I said it in an earlier column, but it warrants repeating — post time for Florida’s opening game versus Northwestern State is 7:27pm EST on Friday.
That’s right— post time. As in ‘horse racing’.
A race, actually a sprint is what the Gators expect and perhaps even welcome in its 2013 NCAA tournament debut versus the nation’s top point- producing squad, and one that Ken Pomeroy ranks as the country’s fastest tempo team.
But as Coach Donovan said in an early week press conference, “we like to run too”.
And run they will. But how do the Gators avoid breaking stride and assure a place in the winner’s circle?
Let’s take a look at the 5 keys to victory.
5) Get out of the blocks: This will be a horse race, and Florida desperately wants to break away early. If there is consistent theme among tournament upsets it is the underdog hanging back, and hanging around late into the contest. Rarely will you see an underdog surge back from an early, demoralizing deficit. Such scenario usually crushes the underdog’s will and reinforces the notion that the game is one in which it should not be competitive. But, a lower-seed that loiters in the contest gains confidence— and typically, neutral-site fan support. The heavy pressure becomes an albatross for the favorite and an upset almost seems inevitable. Look for the Gators to sprint out of the blocks and put a lethal bite into the Demons upset hopes.
4) RUN (and score)!: As said above, when asked about the Demons’ up-tempo style, Coach Donovan flatly said, “Well, we like to run too”. And the Gators will have plenty of opportunity to do so. Though the open style of Northwestern State scores points, it also concedes ‘em— a lot of em! Just ask LSU, which tallied a gaudy 102 total in its early-season shootout with the Demons. Florida will absolutely play much of this game in transition, a style in which the Gators are more than comfortable. But Florida is not training for a marathon. The intent of these full court sprints will be to score, and doing so would cripple Northwestern State on both ends of the floor. The Demons ability to force offensive tempo could be stymied by the Gators scoring success, as much of its potency comes off long rebounds and run outs. Transition baskets are tough to come by when waiting for the ball to fall through the net and in-bounding to a readied defense. The ‘best defense is a good offense’ mantra may ring true here. But for Florida’s offense to be ‘good’, aggression must be mixed with proper decision-making and shot selection.
3) Now Run Back: Early in the week Coach Donovan said that his team’s “transition defense will be challenged”. Ummm— yeah. So how do the Gators meet that challange? Well, it’s not as simple as merely running back. Success also includes communicating and matching-up— all while in full retreat. “The two main keys for us are handling the transition defense— getting back in transition and getting on our man,” said Mike Rosario. That “and” is pretty important. The Gators recognition in transition will be crucial to Florida’s effort to slow a fast offense. And like above, the Gators success on one end of the floor will directly impact the other. Though the Demons have shown a willingness to press even on missed shots, doing so against a fast and potent Florida team would be suicide. So, in order to effectively apply pressure— something the Gators have struggled with— the Demons will need to make baskets and press on the in-bound. The reality is, however, that Florida’s defense is far too good— and quite frankly Northwestern State’s half court offense is far too pedestrian— for the Demons to expect scoring success in any fashion other than transition. If the Gators are able to consistently get back and matchup, well — to quote another bald-headed basketball junkie: “It’s blowout city, baby!”.
2) Be like my kid: I think I have used this comparison once before, but there is not a more appropriate hoops analogy than the one provided by the mentality of my three-year old son. “Hold tight to what is mine. Take, without discretion, what is theirs”. Let’s be honest. Florida is the better team. Significantly better. On a possession by possession basis, the Gators will assuredly out-perform Northwestern State. So, how could this seemingly easy contest become something far more, well — demonic? It could happen if Florida concedes more possessions to its fiendish opponent — if it yields more scoring opportunities to this fast, high-octane rival. So, the Gators simply need to be selfish. Hold tight to the ball— value possessions. Turnovers in this contest will have a magnified impact, as break out opportunities afforded to the Demons will play right into NWST’s game plan and their only hope for an upset. Giveaways will not only yield the transition points, but provide opportunity to set-up the frenetic pressure the Demons hope to impose. Conversely, if Florida can turnover a Northwestern State team that tossed the ball away 21 times against LSU, the impact on the underdog will be devastating. My son’s “selfish equation” also extends to rebounding. The Demons, though not an overly long team, excel on the glass— ranking high nationally in overall rebounds and offensive boards. The Gators absolutely must limit that latter, and should certainly be able to do so. Northwestern State’s lofty rankings can, in some part, be attributed to quality of competition. After all, in its three games versus SEC opposition (LSU, Texas A&M and Arkansas) the Demons lost the board battle by a combined 29 rebounds. Coach Donovan often suggests that rebounding is about “passion and intensity”, which provides perfect segway into our final key— one that will be critical not only for this game, but the duration of Florida’s tournament run, however long that may be.
1) Remember what coach said: While this group may be too young to recall Coach Donovan’s speech before Florida’s first national title, I suspect he may still repeat the same refrain: “Live in the moment. Cherish the moment”. Too often this Gators team has ‘wilted’ in the moment. And the theories as to why are varied: bad luck, nerves, poor focus, lack of leadership or just bad shots. Regardless, the Gators big game— or more specifically— big-moment struggles are well documented. Though Donovan has insisted that there is not a nerve component attributable to the close-losses, he did blast his team’s focus and intensity late in the season. In addition, he openly suggested his team was consumed by “the moment” when it appeared lethargic in a home victory over Alabama. The tournament is comprised of ‘big moments’, and for Florida, those begin Friday night. A focused, intense Florida team is a scary one. But being such requires the Gators to stay in the moment for all 40 of them— and to embrace the opportunity each one offers. Throw out those recent stumbles. This is a very talented team. A moment in which the Gators ‘live’ and ‘cherish’ is one the opposition will likely dread and perish. If this Florida team embraces its coach’s mantra, it may hear it for a few more games, and perhaps even in a pregame speech ala 2006.