ARLINGTON, Texas– With Florida’s arrival at the Final Four comes heightened scrutiny and increased expectations as the team brings their talents to college basketball’s biggest stages in one of America’s most spectacular venues. Gator Country spoke with five national media members on-site in North Texas about the Gators.
ESPN.com senior writer, Andy Katz:
Gator Country: With three established coaches and one newcomer, how does Florida head coach Billy Donovan stack up among the group of headmen here?
Katz: I mean he’s a Hall of Famer — likely Hall of Famer. Won two national championships, this is the fourth Final Four, certainly is in consideration for a Hall of Fame, done a remarkable job at a school that doesn’t have a great basketball history. His 18-year run there is amazing, and I think he’s definitely one of the best in the country.
GC: What makes this Florida team special in your opinion?
AK: They stayed together. I think they’re similar — not as talented — but similar to the ’06-’07 Gators because they all stuck it out together and went through multiple Elite Eights in which they went down, so I would draw a parallel to that.
GC: Keys against UConn?
It’s keeping [Shabazz] Napier and [Ryan] Boatright away from the three-point line. Containing them on the three-point line is going to be the hardest thing.
ESPN basketball insider, Jeff Goodman:
GC: You followed the Chris Walker situation very closely from the beginning, what have you seen from him now that he’s played half the season, and did you expect his production to be at the level that it is?
Goodman: You know he’s just so far behind, that was the thing. He’s talented, I saw him a bunch in AAU ball, he’s long, he’s athletic, he’s talented but he’s just so far behind and it’s not like they have a major need for him this year. They’ve got veteran bigs with Patric Young and Will Yeguete, so I think Billy Donovan made the right call here. He’s bringing him along closely, he’s using him in certain spots that I think aren’t going to overwhelm him. But he gives him another big body depth wise that if Yeguete or Patric Young get into foul trouble you’re able to throw him in there. And I think, as we saw, he works well against other length and you know in the title game if they get there against Kentucky that’s where I think he can be effective against a team like that.
GC: Speaking of matching up against Kentucky a fourth time, what are the unique challenges of meeting a team four times? Can Florida win that game?
JG: I mean it’s hard to beat a team three times never mind four, and this Kentucky team is different then the one even they played a few weeks ago in the SEC tournament. They’ve got confidence now, they started to get it to be honest against Florida coming back from being down so big so it’s a different team because right now they’re walking around and they have swagger, they have confidence and beating a team four times — I don’t know the last time someone beat a team four times in a year.
GC: You’ve been on UF being the best team in the country for a while, what got you so high on them so early?
JG: I mean Billy Donovan, very few weaknesses. You know you give Billy Donovan multiple point guards — he hasn’t had multiple point guards in awhile. I mean Kenny Boynton wasn’t a point guard, we know that and Scottie [Wilbekin] has kind of grown into that but it’s taken him some time. I’ve always said ‘Billy Donovan has taken a team to three straight Elite Eights without really a good point guard, and now he’s got at least one with Wilbekin and Kasey Hill’s going to be very good, so he’s got two options there. And it took him time, early in the season with the suspensions the injuries, it was gonna take time for the roles but there’s nobody better about figuring everything out than Billy Donovan. We know he’s a hall of famer, we know what he can do, and I just think that the pieces fit together. They don’t have that one true superstar, but they’ve just gelled together. They guard, they have enough offensive weapons, they have multiple point guards, they have veteran big guys and they’ve got a Hall of Fame coach. You just look at them and say, ‘where are their major weaknesses?’ and I’m not sure they have one.
USA TODAY college basketball writer, Nicole Auerbach:
GC: When you watch Florida what impresses you?
Auerbach: I think I’ve been really impressed with them all season. I saw them play Memphis in The Garden, I’ve seen them play a few times — at Kentucky, obviously the defense sticks out most. You knew they were going to be a good team and this senior class has been to so many Elite Eights but just the way that they’ve really shutdown some of these potent offenses that they’ve gone up against this season has really been impressive. You know Scottie Wilbekin stepping up after being suspended and the game against Kentucky that I saw, the way that he just kind of took over and it was like a snap of a finger and it was done and that’s the guy you want the ball in his hands controlling the game and you want him guarding the best guy on the other team. So I think the defense has stuck out and just the way that Wilbekin has full control of the team. He’s the guy that other coaches point to as that’s the kind of point guard that you want. His stats aren’t mind-boggling but he does everything the way you want. Especially for this team he knows when to get the right guys involved.
GC: Overheard you talking about Michael Frazier, what do you think he brings to this team?
NA: Well I talked to a lot of coaches when we did this little scouting report thing and they were all pointing to him and his three-point shooting. That’s a game changer, because everyone else, you do what you do, but if he’s able to hit some threes he takes so many that it’s an important part of his game and Florida’s attack but he’s the kind of guy that can take a close game and put it out of reach or help a comeback obviously when you hit a bunch of threes. I just think he’s kind of an X-factor because he has that explosive ability kind of like a Frank Kaminsky for Wisconsin where he can just completely change the dynamic of a game.
GC: Is Florida your pick to win it all? Why or why not?
NA: Yes they are. Again, I think it will be interesting if they go up against Kentucky for a fourth time. It’s really hard to beat that many times in one season. Obviously Kentucky got closer, but if that matchup happens I think that will be a really interesting game. I just think Florida is the best team left on both ends offensively and defensively, they have that balance, they’re KenPom top-20 in both. But defense, everyone says defense wins championships and I think that is what has gotten them here, and will keep them in all of these games. Even if they do lose I don’t see them being blown out. I think they’ll be kept in it, but I have them. I think Billy Donovan is a Hall of Fame coach, he’s won two of these things already before, he knows how to do it and I think this senior class will be rewarded in the year of a freshman. It will be a senior-laden team cutting down the nets.
Denver Post college sports writer, Tom Kensler:
GC: You’ve now seen Florida in each of its two stops in the NCAA tournament, what have you noticed and what has stuck out?
Kensler: What’s stuckout is I think of all the teams in the country, especially in the tournament and in the Final Four they’re probably the most balanced team. They can beat you in so many ways, they can have a couple guys have off days and still win and that’s hard to do in this day and age in college basketball.
GC: What is their secret weapon, in your opinion?
TK: I think what doesn’t get talked about enough is their depth. I think you’ve got [Dorian] Finney-Smith and [Chris] Walker and [Kasey] Hill; that’s a guy at each of the different positions, frontcourt, middle and backcourt. And so I think that’s one thing that’s not being mentioned enough. I think Florida’s got some terrific depth.
GC: You’re a veteran of multiple Final Fours, where does this Florida team stack up against some of the other teams Billy Donovan has brought to Final Fours?
TK: You know I just don’t think it has the superstars, but that’s just the day and age of one-and-dones. Although he’s built with four seniors, so experience wise it’s terrific. It’s almost like a mid-major type team experience. You don’t expect that from a great team in a power conference. But I don’t know if it has the star power of some of the other ones.
ESPN.com college basketball reporter Dana O’Neil:
GC: You saw this Florida team very early in this season, how do you think they’ve grown from then to now?
O’Neil: Well I tell you when I saw them against Florida State, they didn’t play very well for that particular game. But I think they’re like every other team that they’ve gotten better at what they do well. They’re so good defensively and I think they’ve always had that, and I think they’ve managed to hone that. And I think they’ve played with a lot more confidence too. And I think it’s funny because with so many seniors you’d think you would already have that but until you go out there and do it, it doesn’t count and I think that’s what they’ve got right now.
GC: How do you think they matchup with UConn?
DO: Well UConn’s a different team obviously inside; their big guys aren’t terribly imposing although Michigan St. didn’t try to go at them very hard. But they are very sound defensively as well. They like to play more of a halfcourt game, that’s their comfort zone. And the bottom-line with UConn is they go as their guards go with Shabazz Napier being the obvious answer, but Ryan Boatright is every bit as important to the success of this team. His on-ball defense against Michigan St. was fantastic. So that’s going to be the biggest riddle I think for Florida is that they are careful with the basketball that they slow those guys down a little bit, because if they get inside and penetrate they can make you pay for it.
GC: Do you buy into the notion that a team that has won 30 straight games can’t win a Final Four or that they should be worried about their success?
DO: No. That’s the short answer, absolutely not. The last I checked whenever you play a sport no matter what sport it is the goal is to win, right? So I’m not sure how winning games can become a negative in any situation. That’s why we play; we don’t play to eventually lose a couple so we feel worse about ourselves. I absolutely don’t buy that. To me they should be feeling better about themselves then anyone else here, right? I felt the same way about Wichita St. when they were undefeated, so, no.