Monday March 18, 2013Gators Ready to Turn Page on Sunday's Loss, Focus on Northwestern State and Big Picture
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In the hours Sunday after the latest in a growing line of frustrating finishes, the Florida Gators at least got to look forward to the NCAA Tournament Selection Show.
Instead of gathering his team in an area for a mass viewing, UF coach Billy Donovan had his players stay in their rooms at the Vanderbilt Marriott in Nashville while he huddled with the coaching staff.
So scattered about the hotel, the humbled and subdued Gators (26-7) watched Greg Gumbel announce Florida had been pegged as the No. 3 seed in the Southeast Region and assigned a date with 14th-seeded Northwestern State (23-8), champions of the Southland Conference Tournament, in second-round play at Austin, Texas.
Afterward, the players were fed, boarded the bus and headed for the flight home.
The only message from the coach was an unspoken one.
On Monday, Donovan and a handful of players met with the media for the first of what all Gators hope will be plenty of press opportunities the next few weeks. By the time the Gators reconvene Tuesday following their required off day, Sunday’s loss will mean nothing in the big picture that is March Madness.
Aside from hurt feelings and the sting of a missed opportunity, it really started meaning nothing as soon as the final horn sounded.
Moving on from it could be another thing altogether.
“No matter where I go people are going to say something about the game,” junior center Patric Young said. “Whether I want to move on from it, someone’s going to ask me about it. I just got asked about it right now. But we have to move on. We have no choice but to move on.”
That would be on to Northwestern State, the highest-scoring team in the nation (81.5 points a game) and a squad that goes 10 players deep, all of whom average at least 15 minutes per game.
The Demons like to play fast, it was pointed out to Donovan.
“We like to play fast too,” he said.
This will mark the 13th NCAA Tournament in Donovan’s 17 seasons. His tournament record of 28-10 equates to a .737 winning percentage that ranks fifth in the nation among active coaches behind only Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (.767), SMU’s Larry Brown (.760), North Carolina’s Roy Williams (61-20) and Kentucky’s John Calipari (.745).
Donovan and the Gators have entered the tournament on every ride imaginable.
Last year, UF lost four of its final five games (plus forward Will Yeguete to a broken foot) and managed to right the ship and make a run to the Elite Eight out of the No. 7 seed. The year before, UF won the SEC regular season crown and got stomped by Kentucky in the tournament final, but still claimed a No. 2 seed and played in a regional championship game.
In 2006, the Gators lost three of their last five regular-season games, but won the conference tournament.
Oh, and the national championship, too.
“What makes this tournament so unique and so special is the fact that you're playing a one-game series on a neutral floor and anything can happen,” Donovan said. “I always feel like the tournament is pretty much open. Certainly, last year, Kentucky’s basketball team was really, really dominant and they were clearly the best team, but you’ve still got to go through that journey, and anything can happen in those situations.”
Certainly, Donovan has experienced all the spectrums, from his first Final Four run from a No. 5 seed in 2000 to a gutting one-and-out against Manhattan in 2004, courtesy of the dreaded No. 5 vs. No. 12 matchup.
In UF’s ’06 national championship season, Northwestern State hit a fall-away 3-point shot with a half-second to play to shock No. 3 seed Iowa, the Big Ten champion.
Yeah, it’s that time of year.
“It’s the NCAA Tournament, everybody is a little extra fired up,” senior forward Erik Murphy said. “A lot of times, teams come out in tournament games and might be a little too hyped, too excited. We can’t let that happen. We’ve just got to play our game and we’ve got to focus on Northwestern State and execute our game plan.”
That game plan won’t be unveiled until Tuesday when the designated scouting assistant presents his “first look” breakdown of the Demons.
In the interim, whatever inner demons are haunting the Gators -- especially in game-changing second-half lapses -- will need to exorcised by a coach whose career is littered with success stories this time of year.
“What you’ve got to be able to do in these [NCAA] games is go out there and play with great freedom, great confidence. Just go out there and play,” Donovan said “There’s always a level of nervousness, jitters, apprehension. It’s totally normal. You’ve got to play through some of that stuff. For our guys, they’re excited about the next step. It was disappointing [Sunday] for them and all of us. But they understand right now that this is what they’ve been playing for all the way through was to get to this point in the season.”