Gators ready for a run?


Florida guard Kenny Boynton, left, holds on to guard Erving Walker after they collided during practice for an NCAA Tournament game in Tampa on Wednesday. Florida faces UC Santa Barbara today. (Photo by The Associated Press)

Published: Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 12:28 a.m.

TAMPA — The bus ride to the airport after Florida lost its opening NCAA Tournament game last March still sticks in the mind of senior center Vernon Macklin.

Facts

Today's game

Who:No. 15 Florida Gators (26-7) vs. Cal-Santa Barbara Gauchos (18-13)
When: 6:50 p.m.
Where: St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa
TV: TBS
Radio: 103.7 FM, AM-850

The Gators had chances to win during the 99-92 double-overtime loss to BYU in Oklahoma City. Chandler Parsons missed a 12-footer at the end of regulation. Kenny Boynton missed an alley-oop pass at the end of the first overtime.

“We just were like ‘Man, we can’t play again ‘til next year’,” Macklin said. “So it makes you hungry. Actually, we didn’t take a whole lot of time off. We all wanted to get back in the gym quick and play.”

The sting of that loss motivated Florida (26-7) to a Southeastern Conference regular season title and a 9-3 record against the RPI Top 50. Now, No. 2 seed Florida will attempt to win its first NCAA Tournament game since 2007 tonight when it faces No. 15 seed Cal-Santa Barbara at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Florida coach Billy Donovan said he’s not worried about his team looking ahead to the next round, considering none of his current players have won an NCAA Tournament game. That, Donovan hopes, should be motivation enough.

“I really don’t think that’s going to be a problem for us,” Donovan said.

With all five starters back, Florida players say they have a better idea of what to expect.

“I think going into this year, they wanted to experience more than they did a year ago,” Donovan said. “I think that can be said in our conference schedule, can be said in our conference tournament, and I think we have that feeling going into the NCAA Tournament.”

Florida’s mission began with offseason conditioning and extended into more physical pickup games. When individual drills began last September, Florida players and coaches felt more confident about the upcoming season.

“As a team, we just wanted to work harder,” junior point guard Erving Walker said. “We understood what it took a little more, understood how to win. We just wanted to work hard from the beginning of the year to get where we are now, and this is what we planned for. We want to be able to win some games and go far in this tournament.”

It also helped that Florida recruited five new incoming freshmen that were willing to accept their roles. The freshmen provided depth, which made practices more competitive.

“The freshmen came in, thank God, with a beautiful attitude to be part of something,” Florida associate coach Larry Shyatt said. “Most freshmen nowadays don’t want to be part of something. That set the tone for us to make the strides that we made.”

Last season, Florida barely got into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 10 seed after back-to-back NIT appearances. Still, the Gators nearly made it to the second round. Boynton scored 27 points, tying the school record for most points in an NCAA Tournament game. But BYU guard Jimmer Fredette had 37 points in 46 minutes, including some clutch 3-pointers in overtime to pull out the win.

“We lost in the first round, but that left a bad taste in my mouth,” Walker said. “I think that’s just going to make us hungry to win that much more.”

After disappointing non-conference losses to UCF and Jacksonville early in the season, Florida renewed its focus near the end of its non-conference schedule with big wins against Xavier and Rhode Island.

“It definitely drove us,” Boynton said. “We told each other after the game, when we get back next year, we want to go deep. We wanted to go deeper into the tournament.”

As a surprise No. 2 seed, Florida has positioned itself for a potential deep run. If the Gators beat UCSB, they will face the winner of No. 7 seed UCLA and No. 10 seed Michigan State on Saturday.

“We had a whole different mindset,” Florida senior Chandler Parsons said. “Last year we so much were thinking, ‘Oh we can’t wait ‘til we get to the tournament. Hopefully we’re in.’ This year, we have a lot bigger goals than that.

“We don’t want to just get in. We want to make noise and we want to win a lot of games. I think last year getting a taste of it is going to help us this year going forward.”

FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS

G, Kenny Boynton, 6-2, So., 14.1 ppg, 2.5 apg

G, Erving Walker, 5-8, Jr., 14.4 ppg, 3.3 apg

F, Chandler Parsons, 6-10, Sr., 11.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg

F, Alex Tyus, 6-8, Sr., 8.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg

C, Vernon Macklin, 6-10, Sr., 11.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg

KEY RESERVES

F, Patric Young, 6-8, Fr., 3.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg

G, Scottie Wilbekin, 6-2, Fr., 2.7 ppg, 1.7 apg

F, Erik Murphy, 6-10, So., 4.3 ppg, 2.4 rpg

UCSB PROBABLE STARTERS

G, Orlando Johnson, 6-5, Jr., 21.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg

G, Justin Joyner, 6-0, Sr., 10.8 ppg, 3.6 apg

F, James Nunnally, 6-6, Jr., 16.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg

F, Jaime Serna, 6-9, Jr., 8.0 ppg, 4.4 rpg

C, Jon Pastorek, 6-10, Sr., 4.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg

KEY RESERVES

G, Jordan Weiner, 6-0, Sr., 5.5 ppg, 1.7 apg

C, Greg Somogyi, 7-3, Jr., 4.6 ppg, 3.0 rpg

G, Kyle Boswell, 6-2, Fr., 2.6ppg, 0.5 apg

THREE THINGS TO WATCH

1. Guard matchups

UCSB comes into the game with a size advantage in the backcourt. Florida 6-foot-2 guard Kenny Boynton will attempt to guard UCSB's 6-5 leading scorer Orlando Johnson. Boynton said he will approach defending Johnson like he does other bigger guards, pressure as much as he can to prevent Johnson from getting his shots off. Look for Florida to mix defenses to help Boynton. Athletic 6-6 freshman Casey Prather and freshman 6-2 guard Scottie Wilbekin could also come in off the bench to help guard Johnson.

2. Fast break execution

Despite reaching the SEC Tournament finals, Florida was sloppy on the fast break throughout last weekend. The Gators had eight turnovers in the first half of its win against Tennessee and 11 more turnovers in the first half against Vanderbilt. Some of those turnovers came on careless decisions in transition. Boynton said Florida coaches worked on the fast break earlier this week in practice. "We usually finish 60 percent of the time but last weekend we only finished 40 percent of the time," Boynton said.

3. Crashing the boards

Florida needs to take advantage of its deeper and physically superior front line. Senior center Vernon Macklin said he spent time this week going over videotape after turning the ball over five times in Sunday's 70-54 loss to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament finals. Kentucky consistently doubled Macklin in the post. Seniors Alex Tyus and Chandler Parsons have size and athletic advantages up front against UCSB and should be able to score on second-chance opportunities.

THREE QUESTIONS

1. Can Florida contain UCSB 6-5 shooting guard Orlando Johnson?

2. How well can Florida execute on the fast break after some sloppy stretches in transition during last weekend's SEC Tournament?

3. Can Florida use its size advantage inside to score second-chance points?

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