UCLA represents. A lot of times it's the past players that they know are watching them that have a level of expectation of the way they're supposed to perform. I think that's a good thing for a program.
"That's what we're trying to build here at Florida. I hope that there's someday, if I'm here long enough, that guys will come back and look at these guys and say, you know what, I need to go out and play well, because Joakim Noah and Al Horford and Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Lee Humphrey, they play with great passion. Those guys are watching me, with them watching me there's a level I have to uphold. That's what we're trying to create. We don't have that right now in terms of we've been doing it long enough.
"UCLA has been going I don't know for I don't know how many years. Kentucky has been going...It has to start somewhere. Hopefully that's something that will be carried on. That's what we're trying to build at Florida. It's never been done. It hasn't been sustained. UCLA, Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, that's been sustained for so, so long. You know, the past tradition doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the game, but I'm sure there's a level of expectation that the players feel they have to uphold."
With a team that early in the season was perceived as being maybe a year away, what have been a few or maybe the biggest keys to going this far?
Donovan: "Well, just the main piece has been their willingness to remain extremely unselfish, their ability not to embrace success. I think that's the hardest thing that happens to a team is, when you get to be 17-0, you can think it's easy or that you got it all figured out. They really remained very humble. They wanted to get better. I think the losses that we went through this year, I've said this many times, have helped our basketball team understand how to get beat. We were able to make corrections. I would say besides the passion, the unselfishness, playing hard, they're a very, very attentive group that care about each other a great deal, want to be coached, want information and want to get better. I think that's the key. Although they're young in terms of their year in class, they're a little bit older mentally in terms of what they've got to zero in and focus in on. That's been a bit surprising to me because I didn't know what to expect. I felt like we'd play unselfish, we'd play hard, and they'd give me everything they had night in and night out. But I didn't know when the experience factor would kick in, would we be able to overcome that.
"Al started but was pretty much a defender, rebounder for us. Corey was the same thing, perimeter defender, slasher. Corey was our leading scorer coming back from last year's name, scoring seven points a game. There was a lot of uncertainty. These guys have shown when you play together as a team what can be accomplished.
"So you talk about UCLA's tradition. I'm hoping teams that continue to come up, this will be a reflection of what a group of guys, a collection of guys, can do together."
Coach, what did you think of Luc Richard lMbah a Moute last night? Did you see him much in high school?
"Yes, I did. Came from a great high school program at Montverde with Kevin Sutton. Really liked him a lot as a player. I wasn't sure if he was exactly what we needed at that time during the recruiting process, but really liked him a lot. Certainly he made a great decision for himself. I think he's had a huge impact on UCLA's program. He has done a lot of different things. I think he complements his teammates very well. His teammates complement him very well. I'm happy for him 'cause he's a very nice kid. "
Lee Humphrey had a big night last night. Could you talk about how confident you are when he's got the ball behind the arc, and also what are you expecting out of UCLA as far as their perimeter defense, stopping the three-pointer?
"One of the worst feelings you can have as a coach is when you see a guy rise up and take a three-point shot and know it's got no chance of going in. That is not a good feeling. The one thing about Lee is when he lets it go, you feel that it's got a pretty good chance of going in. I'm sure UCLA is very conscious of Lee, the way he has shot the basketball. Again, they're a very good defensive team. I don't think they're going to do anything, let's say scheme-wise, we're going to change our defensive principles and what we've done up to this point in time to shut him down. But there's ways to track him, eye him, to make sure he doesn't get off very many clean looks.
"Lee is one of those guys that's patient. He's not a -- force a lot of shots. He gets the shots in within the framework of our offense. Like I said last night, our guys do a pretty good job of finding him in transition, when the ball gets inside to out. Lee does a pretty good job of finding ways to get into some open areas. "
When you did recruit Noah, did you think as much or more about his defensive potential for you as his offensive potential? With regard to losing players early to the NBA or never getting them at all, has there ever been any serious discussion with you and your peers, have you ever entertained the thought of trying a strategy of under-recruiting in the hopes of accumulating one of these three-and four-year teams?
"I think it's a great question, something that we've talked about a lot. To the first question, Joakim, when I saw him in high school, was not a great athlete in terms of off the floor. He was a fabulous straight-ahead runner. He was good on his feet. You could see that his size and physicality at times were a disadvantage to him that didn't really allow him to block shots because guys would take the ball to his body and would neutralize him.
"He's gotten considerably stronger from high school, which has allowed him to hold his position and effect shots a little bit more. I think that's an area where I didn't know what kind of shot blocker he would be. He's always been a terrific runner. He's a guy that plays to complete exhaustion. He has a great threshold to continually run through fatigue. A lot of guys sometimes when they get tired in the course of the game, they try to take a play off, relax. Not him. He plays all the way a hundred percent full throttle.
"I think the recruiting part is exactly what we're all trying to do now. The complexion in college basketball has changed so much. For a while there, 10 years ago, everybody talked about, if you really want to win at the college level, you have to have two or three pros on your team. I'm not so sure that's the case any more. I think exactly what you're talking about, you know some of those high school kids out there that are destined for the NBA. It's hard not to have one foot in college and one foot on the NBA. Also, I think evaluating. If there was one thing I'd like to see the NCAA change, I would love to see a change where we as coaches can get back on the road and have more contact with kids because we need to get to know them. We talk about kids transferring and kids making poor decisions. The reason kids make poor decisions and coaches make poor decisions, we're making decisions with not enough information on who we're recruiting.
For me during the course of the season, it's hard for head coaches to get out. We're practicing every day. Maybe there's a local kid you can go see. We have to be able to have more access in terms of asking them questions about their makeup and who they are, what they want to become. Those are the hard things. I really believe what allows a kid -- I'll give you an example. Noah is an example of it. Taurean Green is an example of it. I think Luc Richard is an example of it. These weren't McDonald's All-Americans. There were a lot of kids coming out of high school that were thought of a lot higher than those kids. But it's Luc Richard's mentality that allows him to be an effective, really good player for UCLA. It's Noah's passion and unselfishness that allows him to be a good player. You can take guys with the same exact athletic ability and talent, but if they don't have the right makeup in terms of being part of a team, they never reach their potential."
Can you talk about defending UCLA's quickness, their guards, having faced Villanova, does that help you in preparation?
"They have some similarities to Villanova. But I would say they're much of a bigger team than Villanova. Villanova didn't have a lot of depth in their front court. They were going to play Cunningham, Fraser, and I forget, I don't remember the other guy's name. Clark. There was one more. Sheridan. Those were the three bigs, rotate those three bigs, sometimes going with guards. UCLA has a lot more size, length, shot-blocking ability. They're a much, much I would say deeper team than Villanova is. I don't know all the stories, but I know Ben went through a lot of injuries throughout the course of the season, had some guys out. I felt like when we lost Humphrey and Brewer, I was hopeful that would make our team better because other guys would have an opportunity to step up. I would say probably the same has happened for UCLA. Some of those kids that had to step into some key roles while some guys were injured probably has enabled those guys to have some confidence. But their quickness and speed is without question on par with Villanova. But I would say they're a much, much longer and deeper team than Villanova."
With recruiting, sometimes do kids get labeled a McDonald's All-Americans just because North Carolina or Duke is recruiting them and maybe not necessarily how good they are? Because UCLA and you are doing so well this year, without tons of McDonald's All-Americans, do you think coaches will take a closer look at how they recruit?
"I don't know if kids or the committee who pick those teams say, okay, this guy signed at North Carolina, he must be really good, let's put him on the All-American team. This guy signed at Kansas, he must be good. I don't know if that happens. Like anything else, there are kids that go through high school that are probably underrated, under-appreciated, under-valued. There are probably some kids that are overhyped, overpublicized, not as good as people thought they were. I think it happens everywhere. You try to recruit those kids that have that mentality and a level of talent that can really, really help your team, I think that's what you're looking to try to do."
Connecticut, North Carolina, the last two national championships, both great running teams, scoring teams. You press, you lead the nation in field goal percentage. Can you talk about why you play the way you play, if it helps you to get where you are right now?
"I play that way because, first of all, I believe in it. I like to see the game played in transition. I like to see the ball movement. I like player movement. I like extra passing. I like guys utilizing the game of basketball in terms of trying to teach them how to play the right way. Believe it or not, our style of play is very, very hard to coach because there is time that I have to give up a level of control and trust. I don't call a play every single time. I try to let our guys make plays. In doing that, you have to work very hard in practice to be able to do that. But I also think the spontaneity, the creativity of playing that way, getting them to understand extra pass, ball movement, open man, I think is a very, very difficult way to guard.
"For me as a player, I was a guy at six feet that if the game got caught in halfcourt, I wasn't getting a shot off Georgetown, Villanova, those teams. I was able to be more of an effective player with the game being played in transition. Also I think, too, in this tournament, you have to be able to play different ways because there's sometimes you cannot force your style on somebody. You may have to play halfcourt. The SEC championship game, we ended up winning the game 49-47. We have a style and a system and things that we want to do. But you also have to understand that you got to be able to -- if you're not making shots, you got to be able to defend and rebound, hold teams down to a low shooting percentage. But a lot of probably what I believe in is what I went through as a player, being around Coach Pitino."
Is there more of a sense of urgency these days when you get this far? You never know which kids are going to leave. You're not necessarily building to anything. Why are you so much better than everybody thought in pre-season?
"The first reason we're probably better is when you lose your three leading scorers on paper everybody says, how can they be any better. I think that was the first thing. Also we had a bunch of guys returning and coming back that really were unproven, nobody knew about. Nobody had really seen them play a whole lot. We're probably a basketball team that's maybe a little bit more balanced. We've got several guys that can score. We've got guys that can defend and rebound and block shots. We're a team that can play in transition. I think we can guard in the halfcourt. These kids have really -- understand really the importance of being unselfish, being part of a team."
When a kid Mohamed Abukar transfers out, have you kept up with him? What do you say to a kid like that? Do you take it individual by individual when a kid wants to leave?
"I've got great respect for Mohamed. I always appreciated how hard he worked while he was at Florida. As a matter of fact, I had a chance to email his coach back and forth last week a couple times because there was a great article about Mohamed, the year he had. I think the person in the article was talking about what did he think about Florida reaching the Final Four. Just the comments Mohamed made about our program, myself, the guys on the team was very nice. Sometimes for these kids it really comes down to one thing. The most important thing for all these kids is playing time. I think some kids will accept not playing as a freshman if they can see a light. I think for Mohamed, he was saying, where am I going to fit in and play? I would have loved for Mohamed to stay. I think he could have continued to develop into a very good player.
"It wasn't a conflict of he and I of personalities. It was more of an issue he wanted to play more. Each kid only has four years to play in college. I think he should have the right to be able to leave if he feels another opportunity out there better for him. It's worked out very well for him. He did a great job at San Diego State, had a great year, helped them out tremendously. I'm happy for him as a person and kid because he deserves to have a good college experience being on the floor. I think hopefully maybe his time at Florida, maybe I helped prepare him for that. I don't know. Maybe that helped."
This weekend used to be dominated by seniors, juniors. Why are they able to play so well so early? Does it make the situation a little more volatile with a young team?
"It always makes it volatile. You bring up a good point. There are other teams out there in the country that are young. I think that certain young kids can handle the role that they're placed into maybe better than some other young kids. It doesn't mean these young kids that haven't been able to do it will not in time become great players. Sometimes it takes people a little longer to do things. There's other people that figure it out early on, there's other people it takes a little longer to figure it out. The two teams right now are very young. They've got a couple seniors and a couple older guys. We're probably about as youthful as anybody on a Monday night in the last several years."
Did you see the defensive potential in this team from day one? There was a play in the George Mason game when Al and Joakim doubled Lewis. Was that a snapshot of the way this team plays defense?
"It's interesting you say that because I felt in the middle of this year, right around the beginning of January, I thought our team last year was much, much better defensively, more disciplined, more accountable, more reliable. We had guys like Al Horford and Joakim Noah jumping around in the lane trying to block shots. What happened would be is they'd leave their man, go over to block a shot, they had no shot at blocking, ball goes over the basket, we had not block-out, layup.
"Corey Brewer at times, because he's a good steal guy lunging it through passing lanes, getting out, to me we were, I don't want to say undisciplined, but we didn't understand the concept of when to go block shots, when to go for steals. We needed little bit of that. We've gotten better as the season has gone on through watching film of understanding what we can and cannot do defensively.
"I think that's one of the things that's impressive about UCLA is they're very disciplined, they don't get out of their routine of what they do, they're very reliable for 35 seconds. With our youth I think are moving a little bit more towards that where we've been making it difficult for teams to score through the fact that we got length up in the front court and our back court players have done a pretty good job containing the ball."