UF-OSU Hoops: A March Madness Feel To It

Friday afternoon on University Avenue scalpers were asking for and getting anywhere from $300 to $400 per ticket for Saturday’s nationally televised matchup between third-ranked Ohio State and fourth-ranked Florida (4 p.m., Stephen C. O’Connell Center, CBS). Consider it a sign of the times, a statement that Florida has arrived when a Florida basketball ticket can create that kind of demand.

This is the most anticipated basketball game of the season, one that network execs envisioned as a matchup of the ultimate team, Florida’s 2006 NCAA champs with all five starters back, against Ohio State and its freshman phenom Greg Oden, the most hyped big man to come along in the college game since Patrick Ewing arrived at Georgetown in the early 1980s. With Florida (10-2) battling through sickness and injury problems that will keep 6-10 Al Horford out of the game and Oden back just four games after surgery on his wrist, some of the luster might be missing but that hasn’t stopped this from becoming the hottest Florida basketball ticket ever. It might be December but the game has a March Madness feel to it.

Horford isn’t expected to play due to a high ankle sprain suffered in practice about 10 days ago. He is Florida’s leader in scoring (13.2), rebounding (8.3) and blocked shots (21). When Horford and 6-11 Joakim Noah (12.5, 7.7, 20 blocked shots) are in the lineup with 6-9 Chris Richard coming off the bench, the Gators have one of the toughest and most versatile big man rotations in the country. With Horford out, Florida loses depth and that could be a critical issue against Oden, who is averaging 15.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game since returning from his injury.

Having Horford in the lineup would certainly enhance Florida’s chances of winning the game, but Coach Billy Donovan says he’s just not going to risk bringing his big man back too early, particularly with the always tough Southeastern Conference schedule ready to begin in a couple of weeks.

Donovan has been working Horford individually to determine if he’s capable of playing in this game but as of Thursday, the Florida coach said, “I just don’t anticipate him playing at all on Saturday.”

Whether or not Horford plays, Donovan says there are no excuses. He notes that Florida isn’t the only team that has had to battle through missed games by star players due to sickness or injury.

“Any time you’ve got a player out of the caliber of Al Horford or Corey Brewer there is an effect on your team but I’m sure Ohio State had an effect when Oden was out a few games,” said Donovan. “They found ways to manufacture a style or system that was hard [to defend].”

If Horford doesn’t go, that puts the yeoman’s collar on Noah, the Most Outstanding Player in the 2006 NCAA Tournament, and Richard, a 255-pound strongman who would start for 95 percent of the schools in Division I. They will both have to play well for the Gators to win, but Donovan says this game is far greater than an Oden vs. the Florida front court matchup.

“I think the one thing that has not really been talked about is that they’re making 10 three point shots per game,” said Donovan. “That’s the thing that is so impressive about their team. They have good balance inside and out. It’s definitely a challenge. You try to double him and take him out of the game and do some of those things and you are going to leave yourself vulnerable to three-point shots.”

Ohio State (10-1) played its first seven games of the season without Oden so the Buckeyes know how to play winning basketball without the big man. When Oden goes to the bench, Coach Thad Matta can play with a team that may not be as physically imposing but certainly has outstanding quickness and great shooters on the perimeter.

“When he [Oden] is on the floor he has a chance to change the game with his size,” said Donovan. “When they take him off the floor they have a chance because of their quickness and their speed and their strength that they can go a lot smaller and match up with most teams. There is a different element when you play them. It’s almost like two type of teams you have to get prepared for. You have to get prepared for a team with him on the floor and you have to get prepared for a team when he’s not on the floor.”

When Oden is in the game, certainly Ohio State will have a greater inside presence but even when he is on the floor, he opens things up for three-point shooters like Daequan Cook and Ron Harris. When Oden sits, the Buckeyes will try to spread the floor, slash to the hoop and then kick it back out to the perimeter when the defense collapses.

The Gators made their 11-game run to the national title back in the spring spearheaded by tremendous perimeter defense that locked down the three-point line. The Gators haven’t shown near the consistency defending the three-ball through their first 12 games of the season. Point guard Taurean Green understands how critical perimeter defense will be for Florida to stop Ohio State.

“We have to sit down and guard,” said Green. “We have to take pride in our defense and stop them from taking open three-pointers. We have to try to make them take tough twos with a hand in their face. If they make those it’s better than a three. As long as they’re making tough ones, there’s nothing you can really do about that.

“We have to start getting consistent to where we take the three-point line out of the game every game. We don’t even make it a factor.”

Oden, who at one time or another has been called the next Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Patrick Ewing or Shaquille O’Neal, depending on which expert you listen to, doesn’t figure to be a dominating offensive factor because of the after-effects of wrist surgery. He will be wearing a brace on his right hand that is so cumbersome that he’s shooting free throws left-handed.

His defensive presence is the critical factor for the Buckeyes. In that respect, Oden is much like Ewing was when he was a freshman at Georgetown. Ewing became a better offensive player in the NBA than he ever was in college. When he first came to the college game, Ewing most often impacted games with his defense.

“I know he’s playing with a brace on his wrist,” said Donovan. “He’s shooting free throws left handed so it’s hard to really compare him offensively right now but in terms of the impact, the size and the length and the ability to change a game in and around the basket, Ewing would be someone I would compare him to. He’s enormous. He’s as big as Glen Davis is. Physically Oden is 7-1 … he’s gotta be 260-270 and he’s got an unbelievable wing span. You’re not going to see anybody in college basketball with the size of him. He would dwarf Al Horford physically.”

Noah, who will be a matchup problem for Ohio State with his mobility and passing skills, understands why Oden is the focal point of Florida’s defensive game planning but he knows that the Gators have to play solid defense at all five positions on the floor.

“They will beat us if we only focus on him because they have a lot of dogs on that team,” said Noah. “They have a lot of bad boys so it’s on us. That’s one of the teams that they have a lot of talent coming off the bench and a lot of talent in their starting lineup. From what I’ve seen they have a lot of good players on that team.”

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.