That’s right, I’m pulling out the old Magic 8-Ball. I am consulting it and it is showing me some promising things for Florida’s tournament run. I am asking it all the questions Gator fans want answered and the floating plastic chunk of fate keeps coming up with positive messages. Let’s shake it up and see what evidence supports it.
Keeping A Clean House: This season was only the fourth time in Florida’s history that it went undefeated at home. The first time was in 1960-61, which predated the 32-team NCAA tournament format. As there were barely over 20 teams in the nation invited to the not-so-big-yet-dance, we can throw that out as a tournament indicator today. The other two years Florida went undefeated at home ended their seasons in Final Four appearances in 1994 and 2007, the latter capping the year with the national championship. “Signs Point To Yes.”
*This year was the Gator’s sixth SEC title, the fifth under Donovan. The previous four SEC title years in the Billy Ball era have concluded with one NCAA tournament exit in the second round (2001), three Elite Eight appearances (2000, 2007, 2011), two Final Fours (2000, 2007), two national title games (2000, 2007) and one national championship (2007). Since the Gators have already advanced beyond the first weekend, we can throw out the 2001 season for comparison, leaving a 100% Elite Eight track record in the remaining three title years. This year was Billy’s third outright/unshared SEC title, with the previous two both leading to the Elite Eight and one concluding with a Final Four and national title. “Outlook Good.”
*Before Will Yeguete’s injury threw the team into imbalance, Florida was 18-2, 8-0 SEC, and a projected lock as a Number 1 NCAA tournament seed. More importantly to our Magic 8-Ball, though was the fact that the Gators were not only the most efficient offensive team in the country, it was the most efficient in the last 13 years. They were averaging over 120 points per 100 possessions, the most in the NCAA since 2000. That was more than Kentucky last year, North Carolina in 2009 and more than the Gator’s prolific offenses in 2006 and 2007. All of those teams won national titles. Florida declined to 116 points per 100 possessions since Yeguete’s stint on the disabled list, which is still fourth-best in the nation, but the important thing to note is that it has been clear in the NCAA tournament that the Gators have returned to the level of play they had set as their default before the injury. So far in tournament play, the Gators are back over 120 points per 100 possessions. The offensive efficiency that usually predicts a national title is back. “It Is Certain.”
*Then there is the spacing. Floor spacing is one of the keys to Billy Donovan’s offensive and defensive schemes. It has also been one of the keys to the Florida program’s NCAA tournament success. The Gators’ first Final Four appearance was in 1994. Their next Final Four appearance was in 2000, six years later. Their next Final Four appearance was the back-to-back national title years that started with the 2006 season, six years later. Clearly the program’s Final Four clock is set to six year increments. That alarm you hear is signaling that the 2013 season marks the sixth year since Florida’s last trip to the Final Four. “Most Likely.”
Of course, as with every turn of the Magic 8-Ball, nothing is certain for too long. Every time you flip it over and check the dipstick of fortune, things could change. With every tournament game that passes, the outlook can shift. “Ask Again Later.”
Scouting Florida Gulf Coast
Given the amount of air time the Gator’s next opponent has received in their broadcast games, the effusive post-game adulation and of course their ubiquitous highlight reels, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a talking head parroting some manner of scouting report on the Eagles. And if Tim Brando is the one doing the talking, throw it hard. So the individual matchups in this game are pretty redundant at this point. However, there are plenty of things to talk about concerning this game that are not being beaten to death in the sports media.
The most important thing to address for Gator fans is the fear factor. As Gator fans – with our rich history of soul-crushing missteps in the major sports always trumping our incredible successes, at least in our collective memory – we are acutely aware that there are always ghosts and goblins lurking in every shadow, waiting to leap out and drop Death’s sickle on our season. So I will try to allay some of those fears concerning the recent soaring flight of Azul the Eagle. Because as everyone knows, I am a helper; I am a healer.
The fears concerning the biggest Cinderella in the history of the tournament are many. I will enumerate and elucidate:
1. Fear the Flash. They are athletic and physical like certain teams that have given us trouble in the past.
Coach Donovan has taken heat from some fans who claim he has not prepared his teams to play the Tennessees and South Carolinas of the SEC over the last several years, since other than Kentucky, these are the only programs that have given the Gators any consistent trouble. These teams have been marked by length, athleticism and almost rogue toughness that Florida seems pressed to handle. Some fans think Billy is ill equipped to combat such foes.
However I don’t believe Billy has any problem coaching them up or drawing up the right offense and defense to beat that kind of team. The trouble with Tennessee and to a lesser extent South Carolina the last several years, is that Billy doesn’t play in the games; the players do. And to distinguish them from FGCU, Tennessee and USC have had not only athleticism and toughness the Eagles possess, but also the height, length and strength that FGCU does not have.
The Gator players have simply not always executed well against the Tennessee teams and some USC teams that are always significantly more keyed up for Florida than Florida is for them. In almost every year of the Tennessee run over Florida the last several years, and certainly USC in any of those seasons, it has been the Vols and Gamecocks looking up at Florida as their biggest game of the year, while to Florida, those two are just like any other SEC team. They are not Kentucky. They are not one of the annual out-of-state elite programs like Arizona, Ohio State, Michigan State, Marquette, etc., that Florida circles on their calendar each year. This factor cannot be ignored when assessing how conference teams match up year to year.
As for FGCU, this is the NCAA tourney. There are no games and no teams that get overlooked when one misstep ends your season. FGCU will have Florida’s full attention and focus.
2. Fear the Speed. They are too fast for our team and we must slow down their pace and play a half-court game; we cannot run with them and cannot win a game of fast-breaks.
This is probably the biggest fear out there. Everyone has seen their speed to the basket, their breaks, their highlight reel alley-oops, and are concerned about Florida keeping up. One thing to note is that most of those highlights came in the second halves of their games after they were well into a groove and well into a big lead. The Eagles were playing easy and their opponents were already into meltdown mode. It is a stretch to project FGCU being able to reach that point and that level of comfort against Florida.
But to the point of having to slow down the game, we can win with either tempo. Believe that. In fact, Florida wants a fast game because one of its bread and butter weapons is the fast break basket off a turnover or quick outlet basket off a defensive rebound. Florida certainly wants to slow them down on offense but if they go fast tempo, that benefits the Gators if Florida plays its defensive game. Quick shots in an up-tempo offense are only good if the shots go down. Quick shots that are well-defended and don’t go down plays right into Florida’s hands. That is exactly what they intend to do to the Eagles. Anticipate the quick shots, challenge each one, and keep their shooting percentage low while converting our own fast break points off of their misses. A fast-shooting team that shoots cold because of contested shots creates a lot of opportunity for the opposition to bury them early. FGCU lives on the fast break, but so did Northwestern State – a team that scored significantly more points than did FGCU this year. Florida held Northwestern State to just two fast break baskets Friday night.
FGCU is far out-playing its regular season self, both statistically and in terms of competition. But that could go either way. It could mean they are ready to crash back to Earth, or it could mean they are going to continue to play on another plane. Question is whether Florida can beat them if they continue to play at this level. I believe they absolutely can if they bring their A game. Like in the previous two rounds, if Florida brings their A game, FGCU cannot beat them with their A+ game.
3. Fear the Giant Killers. They have already beaten Miami and Georgetown. They outscored Duke in 34 of their game’s 40 minutes. They know how to beat elite teams and they don’t fear us.
Firstly, let’s address the much-repeated statistic of FGCU outscoring Duke in 34 of 40 minutes when they played earlier this year. The comment was made and repeated ad nauseam because they looked at the 34 minutes of the game that did not include the 30-0 Duke run (or at least 6 minutes of it). They cut out that 6 minute stretch and FGCU totaled 1 more point than Duke in the remaining 34 minutes combined.
That’s simply a ridiculous statistical acrobatic twist to try to portray outplaying an opponent. You can always show that the losing team outscored the winning team if you just omit all the winning team’s scoring plays. I understand why they did it, and it does make some sort of comment about their ability to stay with Duke over those 34 minutes, but that’s not any sort of reality because once a team is up by 20 points, as we were reminded in the Minnesota game, the team in the lead starts getting bored, thinking ahead, waiting for the celebration, etc. It is easy for a team that is down by 20 at half, for instance to go blow for blow and outscore the other team by a point or two the rest of the way. Because a team with a 20-point lead plays much differently by design, as well as by human nature. Fact is, that Duke blew them out and the game was never remotely in question after the first few minutes. Additonally, FGCU was only Miami’s second game of the season under a new coach, playing in FGCU’s home gym and having seen the Eagles getting blown out in their opener by 23 points at the hands of VCU, they hardly had a reason to take the team seriously. FGCU is not going to sneak up on the Gators.
As for the Georgetown upset, as I wrote in my tourney preview column, they are a team that cannot score when they need to, or sometimes at all. In order to win, they basically have to hold opponents under 40 points. When they failed to do that, the tents folded. They might as well have entered the tourney wearing sandwich boards that read, “Upset Victims Here!” While impressive and while I give FGCU full credit for pulling off the upset, it was no traditional 2-seed going down last Friday.
Some fans have said that UF has not seen an offense like FGCU. However, the Gators have certainly seen an offense like theirs. They saw a much better version of it in their opening tourney game. The key to this game is that they have not seen a defense like Florida’s. Florida snuffed out Northwestern State with its defense, and when Minnesota clawed back into Sunday’s game, they jacked the Gophers’ deficit from a scary 7 to a soothing 17 by simply ratcheting the defense back down.
Lastly on this subject, Billy Donovan has learned from his early NCAA tournament experiences of falling to Cinderella (Gonzaga, Manhattan, Creighton) and since the national title run began in 2005, he has turned away the giant killers, instead becoming the Cinderella killer. In 2006, Billy’s boys beat UW-Milwaukee in the second round and the prototype Cinderella George Mason in the Final Four; in 2007 they pasted 112 on the board to turn away Jackson State before beating the then-professional Cinderella Butler; and of course last year dominated Norfolk State in the second round. Billy has learned how to get his teams to focus on the lesser opponents in the tourney and he will have the whole week to get the team ready. All the while FGCU will be emersed in a global onslaught of hype and distraction as being the biggest Cinderella in tournament history. I like that recipe for Florida.
4. Fear the ‘Tude. They are playing loose, have nothing to lose and won’t feel any pressure, while the Gators will have the crowd heavily against them (rooting for Cinderella) and will play tight, feeling the weight of all the expectations.
Well which is it? Is FGCU the team playing with nothing to lose, or is it Florida who will face an “Us-Against-Everyone” scenario Friday night? It may not be surprising because of their late-season troubles with some unranked SEC teams, but nobody is talking about Florida. Even without the media circus surrounding FGCU’s Sweet Sixteen run, Florida is the forgotten team right now. It was very difficult to even find the Florida highlights this past weekend following either of their games. This despite having arguably the most dominant opening weekend of any team in the tournament, which included their highest point total for a half this season (which was also the most in an NCAA tournament game in school history), and the lowest point total allowed for a half.
The bottom line here is that there has never been a bigger slam dunk in the history of the NCAA tournament. No 15-seed has ever advanced to the Elite Eight. Ever. History says there are two things that will never happen in the tournament: No 16-seed will ever win a game in the tournament and no 15-seed will ever make it to the Elite Eight. The only problem with that is that prior to this year, the rule was that no 15-seed would ever make it to the Sweet 16. But FGCU put an end to that rule. Is it possible for them to break the next unbreakable rule in the tourney? In consecutive games? “Outlook Not So Good.”
The most important factor to consider in this game (and any games that may follow, should the Gators advance and keep advancing) is this: Billy Donovan is a great tournament coach. He is extremely good at identifying the opponent’s weakness and exploiting it, and even more impressively identifying the opponent’s strength and neutralizing it.
To wit, the strengths of Northwestern State were fast break points and wearing teams down with the “substitution wave.” Florida countered by holding them to just two fast break baskets all night, and only 17 bench points – only one more basket than Florida’s bench scored – and flipped the script on the Demons, wearing them down to a puddle in the second half.
Minnesota’s strengths were their physical defense and strong inside game that was supposed to give the Florida bigs fits in the paint. Florida countered by destroying the Gophers’ defense to the tune of a school NCAA tourney record 48 point first half and a 57% shooting percentage for the game (50% from beyond the arc), and playing them to an absolute stalemate inside, being outscored by Minnesota by just one bucket in the paint.
FGCU does enter the game with some decided strengths, but Billy Donovan is a guru at breaking those up and turning them upside down in the tournament. The Eagles also have significant weaknesses, such as frequent turnovers and a soft defense, both of which play right into the Gators’ press and offensive efficiency that is soaring again now that they are back to full health. The Gators are averaging more than 50% from the floor in the tourney with 25 points off turnovers in two games. Florida also has 28 second-chance points in two games, compared to 17 for their opponents. Florida has a distinct advantage in the paint against FGCU and should exploit it in scoring and cleaning the glass on both ends of the court, so if those quick shots don’t fall for FGCU, the Gators could put a hurt on them quickly.
“It Is Decidedly So.”