UF MEN'S BASKETBALL
Top-seeded Gators look to break Elite Eight streak with title
Published: Tuesday, March 18, 2014 at 7:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 17, 2014 at 8:47 p.m.
The inevitable questions came shortly after top-ranked Florida clinched its first SEC tournament title since 2007.
As the NCAA tournament's No. 1 overall seed, Florida is in prime position to take the next step after its three previous seasons that ended in the Elite Eight.
But for Florida's seniors, it's not just about getting to another Sweet 16, Elite Eight or even advancing to a Final Four.
“What fuels us is just our last opportunity to win a championship,” Florida senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “The previous years, we weren't thinking of getting to the Elite Eight, just getting to the Final Four. We want a championship. If we fall short of it with the Sweet 16, the Final Four, it won't be what we wanted.”
The Gators (32-2) will begin that quest Thursday at the Amway Center in Orlando (4:10 p.m., TBS) against the winner of tonight's game in Dayton, Ohio, between 16 seeds Mount St. Mary's and Albany. Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, no 16 seed has beaten a one seed.
On Monday, Florida coach Billy Donovan downplayed the significance of the Gators earning a No. 1 seed for the second time in school history. Since 1985, 40.5 percent of No. 1 seeds have reached the Final Four. Donovan's last top-seeded team in 2007 won the second of back-to-back national titles.
“We're excited for another opportunity to play but the number one seed, the overall seed, whatever it is, is great,” Donovan said. “But that's probably a reflection of what's happened from November all the way to here in March. Once the brackets are out and you're playing, seedings and things like that, players aren't thinking about that. They're thinking about playing and competing and playing to the best of their ability.”
Donovan gave the Gators off Monday from any physical activity after winning three games in three days to secure their first SEC tournament title since 2007. Donovan said he felt fatigue played a role in some of UF's offensive breakdowns in the final 10 minutes of its 61-60 win over Kentucky in the SEC tournament final. Up 54-39 with 11:05 left, Florida scored just seven points the remainder of the game.
Donovan said he didn't play senior starting forward Casey Prather in the final two minutes because he was gassed physically.
“We started to get worn down a little bit,” Donovan said. “I think a lot of it was the residual effect from the last two games. I don't think that you can really underestimate how physically demanding (it was).
“We have experienced a lot of things this season. We had not experienced playing three games in a row and a quick turnaround like that. It was the first time Kentucky had to do it too. I think there were points in time when both teams were somewhat fatigued.”
But Donovan also acknowledged the Gators have to get back to work at the foul line after a 7-for-17 afternoon against Kentucky nearly cost the Gators the SEC title. Florida shot just 50 percent from the free-throw line in the tournament.
“We did work on it some, but we've got to spend more time on that,” Donovan said. “That has to be an emphasis and focal point for us. We've shown the ability and the potential to shoot the ball well. There's been numerous games where we come down the stretch of games and gone 10 for 11, we've made 16 out of 18. There's been some good stretches. Certainly that three-game stretch from us was not a great stretch for us at all.”
Playing two hours off campus should provide plenty of motivation for the Gators. In Florida's previous two NCAA tournament appearances, the Gators had to hop on a plane for matchups in Omaha, Neb., (2012) and Austin, Texas (2013).
Asked if lessons learned breaking through and winning the SEC tournament title could carry over to a deeper NCAA run, Prather said: “(It's been) a lot of heartbreak. But I feel like that's one of the things that makes this team so special, because we know how to battle through and persevere through obstacles.”
But Donovan doesn't want his players to dwell on the Elite Eight, Final Four or any other milestones.
“I don't think our guys are looking at this as win or bust kind of thing,” Donovan said. “They're not. I think they're looking at this right now as we have an opportunity, what are we going to do with our opportunity and what are we going to try to chase and pursue? And you're going to have every team in the tournament doing the same thing. But I think our guys have stayed relatively grounded on those kinds of things that probably at some point don't really mean a lot.”
Donovan happy for Providence
Donovan said he was happy to see his alma mater, Providence, win the Big East tournament and secure an automatic bid in the NCAA tournament. An 11 seed in the East Region, Providence will play sixth-seeded North Carolina on Friday in San Antonio, Texas.
Donovan played at Providence from 1983-87, leading the Friars to the 1987 Final Four.
“My Friars,” Donovan said. “Very, very happy.”
Donovan said he has a close relationship with third-year Providence coach Ed Cooley. Donovan said Cooley will serve as an assistant on his staff this summer with Team USA basketball's 18-under team in the FIBA Americas Championships.
“Ed Cooley is a great guy,” Donovan said. “I've known Ed for a long time. My sister and he went to college together. I've known Ed all the way since he was an assistant at Boston College. I was proud when they hired him.”
Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.