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3 posts from March 19, 2014

March 19, 2014

NCAA Notebook: Key contributor questionable?

ORLANDO -- Freshman point guard Kasey Hill will be a game-time decision for Florida’s tournament opener against 16-seed Albany (4:10 p.m., TBS), the school announced Wednesday.

Hill, who is averaging 5.9 points and 3.1 assists as Scottie Wilbekin’s backup, is battling turf toe and will be re-evaluated Thursday morning during Florida’s team shoot-around.

The Umatilla native participated in Wednesday’s open practice and displayed no visible limp during the workout, but the McDonald’s All-American did miss seven games this season with various injuries (ankle, groin).

WELCOME BACK

Orlando is a homecoming of sorts for several Gators, including fan-favorite walk-on Jake “The Snake” Kurtz.

Kurtz, who starred at Hagerty under Josh Kone, said the return to Orlando is “really cool.”

“I grew up a Magic fan, 15-minutes away from here. This is a thrill,” he said.

Kurtz’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament wasn’t so pleasant though.

In 2011, when the Gators faced Virginia (and later Norfolk State) in Omaha, Nebraska, Kurtz didn’t have a seat on the bench.

Tomorrow he may have a chance to play.

“The seats get cut down in the NCAA Tournament,” Kurtz explained, acknowledging the situation was “a bummer.”  “I wasn’t able to sit [with the team]. That was the first experience I had with the tournament. … I’d love to play. Everyone wants to play, but I wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing if we win, and I don’t. I’m ok as long as we keep moving on.”

MASTER AND HIS PUPIL(S)

While fans across the country are upset with Louisville's seeding, coach Rick Pitino is frustrated with his team's opponent. 

Pitnio criticized the NCAA selection committee for pitting his Cardinals against Manhattan, coached by protégée and longtime friend Steve Masiello.

But while Louisville's Hall of Fame coach is upset about facing off against Masiello, Pitino effusively sang the praises of another former star pupil also in Orlando: Florida coach Billy Donovan.

“Billy the Kid to me is one of the most special people in my life. I’ve said this, [former Cardinals point guard] Peyton Siva and Donovan were two of the most special people I’ve ever coached. I could never find a character flaw in them,” Pitino said.

Then the eulogizing continued. 

“There’s no finer person I’ve met in my life,” he said. “He’s just the most special human being I’ve ever encountered in my lifetime. He never changed. Success hasn’t changed him. Adversity hasn’t changed him.”

Donovan, who’s built his own expansive coaching tree including Shaka Smart (VCU), Anthony Grant (Alabama), Donnie Jones (UCF) and Larry Shyatt (Wyoming), boasted on Pitino’s ability to develop assistants into quality head coaches.

“When I was 24 years old, I was forced to scout.  I was forced to coach.  I was forced to teach.  I was forced to break down film,” Donovan explained. “I was forced to make decisions.  There was not any area of coaching when I was with Coach Pitino that I was not exposed to, and it was challenging, it was demanding, and it made me better. I really felt even though I was 28-years-old and took over at Marshall, I didn't feel like I was unprepared, or geez, this is overwhelming.  Not at all, and I think that had everything to do with Coach Pitino in terms of preparing us, and I hope in some way what he did for me I can do the same thing for my guys that are assistant coaches and move on to head coaching positions, is to get them prepared as much as I can.”

QUOTABLE

"It seems like a long time ago.  I've got great respect for the Magic and for this organization, for the people running it.  I'm excited to be at Florida.  When I went back, I knew we were going to have to rebuild.  We lost a lot of personnel, and it's been challenging, it's been rewarding.  There's been peaks and valleys.  There's been ups and downs.  But I'm proud of what our team has done to get to this point.  We're happy that we can certainly stay here in the state of Florida and the city of Orlando to play in the tournament. But for me, I think that's over and done with, and I've kind of moved on from it."

--- Donovan, on returning to Orlando for the first time since renegging on Magic job in 2007. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

Will Florida's free throw woes sink possible title-team?

GAINESVILLE -- The top-ranked Gators -- media darlings to win to 2014 NCAA Tournament -- have aced nearly every test this season, but Billy Donovan's senior-laden squad does have a scarlet-shortcoming that could torpedo its title hopes.

No. 1 Florida (32-2), which opens the second-round Thursday in Orlando (4:10 p.m., TBS) against play-in winner Albany, ranks as the nation's No. 289 team in free throw shooting at 66. 1 percent -- ninth-worst in the tournament’s field of 68.

While the cure-all for Florida's habitual slow starts has seemingly amounted to a halftime-dousing of Michael Jordan's "Secret Stuff," Donovan has found no remedy for UF's woes at the charity stripe.

"We’ve got to do a better job there," Donovan acknowledged.

"We were doing really, really well for a while there. One of the things that happened is we did work on it some, but we’ve got to spend more time on that. 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."

But others have been wretched.

The Gators shot a woeful 50 percent (27 of 54) over three games in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, nearly coughing up a championship with a 7-for-17 performance against Kentucky in the finals.

"We just going to have to put in more work," said forward Dorian Finney-Smith, who missed the front-end of a one-and-one with 20 seconds remaining against the Wildcats as Florida clung to its one-point lead. 

"I didn't even notice we missed that many free throws, but now that I know the stats we got to do a lot better than that."

Florida -- which proved capable at the charity stripe during a stretch in mid-February, shooting 79-percent in four games decided by single-digits -- must buck history if it’s going to capture its third national championship since 2006.

The last NCAA team to shoot under 70 percent and win a national championship was Florida in 2006-07, joining 2004 Connecticut as just the second school over the past decade (2004-2013) to do so.

"It's an area we’ve got to get better," Donovan said. "Certainly that three-game stretch from us was not a great stretch at all."

The Gators have just two players -- senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin (72.6 percent) and sophomore swingman Michael Frazier II (83.6 percent) -- who shoot north of 67 percent but Wilbekin was just 1-for-6 at the line during the SEC Tournament.

“Obviously we want to make those free throws, but we did a good job focusing on the next play,” he said.

Florida may run out of “next plays” in the NCAA Tournament though. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

Spring practice primer: A six-pack of questions as Florida opens camp

GAINESVILLE -- Florida football kicks-off spring camp this afternoon, opening the first of nine practices at 3:35 p.m. inside the Sanders Fields.

The Gators -- who will practice 15 times between today and April 12th’s Orange & Blue Debut -- hope to slowly start to wash away the stains from their abominable 2013 campaign and the worst season (4-8) in Gainesville in 35 years.  

Naturally, it’s a big spring for embattled coach Will Muschamp -- who’s stink has been Febreze’d a bit thanks to the success of Florida’s top-ranked hoops team.

But can Muschamp maintain his (newfound) fresh fragrance? We’ll see.

The Gators (seriously) boast one of the nation’s most talented teams but question marks remain abound. From sorting out jumbled positions to answering key concerns for an irritated fan base, it’s an important month for Florida football.  

*************** SIX STORYLINES TO FOLLOW ***************

1. Can new coordinator Kurt Roper’s rebuild UF’s offense? [BONUS Q’S] How fast will Florida’s players grasp the new system, and what will Roper’s tempo-attack look like with (under-developed) four- and-five-star players?

The Gators ranked No. 113 nationally in total offense last year, replacing two offensive coaches 24-hours into the offseason. Roper’s success (or lack their of) will likely determine Muschamp’s future at Florida -- so no pressure on Duke’s former quarterbacks guru. While spring practice won’t ultimately determine Florida’s 2014 fate, quality work would certainly be advantageous.

2. Will Jeff Driskel sink or swim?

Florida pushed back spring practice specifically so its redshirt junior quarterback would be fully recovered from his broken leg. The Gators’ enigmatic signal caller is working under his third offensive coordinator -- and third different system -- in four years, but Roper’s no-huddle spread is specifically tailored to Driskel skill-set. With a pair of talented freshmen waiting in the wings, it’s put up or shut-up time for JD.  

3. Who -- if anyone -- will emerge along the offensive line and at wide receiver and tight end?

Driskel needs help, lots of help. Florida’s offensive line was a disaster last year, as the Gators shuffled the deck more than a Jumbotron hat game. Injuries were a major factor, but a lack of development (see: Humphries, D.J.) and positional fit (see: Moore, Tyler) were key issues as well. At wideout, (the forever uninspiring) Quinton Dunbar returns as the team’s leading receiver, but the rest of the group is largely unknown, high on potential yet low on progress.  Meanwhile, Florida has a dearth of talent at tight end, problematic considering the way Roper likes to utilize the position in the passing game.

4. What will the Gators’ secondary look like?

Florida must replace four (sometimes) valuable contributors from its vaunted defensive backfield. Although Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson underwhelmed last season, the duo still made plays, as did the much-steadier performing Jaylen Watkins. Adding Cody Rigss’ transfer to Notre Dame, UF has a pair of openings at safety for the second straight spring. Marcus Maye, Keanu Neal and Jabari Gorman will compete for playing time, while Marcell Harris could be in the mix as well. Meanwhile, five-star early enrollee Jaylen Tabor is expected to fight for a starting job at cornerback opposite Florida’s top overall returning player: Vernon Hargreaves III.

5. Who will star (and will they have any staying-power?)

It’s a yearly tradition at Florida: spring stars = fall frauds. Over the past several seasons, Demarcus Robinson, Jabari Gorman (two years ago), Quinton Dunbar, Latroy Pittman, Gideon Ajagbe (on defense) and many, many others have shined in spring camp only to disappear (for a multitude of reasons) when the games actually count. Obviously this question cannot be answered in a month, but if guys like Adam Lane, Alvin Bailey or Jay-nard Bostwick go off in March, it’s best to temper all future expectations. 

6. How hungry are these Gators?

The entire program was embarrassed about its first losing season since 1979.  The pervasive truth last fall was that the team succumbed to a “woe is me” mentality, Florida’s very own Krokodil. Have attitudes changed? Muschamp says his players should never forget last season, using their failures to fuel the fire. Undoubtedly, the players will say all the right things this spring, but it’s their actions during practice that will tell a better story.

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton


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