In season three of the HBO show “The Wire” two characters sit in the front seat of a car. Cutty, a criminal fresh from a 14-year prison sentence is handed a weapon. It’s new to him; they didn’t use it back in the day when he ran the streets.
“The game done changed,” Cutty laments in this moment. In response, Slim Charles counters by saying: “game’s the same, just got more fierce.”
What was said in that 2004 episode rings true as Florida enters mid-March a decade later. The game of basketball is fundamentally the same. To win, you must score, play aggressive smart defense, rebound and turn the ball over as little as possible. Where Florida is concerned, the Gators must focus on perimeter defending, pressing when needed and an active zone defense. On offense it’s all about the ball screen action they run so well –ESPN’s Jimmy Dykes won’t let you think of anything else when watching a Florida game.
Those are things to fall back on –certainties. But this is March madness and these games have higher stakes in different neutral settings, in matchups against opponents you aren’t aware of until 48 hours prior to tip-off time. Conference play is over, and Florida is done –for now, with repeat opponents. UF played Kentucky and Tennessee each for the third time and Missouri for the second this season in consecutive days in the SEC tournament. That familiar feel is over once the brackets are released.
“This is a situation now where you’re starting off really from scratch where everyone doesn’t know each other and you’re trying obviously to get prepared to play,” head coach Billy Donovan said. “So there is an excitement I think for both teams you know playing somebody new, but when you’re playing against each other in a league over for us it was 21 games there’s a lot of familiarity.”
The common opponents gave Florida an advantage; with players so accustomed to their opponents they could often coach themselves on the fly. They know tendencies and it makes Donovan’s job much easier because players can coach themselves to an extent.
“Like when we went into the Tennessee game and we didn’t really have any preparation time,” Donovan said. “They know their size, their length, their speed, quickness. They know what they like to do. They know their defense, what they’re going to run on offense. Same thing said with Kentucky.”
Florida will open the tournament with either Albany or Mount St. Mary’s, the Gators won’t know who until the end of Tuesday night. That affords UF a unique opportunity to focus on themselves. Donovan also remarked on the fact that last week’s SEC tournament was the first tournament setting UF had played in, and the first time they had played in three games on three straight days.
Should Florida win its first game Thursday the Gators will again tip Saturday, and it’s not the first time they’ve done that. In each Saturday games following a Thursday game UF won by 16 and 36 points respectively. While they did know the opponent coming up the window of time with which to prepare for them is what makes those games difficult. The stakes get higher when you aren’t sure who you will play and it’s win or go home. Donovan likes the de facto tournament practice he receives in league play.
“Some of the quick turnarounds with the NCAA Tournament are something we have to do inside our league,” Donovan said. “I imagine a lot of leagues are doing that right now due to TV contracts with leagues and those kind of things.”
The break in routine game schedule that comes with the postseason does allow a mental break to focus on their own chinks in the armor. Assistant coaches will be scouting each team but practice time will not be devoted to things that might not happen, like game planning for either perspective opponents instead of just waiting for the one that wins. Donovan called that “infiltrating” his guys Monday. Tuesday evening after the First Four games are over the Gators will get their first look at their second round opponent and then Wednesday’s practice will be live focused on the next day’s game as usual.
The turnarounds are short and the opponents can be relatively unknown, but the thing about the tournament is it’s not like Florida’s the only team doing this. The game may be the same for the other 67 teams in the field as well, but it just got more fierce for them too.