INSTANT ANALYSIS: Gators 65, Butler 57

The Florida Gators are an unselfish team. Friday night, they took that unselfishness to new levels, and their strategy worked against an opponent that dictated the action.

Before saluting the wisdom of the Gators (and we’ll do plenty of that), one has to tip the cap to the Butler Bulldogs. From start to finish, the undersized mid-major looked at Florida’s trees and–instead of flinching in the face of the Gators’ power–turned a disadvantage into an advantage. Much as Vanderbilt did against Georgetown (it was rather remarkable to basically see the same game being played twice in the same time slot on CBS feeds), Butler made the Gators chase around the perimeter and negotiate a bewildering array of screens and cuts. In the first 15 minutes and in portions of the second half, Florida simply lost track of Butler’s shooters. Armed with forwards who shoot the three even better than their guards, the Bulldogs turned the Gators’ size into a liability at the defensive end. It became painfully clear late in the first half that Florida was going to have to concede something to the pesky adversary from the Horizon League.

In other words, the Gators would need to be unselfish in ways they hadn’t been before.

The scenario unfolding in St. Louis could have–nay, WOULD HAVE–unnerved other highly-seeded teams: a mid-major uses a unique system and forces a college basketball powerhouse to play at a slow tempo, in a lower scoring range, with a style that negates the juggernaut’s advantages. Other ballclubs, in their greed, would have tried to increase pressure or impose their will upon a team with Butler’s offensive system. Less patient defenses would have tried to negate both the three and the drive to the basket.

The Gators, being unselfish and smart, knew better.

One can’t be sure if Billy Donovan’s team watched Thursday night’s South Regional Semifinal between Texas A&M and Memphis, but if they did, it wouldn’t have been surprising. A&M’s offensive system often produced good angles for layups and cuts to the basket, but Memphis had supremely athletic and long defenders who, despite being a step behind the play, could recover to erase the shot before it hit the backboard. All game long, this pattern continued, and late in the game, A&M’s Acie Law IV missed a layup in which he put the ball on the glass quickly, but not with enough height to get the ball into the basket. The lingering threat of a blocked shot turned layups into tentative shots, and for that primary reason, Memphis was able to turn back A&M.

One day later in the Edward Jones Dome, Florida used the same basic formula to turn back Butler. With an unselfish mindset, the Gators weren’t too proud to concede nothing to the Bulldogs. No, Florida was humble and wise. Billy Donovan’s team took its medicine, swallowed hard, acknowledged the virtues of Butler’s system, and made a fundamental choice that turned out to be the right one: lock down on the three, give the drive to the basket.

You saw what happened down the stretch: Butler continued to get cuts and drives to the goal, but Joakim Noah and Al Horford bothered almost every shot. And with exactly three minutes left and the score tied at 54, Butler’s Brian Ligon–with an open layup–nevertheless pushed the shot too long. It bounced off the back of the rim, and a few seconds later, Al Horford fought his way to an old-fashioned three-point play for a 57-54 edge the Gators would never relinquish. Add on a Corey Brewer jumper and some free throws, and Florida became the first defending champion to advance to the Elite Eight since Michigan State in 2001.

It’s uncomfortable to admit this, but all of the really tight Sweet 16 games have involved a missed layup or free throw (or both) in the final few minutes. Southern Illinois missed a layup against Kansas in a tie game with 2:20 left. We talked about Acie Law’s miss against Memphis. Tennessee left points at the line against Ohio State. Vanderbilt missed a free throw with 1:36 left against Georgetown. It would be naive, stubborn and just plain wrong to say that all these higher seeds have prevailed with an air of inevitability. None of these victories for 1 and 2 seeds have been the least bit automatic.

It only says that much more about the Gators and what they’re doing.

Florida has now prevailed in two straight finger chompers (that’s a better name for a Gator game than “nail-biter,” isn’t it?) that had a lot of stylistic similarities. Butler had more finesse and long-distance shooting ability compared to Purdue, but both teams creatively spaced the floor on offense while pounding the living daylights out of UF’s post players on defense. Butler and Purdue dragged the Gators into a slowdown game, which is much easier to do than speed a game up. Moreover, the Bulldogs and Boilermakers both played with dogged intensity and hit a solid percentage of their shots (in the 40s for both teams, Purdue a bit higher owing to fewer attempted threes and more shorter-distance shots). Florida had to concede certain advantages at the defensive end while asserting its advantages–power, power and more power–at the offensive end. On both occasions, this combo of smart defense and patient offense routed through Al Horford was enough to carry the day. In both o f these games, the Gators used excellent free throw shooting to prevail down the stretch.

The Gators showed last year that they could win while playing any style. But that was when Florida felt comparatively little pressure and played with the freedom and confidence of… well… Butler. The psychology is always different when you have the bullseye on your back, and yet the Gators–who have had to endure pressure rather than blitzing opponents in this year’s NCAA Tournament–have won. They’ve lacked the artistry of 2006, but they’ve shown the patience and resolve that has defined this decorated team all year long.

The Florida Gators are winning in a different way this March. For some, that would be troubling. Where’s the dominant halfcourt offense seen against Villanova in last year’s regional final? Where’s the long-distance shooting from Lee Humphrey? Where’s the two-man game on offense with Horford and Noah? Where’s the decisive double-digit margin of victory witnessed in five of six tournament wins?

But as we all know, Florida fans actually appreciate winning… unlike Kentucky fans, who insist on those basketball style points that–if applied to last year’s football season–would have kept Urban Meyer’s team out of the national title game. Any win is a great win at this time of year, and for Florida to win two straight grinders is a testament to this team’s mental toughness in the crunch-time situations that define–and make–legendary performers.

The Gators–at press time–don’t know whom they’ll face in Sunday’s Midwest Regional Final. One would like to think the Gators can impose their will from the outset instead of having to react and adjust. Rather than feeling out an opponent for 10-15 minutes, it would be nice if Florida could make opponents adjust to Billy Donovan’s system.

But you know something? If the Gators have to swallow their medicine, concede a few advantages, and play a different style in order to fix certain flaws, they’ll do just that. They might play a close game, and they might even lose, but one thing’s for sure: this team will make sure that its opponent will have to consistently make high-level plays down the stretch.

UNLV or Oregon, listen up: you’re going to have to hit tough shots over the arms of long defenders. You’re going to have to do so for a whole game, and especially in the final minutes when your legs will be oh… so… tired… from having to work harder than you’ve ever worked before.

These Gators know how to work hard. It’s not possible to do any more running on defense than the Gators have against Purdue and now Butler. One team will have staying power for 40 minutes: the Boys from Old Florida know how to stay the course.

Rebels or Ducks, you’re going to have to run with the team that knows how to run the race.

It’s a race that’s one win away from Florida’s second straight Final Four.