Gators hope NCAA experience pays off


Published: Thursday, March 15, 2012 at 8:25 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 15, 2012 at 8:25 p.m.

OMAHA, Neb. — Florida has battled inconsistent stretches throughout the 2011-12 season to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season.

Facts

Friday's game

Who: No. 25 Florida Gators (23-10) vs. Virginia Cavaliers (22-9)
When: 2:10 p.m.
Where: CenturyLink Center, Omaha, Neb.
Gainesville TV:TNT
Gainesville radio: 103.7 FM

Yet the No. 7 seed Gators have one thing going for them this afternoon against No. 10 seed Virginia in their West Region matchup at the CenturyLink Center.

Or do they?

Florida will find out how valuable its NCAA Tournament experience will come into play Friday against Virginia. The Cavaliers are making their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2007 and have a full roster of players who have never played in an NCAA Tournament game.

“Experience is always golden, but it's not everything,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “Again, it's how you play, how you can get your system in place.”

In contrast, Florida starting guards Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton have five games of NCAA Tournament experience. Six more players on the roster had varying roles in UF's run to the Elite Eight last season.

“We know what to expect,” said Florida sophomore center Patric Young, who played off the bench in all four of Florida's NCAA Tournament games last season. “We can prepare for any type of challenge that comes in front of us. Any kind of adversity, we can stay together and we look to each other as family and help each other through any kind of situation.”

But Florida coach Billy Donovan doesn't view his team's NCAA Tournament experience as a significant advantage.

“In 2005-(06), we had a group of guys with Joakim Noah and those guys and we won a national championship, and experience didn't hold out well in that situation,” Donovan said. “I remember myself being a player (at Providence), never played in the NCAA Tournament my whole entire career and we were fortunate enough to go all the way to the Final Four.

“When the ball goes up, both teams are going to play. I think Virginia has a wealth of experience playing in the ACC, and we have a great wealth of experience playing in the SEC.”

For the Gators to make a deep NCAA Tournament run, they will need both production and leadership from Walker and Boynton. Both have struggled late this season, but Donovan believes some of that has been due to bad matchups against longer, more athletic teams like Alabama and Kentucky.

“The NCAA Tournament is different,” Boynton said. “It's just going to take personal experience. Probably by the 18-, 17-minute mark, it's just going to be a regular game for everyone.”

Both Walker and Boynton have proven their ability to perform on the NCAA Tournament stage. Walker averaged 15.8 points per game and 4.3 assists per game during UF's Elite Eight run last season. Boynton had one of the best games of his career (27 points) against BYU as a freshman in the 2010 NCAA Tournament.

“We are comfortable and relaxed in this situation,” Walker said. “We know it's go time and we've got to be ready to go.”

Boynton is mired in a recent shooting slump, having made just 10 of his last 31 3-point attempts. He said the key to breaking out of his slump is his approach, trying not to take tough shots.

“Just get an easy one, like a wide-open shot,” Boynton said. “When I do that, it just gets me going, basically. That and just shooting the ball after practice.”

Virgnia, on the other hand, will be looking to its head coach for guidance. Bennett has previously coached in NCAA Tournaments, having led Washington State to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2007 and the Sweet 16 in 2008.

But Bennett said he wants his team's focus on Florida, not the NCAA Tournament setting.

“I think you can sometimes talk to them too much about it,” Bennett said. “It's about playing the game, about getting back on defense, and we talked about making Florida earn (points) and us being good with the ball and working to get good shots.”

Boynton said that despite his NCAA Tournament experience, it's going to take a collective effort for the Gators to advance.

“Everybody has to step up because we definitely don't want to go home right now,” Boynton said. “We definitely want to go deep in this tournament.”

FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS

G Kenny Boynton 6-2 Jr. 16.3 ppg, 2.5 apg

G Erving Walker 5-8 Sr. 12.1 ppg, 4.7 apg

G Bradley Beal 6-3 Fr. 14.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg

F Erik Murphy 6-10 Jr. 10.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg

C Patric Young 6-9 So. 10.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg

VIRGINIA PROBABLE STARTERS

G Sammy Zeglinski 6-1 Sr. 8.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg

G Jontel Evans 5-11 Jr. 7.3 ppg, 3.8 apg

G Joe Harris 6-6 So. 11.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg

F Mike Scott 6-8 Sr. 18.1 ppg, 8.4 rpg

F Akil Mitchell 6-8 So. 4.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg

Notes

Florida is making its 15th NCAA Tournament appearance (additional appearances in 1987 and 1988 were vacated due to NCAA sanctions) with a 29-12 overall record. The Gators have won two national titles and reached the Final Four four times during that span. … Florida is making its 12th NCAA Tournament appearance under Billy Donovan, who is 25-9 in NCAA Tournament games. ... The Gators are 1-0 all-time against Virginia, with a 62-56 win over Virginia in the 1992 NIT Tournament. ... Florida leads the nation in 3-pointers made, averaging 9.9 per game. The Gators have made 10 or more 3-pointers in 21 of 33 games this season, the most by a Donovan-coached team. … With 281 career 3-pointers, senior point guard Erving Walker is seven shy of Lee Humphrey's school record (288).

Three things to watch

1. Setting the tempo

Florida will look to try to get the game going up and down against a Virginia team with a limited bench. Look for the Gators to press early, though Virginia is a disciplined team that turns it over just 11.4 times per game. If the game is played in the halfcourt, it will work to Virginia's advantage. “We're just going to try to be disciplined on defense because they run their offense for a full 32 seconds,” Florida sophomore Patric Young said. “We're not going to be able to walk the ball up the court. We have to get it and go.”

2. Containing Scott

Fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott is Virginia's top scoring option, averaging 18.1 points per game. The Gators had freshman forward Walter Pitchford simulate Scott on the scout team in practice, but know they will be in for a huge challenge once they face the All-ACC forward in person. Junior forward Erik Murphy will start out guarding Scott, but senior center Patric Young said he expects to help on Scott throughout the game. Young said the key is to force Scott to take tough shots. “You can't be discouraged when he hits one of those fall-aways,” Young said. “You have to keep guarding him.”

3. The pack line defense

Virginia led the ACC in scoring defense (53.7 ppg) in part because of a unique defensive system that coach Tony Bennett learned from his father, former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett. In the pack line defense, one man pressures the ball while four other players stay in a help position in an imaginary 16-foot arc around the basket. It will be important for Florida to knock down open 3-point shots in an effort to extend the line. That should in turn open up holes inside the defense to create scoring opportunities inside for Patric Young.

Three questions

1. Can Florida get the game going up and down the floor and score easy baskets in transition?

2. Can the Gators limit senior Virginia forward Mike Scott from having a big day?

3. Can Florida figure out Virginia's pack line defense and get quality shot attempts in its halfcourt offense?

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