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Friday March 23, 2012A Step Away: Suddenly Defensive-Minded Gators and Louisville Meet With a Final Four Berth on the Line

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

PHOENIX -- Ask players why they chose to sign with the University of Florida and the No. 1 answer is the chance to play for Billy Donovan. 

 

More often than not, the No. 2 answer focuses on Donovan’s fast-paced and frenetic style of play that has a way of giving scorers a lot more opportunities, you know, to score. 

 

“That definitely appealed to me,” junior forward Erik Murphy said. 

 

That’s the reputation of “BillyBall” and has been since Donovan arrived in Gainesville in 1996. Just look at the 2011-12 edition of the Gators. UF’s 9.7 made 3-pointers per game leads in the nation. 

 

The Gators’ 38-percent marksmanship from the arc, however, ranks 31st and actually has dipped to 26.9 percent in NCAA Tournament play. 

 

For a team known for scoring and shooting that normally would be an alarming statistic were it not for another number that is positively astounding -- and the reason the Gators (26-10) will face Louisville (29-9) in the NCAA West Region championship game Saturday at 4:30 p.m. EST for the right to go to the Final Four.

 

In ousting 10th-seeded Virginia, 15th-seeded Norfolk State and, most recently, third-seeded Marquette in Thursday night’s regional semifinal, UF has put together a trio of smothering defensive efforts, allowing its NCAA foes to shoot a combined 31.5 percent from the floor and 20.6 from 3-point range. Along the way, the Gators also out-rebounded those teams by an average of 11.3 per game. 

 

Three-pointers? Who needs 3-pointers?

 

“It’s not really what I envisioned for this team,” junior guard and leading scorer Kenny Boynton said. “But I’m OK with it. We’re winning.” 

 

Defense is why they’re winning. It’s certainly not because of their long-range shooting, having taken 78 and made only 21 through the Sweet 16 round, including a 7-for-27 effort in the win over Marquette. 

 

That’s what’s made this surprising run by the seventh-seeded Gators all the more impressive; they’re doing it without the one weapon they’re most known for. 

 

And that’s what makes the matchup with No. 4-seed Louisville all the more intriguing. 

 

The Cardinals allowed just 61.1 points per game this season and led the Big East Conference in field-goal defense, surrendering just 37.9 percent and only 30.2 percent from the arc. 

 

“Our ball pressure is tremendous,” senior guard Chris Smith said. “We trace it wherever it goes.” 

 

“There’s probably not a lot of stuff they haven’t seen run at them, being in the Big East and playing the schedule they’ve played,” Donovan said, who credits 6-foot-11 center Gorgui Dieng, a shot-blocker second only to Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, as key that makes the Cards such stoppers in the halfcourt. “Everybody’s tried to attack them in a lot of different ways, but their defensive percentages have been remarkable.” 

 

UF’s have been unbelievable. 

 

This is not a team with tremendous size -- the Gators start three guards and sometimes play 6-foot-2 Scottie Wilbekin at power forward -- yet it’s answered the late-season call from Donovan and his staff for an unbridled commitment to guarding and rebounding. 

 

The edict came in the wake of losing forward Will Yeguete, the team’s best defender and rebounder, to a broken foot Feb. 21. No one player was going to replace Yeguete. It had to be done collectively, and it could only be done with passion, intensity, commitment. 

 

The Gators displayed none of those traits in their first Yeguete-less outing, a 76-62 road loss at Georgia, the second-worst team in the Southeastern Conference. That’s when Donovan’s message went out. 

 

“We pretty much had no choice but to change our mentality and become a defensive team,” senior point guard Erving Walker said. “Guys like myself and Kenny, we weren’t used to going inside and rebounding the ball. But the way we were struggling, guys just had to put their minds to it. That’s what I mean by mentality.” 

 

That’s what Donovan meant too, and he saw steps in the right direction even as UF lost at Vanderbilt and were beaten at home by No. 1 Kentucky, sending the Gators into the postseason in a three-game tailspin. They beat NCAA-bound Alabama in the SEC Tournament, then lost by just three in a second game against Kentucky in six days. 

 

Florida has been a holy terror on defense since and that to continue against Louisville point guard Peyton Siva, who will try to run circles through UF in the halfcourt and attack with abandon when the Cards are in transition. 

 

Donovan has seen what his team can do when locked in and focused. Those terms were the themes during the short window of preparation into this Elite Eight round. 

 

They’ve been the themes for three weeks now. 

 

“There was a commitment,” Donovan said. “The one thing I would say about our team, when you address things with them and they see it on film, and you can show them and point to things, they’ve been really good about trying to get those things corrected.” 

 

In doing so, the Gators have forged themselves a different identity.

 

It can no longer be said that UF is a live-and-die by the 3-pointer team. The Gators may shoot the long ball a bunch, but they’ve also made 68 percent of their shots from inside the arc during NCAA play and compounded that efficiency with terrific team defense. 

 

“We didn’t get to this point because our ability to shoot 3s,” assistant coach Matt McCall said. “We’re here because we’ve been able to get stops, we’ve rebounded and run an offense that doesn’t rely on the 3.” 

 

The Gators just happen to still shoot a lot of ‘em. Only now, they chase (sometimes retrieve) the misses. 

 

Now, imagine what could happen if a chunk of those misses become makes, like earlier in the season. 

 

Imagine if it happened Saturday. 

 

 

GATORS GAMEBOX - NCAA WEST REGION 

No. 25 Florida vs. No. 17 Louisville        

Tip-off: Thursday at 4:30 p.m. EST (USAirways Center) 

Records: Florida 26-10; Louisville 29-9         

TV: TNT (w/Kevin Harlan, Reggie Miller and Len Elmore) 

Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 220/XM 

Game notes: Florida notes; Louisville notes 

Need to know: The Gators are in the Elite Eight for the straight second year, but will look to finish the journey that fell an overtime short in the South Region final loss to Butler. ... Make it UF’s fifth trip to the Elite Eight since 2000, all under Coach Billy Donovan, who with Thursday’s 68-58 win over Marquette improved to 28-9 all-time in NCAA Tournament games. That’s a .757 winning percentage, which ranks third among active coaches behind only Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (.767), whose team was eliminated last week, and North Carolina’s Roy Williams (.761), who defeated Ohio in Sweet 16 action Friday night. ... Donovan’s teams are 3-1 in the Elite Eight round, while UF is 4-1 all-time in regional finals. ... Florida and Louisville will be meeting for the ninth time, with the Gators trailing 1-7 in the series. That last two losses have come under Donovan and against his mentor, Rick Pitino, who coached Donovan, the point guard, at Providence during the team’s Cinderella run to the Final Four. The Gators lost 73-65 at Louisville in 2003 and 74-70 at home in ’04. ... Pitino is 6-0 vs. Donovan, including a pair of wins in ’94 and ’95 while he coached at Kentucky and Donovan was at Marshall, and a pair of Kentucky victories over Florida in 1997, Donovan’s first year at Florida and Pitino’s last at Kentucky. ... UF is playing its best basketball of the season, but mostly because of a collective commitment to team defense. In NCAA play, the Gators have allowed their three opponents to shot just 31.5 percent from the floor and 20.6 from 3-point range. ... Florida’s five starters have averaged double-figures for the better part of the season, but the postseason has become about freshman G Bradley Beal, who stuffed the stat sheet yet again in the upset Thursday night over 3rd-seeded Marquette with 21 points, six rebounds, four 3-pointers, three assists two steals and two blocks. In five postseason games (Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments), Beal is averaging 17 points, 8.2 rebounds, shooting 53.8 percent overall, 43.3 from 3-point range, has a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and is cementing his projected status as an NBA lottery pick. ... Junior G Kenny Boyton (16 ppg) has not shot great recently, but went 6-for-7 from the free-throw line vs. Marquette to help ice the game late. Senior PG Erving Walker (12.1 ppg, 4.5 apg) also has struggled with his shot, but the Gators have morphed into an overall team as opposed to a handful of individuals. That’s how they’ve been able to survive inconsistent shooting (26.9 percent from 3) during the NCAAs, yet be the only team still standing with all three victories by double-digits. ... Louisville was far from dominant in the Big East Conference this season, finishing just 10-8 in the league, but the Cardinals led the conference in field-goal percentage defense (37.9) and have one of the best shot-blockers in the country in C Gorgui Dieng (9.2 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 3.2 bpg), who swatted away seven Michigan State shots in the upset of the region’s No. 1 seed Thursday. ... The Cards, though, will go as PG Peyton Siva (9.1 ppg, 5.5 apg) leads them. The Gators cannot afford Siva to knife, slice and cut through their defense with dribble penetration. ... Louisville ranked 14th in the Big East in 3-point shooting (31.3 percent), but the Cards are more than willing to fire away, especially G Chris Smith (9.7 ppg, 39.6 percent from 3) and G Russ Smith (11.4 ppg, 30.1 3-pt). ... The Gators are trying to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2007, when they won their second of back-to-back championships. The Cards last got to the Final Four in 2005, but Pitino has been there five times, including three with Kentucky, where he won the national title in 1996.  

 

 

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