Remember the proverbial “one bad day” that can prematurely dismiss a great team from the NCAA Tournament? The signs of a Purdue ambush lingered inside New Orleans Arena throughout a suspenseful Sunday afternoon, but when crunch time came calling in the second round of the Big Dance, the Florida Gators answered the bell.
After carrying their No. 1 seeding with a sleepy and casual overconfidence for most of the day’s proceedings, the Gators rediscovered their inner pit bull down the stretch. Billy Donovan’s crew was able to advance to the Sweet 16 only because it found the hunger necessary to win a street fight against an inspired and gallant opponent from the Big Ten. By matching Purdue’s intensity level after being outworked for the game’s first 34 minutes, a decorated team registered the kind of accomplishment that usually leads to a Final Four. It’s no small feat when a team survives a bad day, and after escaping the first weekend of the Tournament, the Gators–on an immediate level, not a cosmic one–should feel very satisfied.
The first sign of a bad day at the office was the environment inside the arena. With only half the seats occupied at tip-off time, the Gators weren’t surrounded by the buzz they’ve become accustomed to. CBS analyst Billy Packer (who was not courtside for this game) often mentions how tournament basketball challenges teams from an emotional standpoint. When neutral site environments have empty seats and disinterested crowds, teams often have to, in Packer’s words, “create their own energy.” Until the six-minute mark of the second half (and the CBS broadcasters who were on site for this contest, Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery, made note of this point on the air), Purdue created its own energy while Florida did not. This was the biggest reason why the Gators had such a scare against the Boilermakers. Talent and experience are all well and good, but they have to be applied in each and every game on each and every possession. The Gators took a lot of possessions off, dozing at t he switch and failing to display appreciable concentration for most of the game. It almost cost them. With 34 minutes gone, college basketball’s best team was tied with the pesky and undersized nine seed from West Lafayette.
The other elements of a bad day that emerged against Purdue all came at the offensive end. The Gators displayed deficient three-point shooting, shaky passing, suspect ballhandling, and horrible spacing. A team that ran beautiful offensive sets on the way to last year’s title suddenly forgot every fundamental component of good halfcourt basketball. Taurean Green dribbled too much (Walter Hodge, albeit in limited minutes, actually penetrated and created much more effectively than Green did), Corey Brewer didn’t slash to the goal, Joakim Noah didn’t pass over the top of Purdue’s defense, and Lee Humphrey wasn’t ball strong. Only Al Horford and Chris Richard were consistently solid for the Gators, who committed far too many turnovers for a team with their experience and chemistry.
But in the midst of a bad day, the great ones pick themselves off the deck. After being awakened by Purdue’s vigorous challenge, Florida responded the way champions do: with the hunger of elite athletes who sweat so that their skills can surface.
There was nothing magical about the Gators’ stretch run in the final six minutes against Purdue. There was nothing lucky about it, either. Florida simply elevated its levels of effort and concentration. All the elements of the dreaded “bad day” were relegated to the past by the reigning kings of college basketball.
In those final six minutes against Purdue, Horford continued to excel, as the big man made the window his friend on a number of incredibly difficult bank shots that were released under duress (or, to be more blunt, while being fouled by Purdue defenders). But unlike the game’s first 34 minutes, Horford had help from his teammates.
Green started distributing the ball a little more, and eliminated the turnovers that had been haunting him.
Humphrey knocked down a key three in transition to give the Gators a small but precious working margin of five (54-49).
Brewer started dribbling inside the free throw line, and a remarkably acrobatic jumper sustained Florida’s momentum.
Noah got the loose balls that squirted through his hands earlier in the contest, and on offense, he was less afraid to shoot the ball. Even when he missed, he drew defenders and–as a result–enabled Horford to get easy putbacks.
The Gators, plainly put, started to attack Purdue’s defense in the game’s defining moments instead of allowing the Boilermakers’ pressure to dictate the style of the game. Florida acted instead of reacting, as illustrated by Noah’s effort to reach for a loose ball underneath his own basket with the Gators clinging to a small lead. Noah drew a Purdue foul on the play, but Florida’s most charismatic player might not have earned the whistle–and two subsequent free throws (which he nailed, of course)–had he not made the initial attempt to go for the ball. Instead of taking Purdue–and their NCAA Tournament fate–for granted, the Gators fought for every point and every rebound in the final six minutes against their dogged opponent from Indiana. Purdue was going to make them earn it anyway, so the Gators–a wise bunch of young men–finally took the hint and spilled their guts when the outcome hung in the balance.
And so the Gators march on. When they face Butler in the Sweet 16, the priority list should be pretty simple for Billy Donovan and his team.
The first need is for 40 minutes of A-grade effort. Sure, it’s an obvious need, but it’s undeniably the biggest one. Florida will succeed only if its talent is accompanied by high effort level, period. One hopes this scare against Purdue will gain the Gators’ full attention.
The second need for the Gators against Butler is spacing combined with over-the-top passing. Donovan and his staff need to make everyone aware of the need to create good passing lanes and isolation situations in which defenses can’t provide backside (or weakside) help against over-the-top passing. Florida didn’t exploit Purdue’s lack of size nearly as much as it should have; on Friday night in St. Louis, the Gators need to spread the floor so that their big men can operate more easily and maximize the height and power advantages they’ll have against the Bulldogs.
The third need for Florida is for the Gators to realize that some missed shots are better than others. What was striking about the Purdue game is that the three-pointers Florida made came in transition situations or other times when Purdue didn’t set up its halfcourt defense. In the midst of confusion, Florida’s three-point shooting attack works. But in a slowdown game, threes should be launched much more selectively. It’s much better to miss a driving layup, because–as noted earlier–the move to the goal draws defenders and allows Noah or Horford or Richard to dive to the rim and put back the miss. For similar reasons, Noah should be willing to take that free-throw line jumper. If he hits it, defenses will be extended, which will allow Horford to operate more easily in the low post. But even if Noah misses, the shorter distance (compared to a three-point shot) means the ball won’t take a big bounce off the rim, enabling Horford or Richard to go get the offensive rebound. On Sunday, most of Florida’s threes–until Humphrey’s late bomb in transition–were shot when the Gators didn’t have good floor balance. This point of awareness escaped the Gators on what was a bad day at the office; it can’t elude their attention again in this Tournament.
This writer said on Friday night, after round one, that any kind of win against Purdue–no matter how ugly or sluggish–would be a great win. On Sunday, then, Florida pulled out a tremendous victory against Purdue. When you win the first game on an NCAA Tournament weekend, you can’t get too full of yourself, because another opponent lurks in less than 48 hours. But when you win the second game and move to another site for an additional weekend of basketball, you can–and should–celebrate.
These Gators know they’ll need to work very hard in the coming days before facing Butler in a big dome on Friday. But tonight, these close friends who love playing with each other should be very happy that they earned the right to play another day. What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, and after surviving a serious threat from Purdue, Billy Donovan’s team ought to have additional mental toughness that should serve them very well in an event where each game could be your last. After overcoming adversity in the city that’s still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, the Gators should have a newfound appreciation for what it means to live another day.