INSTANT ANALYSIS: Jackson State-Florida

The Florida Gators are used to being the hunted. After all, they’ve spent the entire 2007 season learning how to take every opponent’s best shot. But after a less-than-impressive win over Jackson State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Gators need to realize that being hunted in the Big Dance is very different from being pursued in the regular season.

The story of this game against the pesky 16 seed from the Southwestern Athletic Conference is a story that is waiting to be written. The Gators’ response to their opening round win will determine the nature of that story. A healthy response will translate into another Final Four and a great chance for a repeat title; a poor response, however, will produce a level of disappointment that’s unworthy of these exceptional young men.

The final margin from New Orleans indicated a rout for the Gators, but the 112-69 score doesn’t indicate how poorly Florida played in the first half. A 16 seed has never toppled a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, so a “W” should not be the standard by which Florida’s first-round performance should be evaluated. The Gators’ second-half dominance only makes the first 20 minutes that much more unacceptable, and Billy Donovan will have some strong words for his team before a second-round battle with Purdue on Sunday afternoon. This game needs to be a learning experience for the Gators, and it can also be a learning experience for the casual basketball fan who might study Spring Football more than the NCAA Tournament.

If you think this game is no cause for concern, think again. (Alarm? No. Concern? Yes. This writer isn’t pushing the panic button by any stretch; he has Florida winning it all in his bracket. But in a one-and-done event such as the Big Dance, confidence–like chalk brackets–can evaporate in a heartbeat on the proverbial “one bad day.” Florida needs to innoculate itself against the “one bad day.”)

While a younger and lower-seeded Florida team was making its way through the 2006 tournament in under-the-radar games against South Alabama, Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Georgetown, the best team in the country–Connecticut–struggled mightily in its first three tournament games. Jim Calhoun’s Huskies–who occupied the position the 2007 Gators currently inhabit–experienced a brutal first-round game against Albany. Sure, the Huskies won that game, and they even managed to win a couple more times to reach the Elite Eight. But take note, Gator fans: those Huskies–deep, loaded, experienced, powerful and long–still failed to reach the Final Four. Inconsistent, switch-flipping basketball eventually bit them in the backside, as George Mason was able to take them down in the regional final.

The 2006 Gators, on the other hand, rocked all of their opponents except one (Georgetown, whom the Gators survived in a slugfest), as Donovan’s dynamos brought other teams to their knees and kept them there. The laws of averages do say that a national champion must endure at least one close game in the NCAA Tournament, but Florida is good enough to not even be bothered or breathed on until the Elite Eight. A team that has been accused of switch-flipping needs to realize that Connecticut’s switch got turned off by George Mason before last season’s Final Four. Awesome talent and abundant experience mean something only if they’re applied and put into action. Each day is a new proving ground, and against Purdue, the Gators must prove their worth all over again.

Here’s what the Gators might not yet realize: while they know they’ve had a bullseye on their backs all year, they’ve never had to deal with the even more suffocating pressure that comes with being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Florida has never been a top seed in the history of the basketball program. As familiar as the Gators have become with scrutiny and pressure, the life of a top seed is a singularly new experience that these players–veterans though they are–have never encountered before. And in an event where teams don’t schedule opponents (but have opponents scheduled and created for them), it takes a unique mindset to not only survive, but thrive.

The Gators were able to turn back Jackson State with their depth, power and a decisive runs ignited by Lee Humphrey. But while “Humpty Dump” found his range in the opening minutes of the second half to enable Florida to pull away, the instructive element of this first-round foray is that the Gators’ best path to Tournament success lies in the paint.

The proverbial “one bad day” that top seeds fear in the NCAA Tournament is usually a day when three-pointers don’t fall. Wisconsin couldn’t hit the side of a barn in the first half against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, and the Badgers were doing some major sweating until they caught fire in the late going against their 15th-seeded opponent on Friday afternoon. Notre Dame–a tremendous perimeter shooting team–couldn’t hit the ocean from the shore during a critical and crippling stretch in a loss to Winthrop. Washington State got good looks in the first half against Oral Roberts, but didn’t hit them. It took a scorching second half for the third-seeded Cougars to survive their opening-round game. Friday night against Jackson State, the Gators–despite a huge advantage inside–attempted 13 first-half threes and missed twelve of them. Against teams that are better than JSU, a 1-13 first half will probably result in a halftime deficit, and the real prospect of–if not a loss–an unco mfortably close shave–you know, the kind of close shave that Connecticut had in early-round games last year on the road to something LESS than the Final Four.

The point is clear: even when you get open perimeter shots, they still might not fall on one given day. Therefore, teams need to be able to get layups and free throws on demand when the outside shots don’t drop. Florida, happily, is equipped to do this. In last year’s run to the championship, the passing of Joakim Noah from the elbows and the top of the key to Al Horford enabled Florida to throw over the top of defenses while extending the opposition’s big men. Having two (or sometimes three) agile bigs on the court is enough of an advantage in the college game; having two agile bigs who can pass the ball is an even greater advantage, and a year after their tournament triumph, the Gators–with all five starters back–don’t need to mess with success. Their safest and most secure path to victory lies with hi-lo passing and ball distribution from their big men.

Humphrey and Taurean Green might get open threes, but they need to come after Noah and Horford touch the rock. The Gators might very well fill it up from long range, but they’d be well advised to establish the inside game first, because it will be their biggest advantage in every game they’ll play in this tournament, until a possible national title game against either Ohio State or Georgetown. Florida will own a huge edge in the frontcourt–from every conceivable standpoint–against Purdue. The Gator big men will possess much more power than potential Sweet 16 opponents Butler and Maryland. The Gator bigs will have a lot more quickness than the interior players from potential Elite Eight opponents Oregon, UNLV and Wisconsin. Horford and Noah will have much more size than the post players from potential semifinal opponents UCLA and Kansas. Guys like Greg Oden or Roy Hibbert would challenge Florida’s pivot players, but they’re on the other side of the bracket, and wouldn’t meet Horford and Noah until April 2.

So let’s bring the discussion back to the next game on the docket. If Florida wants to beat Purdue on Sunday and make a strong statement about its place in the world of college basketball, the interior game will acquire primary importance. Patient halfcourt sets, crisp passes, and razor-sharp focus are the simple but substantial tools the Gators need to bring to the building against the Boilermakers. If Billy Donovan’s team shoots fewer threes and takes greater care of the ball on Sunday–proof that the ragged first half against Jackson State was indeed the learning experience it needs to be–Purdue simply won’t have the scoring punch needed to keep pace with the Gators.

Florida has the swagger, experience, chemistry and balance of a No. 1 seed. But with that having been said, the Gators’ first-ever game as a top seed wasn’t a thing of beauty. On Sunday, the Gators get a chance to prove how good they are, and if they apply the lessons they’re supposed to learn, this loaded team will avoid the sad fate experienced by last year’s overwhelmingly superior ballclub, the Connecticut Huskies.

History is being created by these Gators as we speak, but that history will be short and sad if Florida doesn’t take simple steps to protect itself from the “one bad day” that has conquered many college basketball goliaths in seasons past. Like great spiritual warriors, the Gators must do their “interior work” first. If they do, the external results–and rewards–will take care of themselves.