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Saturday March 30, 2013Looking for a Different Ending: Gators Face Potent Michigan Squad with Final Four Berth on the Line

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The aftermath images are crystal clear, though none of the veteran Florida Gators were all that interested Saturday in going down Memory Lane.


“I remember everything,” junior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “But thinking about those games isn’t going to help us with this one.” 


The games, of course, were UF’s losses the last two years in the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Tournament. In 2011, Florida led Butler by 11 points with nine minutes to play and lost in overtime. In 2012, the lead was 11 against Louisville with less than eight minutes remaining and again the Gators watched an opponent storm back and steal away that coveted spot in the Final Four. 


“It hurts for a while, but life goes on,” junior center Patric Young said. “You have to move on and start working and looking at yourself in the mirror, ask what you can do better and do whatever you can not to let it happen again.” 


Sounds so easy, right? 


The real challenge in avoiding another such fate is getting back here in the first place. The Gators have done that. 


The nation’s lone program to reach the Elite Eight the last three seasons, third-seeded Florida (29-7) will face fourth-seeded and high-powered Michigan (29-7) in the South Region championship game Sunday afternoon at Cowboys Stadium, with the winner advancing to the Final Four in Atlanta next weekend. 


Of the eight-man UF rotation that wore down Florida Gulf Coast in Friday night’s regional semifinal win, seven of them were in the teary-eyed locker rooms the last two seasons when the Gators came oh-so-close to cutting down the nets and moving on to college basketball’s grandest stage. 


“It’s a great opportunity,” said UF coach Billy Donovan, now a staggering 31-10 in his 13 NCAA tournaments. “I’m not so sure what we take from those [other games] that could really help us get prepared for Michigan. I think this game stands on its own.” 


Or as senior guard Kenny Boynton put it, “Different players, different teams, different game.” 


Same high stakes, though. 


The Florida-Michigan match is a college hoops version of “When Worlds Collide.” 


The Wolverines, led by point guard and National Player of the Year candidate Trey Burke, boast maybe the most explosive offense in the country, averaging 75 points per game on nearly 49-percent shooting from the floor and 38 from 3-point range. Those numbers were posted in the Big Ten, the best conference in the nation during the regular season. 


They have rich bloodlines, too. Tim Hardaway Jr., and Glenn Robinson III are both the sons of former NBA all-stars. Robinson is one of three talented freshmen who start. 


The Gators don’t have the individual star power of the Wolverines, but they do have a defense that rivals the Michigan offense in metric efficiency. Florida will make Michigan work for its points, with that defensive commitment rooted in a veteran roster with seven players in an eight-man rotation either juniors or seniors. 


In that eight-man rotation is now 71 combined games of NCAA experience. 


Some of that experience was bad. 


As expected, the Gators were peppered with questions about those Elite nightmares of the past two years during Saturday’s media session, along with heavy doses of inquiries focused on UF’s inability to close out games this season. 


“Well, we’ve won 29 of ‘em,” Boynton said. 


Ah, but those 29 -- all by double-digits -- always are of second billing to the late-game blown-lead losses at Arizona, Missouri, Kentucky and against Ole Miss in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship; defeats that caused an awful lot of angst and Twitter turmoil among the Gator Nation. 


For what it’s worth, the season has ended for all four of those teams. 


And at least the Gators aren't Kansas, which chose the absolute worst time to demonstrate that late-game collapses happen elsewhere; and to great teams. 


The top-seeded Jayhawks were jacked from the tournament in frighteningly familiar fashion to those UF losses. KU watched a 10-point lead with 2:20 remaining evaporate against Burke and the Wolverines, who summoned an unbelievable energy surge to tie it late -- on a 28-footer from Burke with six seconds left; three of his 25 second-half points -- and then win it in overtime.


“I think everybody watching this game saw what we have been coaching all year,” Michigan coach John Beilein said afterward. “It’s a bunch of young men with high character, that play to win and play together.” 


Much the same could be said about the Gators, thus making this maybe the most intriguing Elite Eight matchup of the weekend. 


Burke, as deadly at getting his own shot as getting an easy basket for a teammate, will be guarded by Wilbekin, UF’s dogged perimeter defender. While much of the game will focus on that matchup, the Gators must give Wilbekin help in UM’s pick-and-roll plays and be cognizant of the Wolverine’s spacing. Burke, no matter where he is on the floor, will find the open man. 


“He’s the start of their offense, he’s the end of their offense,” Wilbekin said. 


Florida doesn’t have a be-all, end-all guy. Any combination of Gators could be out front leading the team Sunday. That’s been the blueprint of this team and the blueprint of Donovan teams over the years. 


That includes some that celebrated glorious moments at regional finals as well as others that were crushed. 


The last two come to mind.


“Those games, yes, they broke our hearts,” junior forward Will Yeguete said. “But this is another game. We'll see what happens” 




3rd-seeded Florida vs. 4th-seeded Michigan    

Tip-off: Friday, 2:20 p.m. (Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas)  

Records: Florida 29-7; Michigan 29-7

TV: CBS (Marv Albert, Steve Kerr and Craig Sager) 

Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 134/XM 199

Game notes: Florida notes;

Need to know: The Gators are in the Elite Eight for the third straight year, the fifth time in the last seven seasons, and the seventh in Coach Billy Donovan’s 13 cracks at the NCAA Tournament. Florida is 3-2 in its previous regional finals under Donovan. ... Florida and Michigan are meeting for just the third time, the first of which came in the 1988 NCAA Tournament when Glen Rice scored 39 points and Wolverines defeated the Gators 108-85 in second-round play at Salt Lake City. ... UF advanced by defeating 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast 62-50 in Friday night’s semifinal, while UM ousted the South Region’s No. 1 seed, Kansas, by coming from 10 down in the final two and a half minutes to tie game, then win it in overtime. ... The Gators have been led the in the tournament games by senior guard Mike Rosario (12.6 ppg), who bounced back from an opening-game bench to score 40 points the last two games. ... Senior forward Erik Murphy (12.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg) will look to bounce back after going 2-for-7, with just 4 points, 4 rebounds and two turnovers against FGCU. ... The Gators shot just 38.6 percent against the Eagles, including just 26.7 from distance. Michigan will go as sophomore point guard Trey Burke (18.9 ppg, 6.8 apg) goes. The Wolverines averaged 75.1 points per game, and were one of the best shooting teams in the country from both the floor and 3-point line. Those are impressive numbers, given UM starts three freshmen and have four starters averaging more than 31 minutes per game. ... Those high-minute counts show up on defense, where Michigan rated eighth in the league (41.9 ppg) and was mostly in the bottom half of the conference in rebounding stats. ... Junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. (14.8 ppg, 39 percent from 3) and freshman forward Glenn Robinson (11.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg) could present some problems with their size. Freshman forward Mitch McGary averaged just 7.3 points and 6.1 rebounds during the regular season, but had 25 points and 14 in Friday’s upset of No. 1-seed Kansas. ... UM’s most dangerous shooter is Nik Stauskas. More than half of his field goals (73 of 130) have been 3-pointers. ... The Wolverines opened the season with 16 straight wins, ascending to No. 1 in the country, but finished for a tie for fourth in the Big Ten with a 12-6 record, losing at home to Indiana at home in the regular-season finale with a chance to clinch a share of the title. Along the way, UM beat some heavyweights (Kansas State, Ohio State and Michigan State), but also lost to Wisconsin twice and suffered a horrific defeat at Penn State. 



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