May 22, 2014

Donovan courted by NBA

GAINESVILLE -- Following another Final Four run, Florida coach Billy Donovan has been contacted by multiple NBA teams this offseason, he said Thursday.

Donovan stressed the conversations have been "brief," and he “fully plans on being back [in Gainesville] next season.”

“It’s always flattering, but at the same time, I’ve always said that I’m very happy here and like it here,” Donovan explained. 

“Jeremy [Foley] has been great here. I like where our program’s at and the direction we’re going.”

Florida’s coach, always guarded when speaking on the NBA following his flip-flop commitment on the Orlando Magic in 2007, didn’t disclose which NBA teams he talked to, but various media reports from league insiders said the Cleveland Cavilers and the Minnesota Timberwolves were among those interested.

“I got a few calls from a couple NBA teams. I’m going to leave it at that. After the Orlando situation, that’s all I’m saying. That’s it. So I’m not going to get into, ‘He’s lying, he’s not being truthful.’ I got a couple of calls, that’s all it is.”

Donovan has led the Gators to four Final Fours in 18 seasons and recently signed a contract extension to keep him at Florida through the 2018-19 season.

NOTHING CHANGED

Damontre Harris, officially removed from UF's roster Wednesday, did not “earn his way back” on the team this offseason, Donovan said.

“Damontre is not a bad kid, he’s a good kid, but really undisciplined and unreliable in a lot of ways. … The things we were talking about is like going to class, being on time, being in the weight room, lifting, showing up to practice, those kind of things. Basically we evaluated him over that two and a half, three months over that second semester and clearly nothing had changed at all.”

Donovan has not spoken with Harris face-to-face since the end of the season, with Harris skipping a meeting on his future sometime in recent weeks. 

INJURY UPDATES

Rutgers transfer guard Eli Carter is “80-85 percent” after missing most of the 2013-14 season recovering from a gruesome leg injury sustained with the Scarlet Knights in February 2013. Donovan said trainers expect Carter to be 100 percent by fall camp in October.

Meanwhile, guard Dillion Graham, another medical redshirt last season, continues a slow, painful recovery from bone spurs in both hips and is not expected to be cleared for any contact until September-October.

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May 21, 2014

Harris officially done

Orl-gators1520121010150914(Courtesy Gatorzone.com)

GAINESVILLE -- Damontre Harris ran out of chances. 

As first reported by Jon Rothstein of CBSSports.com, Florida’s 6-foot-10 center is no longer with the team -- a permanent move following multiple disciplinary issues and second chances. 

UF later confirmed Rothstein’s report, and coach Billy Donovan is likely to speak on the issue Thursday at his post-spring wrap-up press conference. 

But Wednesday officially ended a rollercoaster ride for the troubled transfer from South Carolina. Harris, a member of the All-SEC Defensive team in 2011-12, never played a minute for the Gators -- this despite being eligible during Florida’s Final Four run last season. 

Donovan suspended Harris indefinitely before the start of the 2013-14 season, later dismissing the big-man from the team during Christmas break. However, Harris pleaded for another chance -- a request Donovan granted.

Harris practiced with the Gators during their NCAA Tournament run, but Donovan refused to allow Harris to play citing chemistry, values and respect. 

Like former embattled guard Scottie Wilbekin, Harris was given conditions follow before ever seeing the court again -- stipulations likely not completed this spring/summer. 

Harris’ loss is hardly a surprise considering Florida recently landed 7-foot shot blocking sensation John Egbunu from South Florida

While Egbunu, with three years of eligibility remaining, must sit out the 2014-15 season due to transfer rules, he will be on scholarship -- an issue resolved with Harris’ dismissal. 

With Egbunu’s addition, the Gators were one over the NCAA scholarship limit (13) before Harris was released. 

More to come. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

May 08, 2014

UF-KU rematch date set

GAINESVILLE -- Florida will travel to Kansas on December 5 for a non-conference showdown against the Jayhawks as part of the 2014 SEC/BIG 12 Challenge, the leagues announced Wednesday. 

The marquee matchup, a rematch of last season’s inaugural SEC/BIG 12 Challenge when UF trumped KU 67-61 in Gainesviile, is one of 10 games between the two conferences in 10 days. 

ESPN’s family of networks (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, WatchESPN) will televise the event.

“The ability to showcase SEC basketball in this kind of inter-conference competition makes this a unique and exciting event for our coaches, student-athletes and fans,” SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said in a statement.   

ACADEMIC SUCCESS 

Florida’s men’s basketball team was publicly honored by the NCAA for its “outstanding academic performance,” scoring in the top 10 percent nationally in the Academic Progress Rate. 

The Gators were the only SEC basketball team to be recognized, as Florida set a conference record with eight players named to the academic honor roll. 

According to the university, the APR “provides a real-time look a the team’s academic success each semester by tracking the progress of each student-athlete on scholarship.”

Last weekend, six players participated in UF’s spring commencement ceremonies, as Billy Donovan, Jacob Kurt, Patric Young, Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin and Will Yeguete all graduated. 

YOUNG TO ATTEND COMBINE

Florida's former senior center has accepted an invite to this month's NBA Draft combine in Chicago (May 14-18), according to draftexpress.com.

The 6-foot-9, 245-pound frontcourt freak averaged 11 points and 6.2 rebounds this past season, anchoring one of the stingiest defenses in the country and earning defensive player of the year honors in the process. 

Per multiple mock drafts, Young projects as a late second round selection. 

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April 09, 2014

Grounded: 'Sky' returns to Gators

GAINESVILLE — Former McDonald’s All-American Chris 'Sky' Walker is returning to Florida for “one more year.”

The five-star freshman announced his decision Wednesday via Twitter, with the school quickly confirming the news. 

  Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 9.00.47 PMWalker missed the first three months of Florida’s historic 2013-14 season — first delayed by academic issues then serving an NCAA-mandated 12-game suspension for accepting impermissible benefits. 

In 18 games, the freshman was a little-used role player during UF’s Final Four run, but with a full offseason of strength and conditioning he’s expected to be a breakout contributor next season. 

Walker flashed his elite athleticism for small stretches for the Gators (see: Three minutes of brillance against UCLA in the Sweet 16), but the freshman mostly struggled understanding the nuances of coach Billy Donovan’s system — offensively and defensively. 

The 6-foot-10 power forward averaged just 1.9 points and 1.3 rebounds in 4.8 minutes per game, but according to numerous mock drafts he projected as a first-rounder in the upcoming NBA Draft based largely on his limitless potential. 

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April 05, 2014

NCAA Final Four: Live from AT&T Stadium

2013-final-four-dallas

ARLINGTON, Texas — Florida's 'Core Four' starts its Texas revenge tour in roughly one hour.

The top-seeded Gators and seventh-seeded Connecticut Huskies tipoff at 6:09 p.m. (EST) on TBS at Jerry World AT&T Stadium. 

Florida has won all four tournament games by double-digits — the only team to do so — and enter the matchup as prohibabtive favorites (BPI 80 percent, FiveThirtyEight 70 percent, Vegas -6.5), but can Shabazz Napier complete the Kemba Walker metamophsis and engineer an upset?

We'll see. 

ICYMI: A sampling of the Miami Herald's extensive pregame coverage:

* Adam Beasley's tremendous feature on Billy Donovan. 

* The heavyweight match-up between Napier and UF guard Scottie Wilbekin.

* Will Kasey Hill be the X-factor?

* Overcoming the distractions at the Final Four.

* An early preview. 

Here's a six-pack of keys to watch during the Final Four showdown. 

CONTROLLING THE PAINT

The Gators physically dominated the Huskies on Dec. 2, as UF outscored Connecticut 32-14 in the paint, had a plus-eight margin on the glass and forced both Huskies centers (Phillip Nolan, Tyler Olander) to foul out. 

Patric Young was unguardable, tallying 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting. 

Also: Florida has been a steady rebounding team (42nd defense, 41st offense) all season, while UConn struggles to control the boards with a guard-heavy lineup. Napier is UConn’s leading rebounder (5.9 rpg), as Nolan — its starting big-man — grabs just 2.9 boards per contest. 

FREE THROWS

[See: UCLA note, lather, rinse, repeat]. The Gators, porous from the charity stripe most of the season (66.3 percent), have shot 73.9 percent in four NCAA Tournament games, but UConn is better… much better. Napier has shot 93 percent from the line in the Big Dance, 87 percent on the season. UConn averages 21 free throws a game. 

BEHIND THE ARC 

The Gators shot a woeful 6-for-25 from downtown in two games last year at the cavernous AT&T Stadium, but players swear depth perception won’t be a factor tonight. In Michigan’s Elite Eight drubbing, Wilbekin and Michael Frazier II never attempted a trey.   

BENCH 

Kasey Hill didn’t play (ankle). Chris Walker wasn’t on campus yet (ineligible). Dorian Finney-Smith had one of his worst games of the season (4 fouls, 3 points). Florida’s depth is one of the team’s major strengths, as UF reserves have outscored their counterparts 62 percent of the time this season. In the first meeting, UConn had a plus-nine advantage (12-3). Look for that to flip tonight. 

TURNOVERS

Florida had its worst assist-to-turnover ratio of the season against UConn (8:16), as Finney-Smith (6), Wilbekin (3) and Casey Prather (5) struggled to take care of the ball. The 16 turnovers were one shy of Florida’s season-high, and the Gators haven’t coughed the rock up as many as 14 times in six weeks. 

OVER/UNDER 25.5

Napier sliced the Gators for 26 points in the first matchup, highlighted by his buzzer-beating fadeaway. Napier has scored 25 (or more) points 10 times this season — with UConn winning eight of those games. If the Gators hold the All-American under 25 points they should roll to the finals, otherwise things could get tricky.

Enjoy the game, everybody. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

March 31, 2014

Wilbekin named AP All-American

GAINESVILLE -- Scottie Wilbekin's trophy case is running out of space. 

Top-seeded Florida's point guard -- the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, SEC Tournament Most Valuable Player and South Regional Most Outstanding Player --  was named a third-team All-American by the Associated Press on Monday, the most prestigious of any All-American teams

Wilbekin became Florida's first player to earn AP All-American honors since Joakim Noah and Al Horford in 2006-07. 

Wilbekin averages 13.4 points and 3.7 assists as UF's floor general, but the 6-foot-2 senior has upped his performance on the biggest stage -- averaging 16.8 points in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. 

Seniors Casey Prather and Patric Young received honorable mention acclaim, while Prather -- the team's leading scorer at 13.8 points per gam -- also landed on the 10-player Wooden All-American team

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March 30, 2014

March 29, 2014

NCAA Notebook: Any help, please?

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Archie Miller, Dayton's third-year head coach, joked his older brother, Sean -- Arizona’s head coach -- is a tad busy to solicit information on how to trump Florida.

The Wildcats and Gators played a home-and-home series in 2011-12 and 2012-13, but two brothers aren’t even speaking during the NCAA Tournament despite becoming the first siblings to lead their respective teams to the Regional Semifinals.

“He’s not helping me. He’s trying to do his thing,” said Archie, as Sean’s Wildcats advanced to the West Regional Semifinals after topping San Diego State on Thursday night in Anaheim, Calf. 

“But Florida, you see them a lot on TV. You understand what they’re about. You understand their pedigree. They’re the No. 1 overall seed for a reason. They’ve won 29 games in a row. I don’t know who can help me, to be honest with you.”

INSIDE EDGE?

Flyers assistant Tom Ostrom spent seven seasons (1998-2003) on Billy Donovan’s staff at Florida and another eight seasons (2004-2011) with Gators assistant John Pelphrey at South Alabama and Arkansas, but his familiarity with Florida’s coaches won’t be crucial advantage, according to Miller.

“Tom is a terrific coach,” Miller said.

“I think Tom’s experience with Florida is a long time ago. Big thing nowadays it’s not so much what [Florida] does but their personnel.”

Donovan concurred, adding, “It’s been awhile since Tom worked for me but he did a great for me and a great job for John.”

Ostrom was put in charge of Dayton’s gameplan for the Gators, as the assistant sat courtside Thursday and scouted Florida's win over UCLA. 

QUOTABLE

"It's been an up-and-down journey, but it's all been worth it. To see the point that I'm at now with my teammates. It the journey has been a struggle at times, but it's also had a lot of highs. It's been a great season. Fun. Just so much fun I want it to keep going as long as it can because this honestly been my most enjoyable year at Florida."

-- Senior poing guard Scottie Wilbekin, reflecting on his personal journey over the past 12 months. 

THIS & THAT

The Gators tied a season-high with 22 assists against UCLA, including 10 dimes by freshman point guard Kasey Hill. According to ESPN Stats Inc., Hill became just the fourth freshman ever to record 10 (or more) assists in a Sweet 16 game, joining elite company in Magic Johnson (1978), Jason Kidd (1993) and Keith Gatlin (1984). ... Dayton goes 12-deep with line change substitutions, but Florida's reserves -- led by Hill and Dorian Finney-Smith -- have outscored their counterparts 62 percent of the time this season, including 11 of the last 14 games. ... Amanda Butler’s 11th-seeded Lady Gators upset sixth-seeded Dayton (83-69) in the first round of this year’s women’s NCAA Tournament. It marks the first time in school history Florida’s men’s and women’s teams have played the same school in the tournament in the same season. 

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March 27, 2014

UF-UCLA: 3 under-the-radar keys to watch

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The top-seeded Gators (34-2) and fourth-seeded Bruins (28-8) tip-off tonight (9:45 p.m., CBS) in the Sweet 16, and while everyone -- yours truly included -- has focused on contrasting styles, tempo and dueling point guards, here’s three under-the-radar keys to watch tonight.   

1. Coaching disparity

Another popular pregame narrative has been the parallels between Florida coach Billy Donovan and UCLA coach Steve Alford. They both were savvy point guards who led their respective teams to the 1987 Final Four. They both have sons who play for them. They both went to the Sweet 16 (as coaches) for the first time in 1999.

To me though, the similarities end there.

While Alford was the better player, Donovan has proven to be the superior coach -- by multiple Pauley Pavillions.

Donovan has 33 NCAA Tournament victories -- 26 more wins than Alford (7).

Alford, who advanced past the opening weekend for the first time in 14 years, is a charismatic coach known mostly for doing more with less and less with more.

College hoops is full over over-zealous coaching but if matters Thursday night, the nation’s best team clearly has the better sideline pedigree.

2. Free Throw Shooting

It’s simple really: During the 2013-14 season, Florida (usually) stunk at the charity stripe, while UCLA (traditionally) succeeded.

The Gators made 20-of-27 free throws in the second- and-third round of the NCAA Tournament, but they still rank No. 280 nationally in overall percentage (66.3).

UCLA ranks No. 21 (74.9 percent) in the country at the charity stripe, as four of five starters shoot at least 77 percent.

Jordan Adams, UCLA’s prolific scoring swingman, shoots nearly 84 percent at the line and has made (156) and attempted (186) more free throws than any player on Florida’s roster.

If the game is close late, the Bruins definitely hold the edge at the line.

3. Who slows down Patric Young?

Yes, UCLA poses challenging matchups playing upside down -- its guards post up and its bigs shoot -- but what about the showdown on the other end of the floor?

The Wear twins are both 6-10, but power -- especially dogged, desperate strength -- can trump length. Patric Young, averaging 8.5 points and 9.0 rebounds in the tournament, is determined for another crack at the Elite Eight and a final chance to make the Final Four.

Can the Wear twins (along with Tony Parker) match his interior-presence, effort and intensity?

We’ll see.

***** BONUS Q *****

Both teams rely on freshmen guards off the bench (UCLA: Zach LaVine, Bryce Alford; UF: Kasey Hill) -- who shines or shudders on the big stage?

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Q&A: Gators assistant talks Florida's press, UCLA's matchup challenges

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- UCLA poses plenty of matchup challenges for the nation's top team, so who better to breakdown the intriguing showdown then Florida scouting wiz/assistant coach Matt McCall. 

The top-seeded Gators (34-2) and fourth-seeded Bruins (28-8) tip-off tonight (9:45 p.m., CBS) in the Sweet 16 at the FedEx Forum.

Florida’s unrelenting full-court pressure forces plenty of turnovers, but what’s the key in limiting scoring opportunities (ex: Pittsburgh tallied just 22 first-half points last weekend) when teams do break the press?

 “The biggest thing is positioning, being in the right spots. Our defense is built to handle anything that’s coming at us. When our guys are in the right spots and understand their roles no matter what action or play it all comes down to positioning. We played with a tremendous amount of passion [against the Panthers]. We understood those guys could cause us all sorts of problems, and it’s going to be no different against UCLA. This is a little bit unique from what we’ve faced all year from the standpoint of our guards are going to have to guard a lot on the inside and our frontcourt players are going to have to guard a lot on the outside which is different. We’ve had some time to prepare, but it’s a little unique.”

Is UCLA -- with its offensive firepower -- the first team this season Florida has faced that can consistently score off breaking the press? 

“Very rarely do those guys get late into the clock. I can’t say they’re taking bad shots. Jordan Adams has got terrific basketball IQ and he really knows how to use screens. He’s as good as any player we’ve played against this year at finding spots to score and using screens. And then when you got a guy [Kyle Anderson] that’s 6-9 out there controlling everything and finding him, that really helps too. They’re unselfsish. It’s impressive. They really don’t take bad shots. … Jordan Adams, if you take the first option away. He understands how to get to the next one and the next one. Then add Norman Powell who’s flying up the floor and gets a lot of his baskets in transition. It all causes issues.”

While Anderson generates a lot of headlines with his freakish-versatility, Adams is a potent scoring threat. Is there any SEC-comp for him?

“It’s hard because he posts more than any guard we’ve played against. I’d put him up there -- if not better -- than [Missouri guard] Jabari Brown and [Tennesse guard] Jordan McCrae. Those guys don’t post as much as this guy. They’re terrific but Adams’ basketball IQ takes him to a different level. He’s an explosive player.”

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Prather's happy homecoming, Anderson's recruitment, valuing possessions & more

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- As a standout at North Side High in Jackson, Tenn., Florida’s senior slasher Casey Prather grew up just 90 miles from FedEx Forum.

The Gators’ leading scorer (14.1 ppg) played high school and AAU games at the arena and is thrilled to return to his backyard.

“It’s great just having my family be able to support me,” Prather said, on this homecoming.  “I know they wanted to come to a lot more games but I’ve been kind of far away, so me playing close to home is just great for them.  “It’s a great environment. I’m excited. It should be a lot of fun.”

The 2013-14 season has been special for Prather, as his well-documented struggles with injuries and identity issues nearly derailed his Florida career.

But after some soul-searching last offseason, the 6-foot-6 swingman has matured into Florida’s most potent threat around the rim.

Prather led the SEC in field goal percentage (60.7) and was an all-conference first teamer, as his patience and perseverance paid off.

“I had to stay locked it to who I am as a player,” he explained. “Just playing to my strengths. … The [coaching staff] helped me see the big picture. I took a step back and realized what I can bring to the team and things I could do effectively to help us win.” 

NO REGRETS

Florida nearly poached UCLA’s do-everything-all-star two years ago, as Anderson almost committed to the Gators during the 2012 recruiting cycle.

The Jersey City St. Anthony’s standout -- the same hoops academy former Gators guard Mike Rosario attended -- ultimately chose the Bruins due to former UCLA coach Ben Howland’s propensity for developing combo-guards.

However, Rivals’ third-overall player said it was a close decision.

“I wouldn’t have had a problem going to both schools,” the former McDonald’s All-American said.

“I just happened to like UCLA more. The player development that I saw when being recruited by Donovan played a big role in how much I liked Florida at the time. But I decided to come to UCLA, and I’m happy with my decision.” 

VALUE THE BALL

While the Bruins are considered solely an offensive juggernaut, they rank No. 4 in the country in steals, averaging 9.3 swipes per game thanks to their impressive length, size and quick hands.

Florida is well aware of UCLA’s prowess of jumping passing lanes and converting turnovers into fast points, with senior center Patric Young calling the Bruins “the fastest shooting team [from defense to offense] in the country.”

Sophomore guard Michael Frazier II added, “taking care of the ball is key because they score a lot of their points in transition.” 

QUOTABLE 

“There’s no easy exit out of the NCAA Tournament.” 

-- Billy Donovan 

THIS & THAT

Florida made 20-of-27 free throws in the second- and-third round of the NCAA Tournament, but the Gators still rank No. 280 nationally (66.3 percent) in overall percentage and the charity stripe may loom large down the stretch. UCLA is very good free throw shooting team, finishing the season No. 21 (74.9 percent) nationally. … UCLA is 14-7 against RPI top-100 teams. … Donovan is 6-1 in the Sweet 16, winning six-straight since 1999. 

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March 25, 2014

Donovan nets raise, 3-year extension

GAINESVILLE -- Billy Donovan isn’t going anywhere.

Florida’s veteran coach signed a three-year contract extension through 2018-19, bumping his annual salary to $3.68 million over the next five years.

Florida will pay Donovan close to $4 million this season after he received a $250,000 longevity bonus earlier in March, according to contract details released Tuesday.  

During is 18 seasons in Gainesville, Florida’s coached has revolutionized Gators basketball, leading UF to two national championships, three Final Fours and 14 NCAA Tournament appearances.

The Gators -- who punched their fourth-consecutive Sweet 16 ticket last Saturday and will face fourth-seeded UCLA in Memphis, Tenn. on Thursday (9:45 p.m., CBS) -- own the nation’s longest active winning streak at 28 straight.

Under terms of his new deal, Donovan no longer has a non-compete clause in his contract but he still must receive “express written consent” from athletic director Jeremy Foley before speaking with either an NBA franchise or another collegiate institution.

Donovan’s base salary will remain at $220,000 but his activities agreement increased by roughly $100,000.  

Donovan’s (highly-incentivized) postseason benefits did not change with the new contract.

As with the old deal, Donovan earns $37,000 for making the NCAA Tournament with triggered increases for reaching the Sweet 16 and Final Four. Donovan would earn a $150,000 bonus for winning the NCAA Championship.

Donovan has already racked up bonus cash this postseason, earning $250,000 for reaching the Sweet 16, winning the SEC, winning AP coach of the year and finishing in the Associate Press Top 10.

While the timing seems a bit reactive to last week's news of Donovan's "NBA intrigue," via multiple reports, Donovan agreed the contract during the summer but it wasn’t finalized until last month.

Last week, a trip to Orlando spurred memories of when Donovan spurned the Magic in 2007. Florida's coach agreed on a contract, only to change his mind and later walk away.

While Donovan wouldn’t commit to staying with the Gators forever, he was adamant there's no place he rather be right now. 

“When you say a lifer, that means to me I'm never, every going to go anywhere and be there,” Donovan said.

“Who knows?  They may get sick of me at Florida and want me to move on.  But I don't like coming out making bold predictions or statements.  I would say right now I'm extremely happy with my life right now at the University of Florida.”

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March 24, 2014

NCAA Notebook: Wilbekin fine, SEC success & Bruce Pearl

 

GAINESVILLE -- Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin is “good to go” after knocking knees with a Pittsburgh player late in Florida’s 61-45 win over the Panthers on Saturday in Orlando.

“My knee feels fine,” said Wilbekin, who fueled the top-seeded Gators to their fourth consecutive Sweet 16 with a game-high 21 points.

The Southeastern Conference Player of the Year was forced to miss the final minute of action with the injury, but called it simply “a bruise.”

Coach Billy Donovan expects Wilbekin to practice normally, adding, “There's no issues right now, at least that I've been aware of or made aware of as it relates to him going forward.”

The Gators (33-2) will tangle with the fourth-seeded UCLA Bruins on Thursday (9:45 p.m., CBS) in the South Regional Semifinals in Memphis, Tenn. 

SEC! SEC! SEC!

Much was made over the SEC’s weakness as a major hoops conference this season, but with three Sweet 16 teams -- top-seeded Florida, ninth-seeded Kentucky and 11th-seeded Tennessee -- the league is slowly altering public perception.

While UK and UT are suddenly playing to peak potential, Donovan believes the conference’s reputation -- past and present -- has been overblown all along.

“I think our league can play with any league in the country,” UF’s coach said.

“But I would say this, and I've said this before:  Just because a certain league teams get knocked out early doesn't mean the league is overrated, and because a league really, really advances in the tournament doesn't mean the league is great.  I just get upset when all of a sudden everybody just throws out and makes assumptions or draws conclusions of a league being good or bad based on what's happened in the non‑conference.  That to me is, I think, somewhat unfair.”

The SEC -- aside from Florida and Kentucky -- was pitiful during non-conference play in November and December, de-valuing its reputation across the country with poor scheduling and inexplicable losses.

But the league is undefeated in the NCAA Tournament (7-0) -- the best record for a conference entering the Regional Semifinals since the Big East in 2003 (8-0).

“It’s pretty cool to see three SEC teams in the Sweet 16,” Wilbekin said. “All I heard all year was that the SEC was down and it was weak.”

Donovan acknowledged matchups are key in single-elimination tournaments but that leagues shouldn’t be measured solely on postseason successes or failures. 

“I think if everybody in the SEC was out of the tournament, they'd say, ‘See, I told you the league is no good,’” Donovan explained. 

“Now we've got some teams advancing: ‘Wow, the league must be really, really underrated.’ Sometimes it has to do with matchups, sometimes it has to do with who you're playing against; sometimes it has to do with how well you're playing. There's a lot of variables that go into winning in postseason.”

THOUGHTS ON PEARL

While some league coaches have shied away from commenting on Bruce Pearl’s return to the SEC, Donovan called Auburn’s hiring “good for the league.”

The Tigers poached Pearl from ESPN last week, several months before the former Tennessee coach’s three-year NCAA show cause expires.

“I had a chance to talk to Bruce,” Donovan said.  “He had called me and we had talked a little bit.  I'm happy for him.  I think just being in the league with him for that long and kept in touch with him the three years he was out, and I think for him it was ‑‑ he went through a lot of difficulty personally internally.  I think it was really hard on him.”

The Volunteers fired Pearl in March 2011 after he lied to NCAA investigators and the program was hit with minor sanctions.

“He's an outstanding coach,” Donovan said. I think Bruce coming in will do a great job.  He'll certainly bring energy and enthusiasm to the league, to Auburn, and I'm happy for him if that's what he wants to do.”

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton 

March 22, 2014

Sweetness: Gators, Panthers react to Florida's 28th straight win

I(Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young | Courtesy AP Photo/John Raoux)

ORLANDO -- The top-seeded Gators waved farewell to the Sunshine State in style Saturday afternoon, smothering 9th-seeded Pittsburgh into submission for a 61-45 victory in front of a sellout, pro-Gators crowd inside the Amway Center.

“How sweet it is,” assistant coach Matt McCall shouted in the locker room.

Florida won its 28th straight game, punching its fourth consecutive ticket to the Sweet 16. 

The Gators will face the winner of Sunday’s game between 4th-seed UCLA and 12th-seed Stephen F. Austin on Thursday in Memphis, Tenn. 

Here's some notable quotes from the locker room. 

"We weren't going to let them to play harder than us.”

-- Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, who paced Florida with a game-high 21 points. 

“At this point I’m happy to get out this gym. That’s the name of the game though. Some shots are going to go in. Some aren’t. I took good shots tonight. I can’t control whether the ball goes in or not because if I could every shot would go in.” 

-- Sophomore shooting guard Michael Frazier II, on shooting just 4-for-15 in two games at Amway Arena 

“When you have a guy like that you just give him the ball and move out of his way. ... He was hot. He gave us an offensive boost. We needed it.” 

-- Frazier, on Wilbekin's big night. 

"I thought our defense in particular, both halves it was good, but I thought in the second half it really, really was good, and these guys did a really terrific job from start to finish."

-- Gators coach Billy Dononvan, on UF's splendid defensive effort.  

"The three they hit was one of those things that could've easily been prevented if he would've executed what coach (Jamie Dixon) wanted. Coach wanted us to foul him before he could get close to taking a shot."

-- Panthers forward Michael Young, on Wilbekin's running, halftime buzzer-beater. 

"Florida is the most physical team we've play all year. They beat us on the glass and beat us to loose balls. We have to give them credit."

-- Panthers head coach Jamie Dixon, on UF's hustle.  

"If we would’ve brought [UF's relentless hustle] to the first game would’ve been drastically different. Our mindset, effort, focus on the defensive end was just unprecedented. That’s how we want to be every single night."

-- Florida center Patric Young, on UF's relentless hustle  

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

March 21, 2014

NCAA Notebook: Frazier frustrated, aberrations & more

ORLANDO -- Michael Frazier II provides instant offense for the top-seeded Gators and opponents have taken note – aggravatingly so for Florida’s prolific outside shooter.

UF’s sophomore sniper, averaging 12.6 points and three treys a game, was mostly a frustrated decoy Thursday afternoon, as Albany clamped down on the nation’s ninth-best three-point shooter (45 percent).

The Great Danes held Frazier to just 1-of-5 from the field, blanketing the sophomore with multiple defenders by utilizing a triangle-and-two defense to freeze out Florida’s lone consistent long distance threat.

Three years ago, former Butler coach Brad Stevens employed a similar strategy when his Bulldogs shocked the Gators in overtime in the Elite Eight, but Florida actually took advantage of the space in the paint on Thursday.  

“I think the greatest sign of respect for me as a coach is when somebody says to a player, we're going to take that player out of the game,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. 

“It was a game where because of the way they guarded Frazier, because of the way they guarded [Scottie] Wilbekin, there were a lot of other things open, especially inside and around the basket that I thought we took advantage of.”

Although Frazier was visibly upset after the lackluster victory, Donovan cooled the sophomore’s temperature with an anecdote that resonated with the entire team.

“Coach [Donovan] talked to the team after the game and told a story about when he was a player a Providence and they were playing Georgetown,” UF assistant Matt McCall explained. 

“Going into the year, Coach was leading the NCAA Tournament in scoring, getting like 30 [points] a game, and Georgetown said, 'Hey we're going to take Billy Donovan out of the game.' They did and he only took two shots but [Providence] won by 18. So you take it as a sign of a team having respect for you. And if they're going to take that much focus on you and take you out of the game, other things for other guys are going to open up.”

Bingo. 

Florida was forced to turn to other options, and Kasey Hill, Dorian Finney-Smith and others carried the load but Frazier may have a chance to get back on track against Pitt. 

While the Panthers play a stingy, tenacious half-court defense, they’re not particularly adept at guarding the three-point line (No. 100 nationally in three-point defense) -- something coach Jamie Dixon is openly concerned about.

"If [Frazier] makes of couple of shots he can break a game open," Dixon said.

"He's their best shooter, best perimeter threat and shoots a high percentage from 3.”

Frazier drilled three early treys against Kentucky in the SEC Tournament title game, pacing the Gators early. But while the sophomore wants “his,” he’s more concerned with winning.

“[Albany] was determined to not to let [me] beat them, so it opened up things for other guys,” he said. “[Pittsburgh’s] defense is different, so we'll have some open looks in other areas.”

ABERRATION(S)?

Pitt smoked Colorado on Thursday, drubbing the Buffalos by 29-points in its most dominant (and complete) performance this season. Meanwhile, the Gators struggled for 35 minutes against overmatched Albany.

Will the two teams deviate towards their norm tomorrow?

We’ll see.

The Panthers have competed well against ranked teams (three losses by a combined 10 points), but they simply haven’t beaten many (1-4 record).

Despite a 2-15 all-time record against the No. 1 team in the country, they remain confident they can pull off the upset.

“We're playing good basketball right now,” said forward Lamar Patterson, Pitt’s leading scorer at 17.4 points per game.

“We'll know if we're playing our best basketball on Saturday.  … Right now is the perfect time to be making strides toward the best you can possibly be, and I feel like that's what we're doing as a team.”

QUOTABLE

“In the South, okay, football is the passion.  It's never changing.  It's just the way it is.  Okay, and I've done nothing since I've been at Florida but try to embrace that because I really believe in the fall there's not a greater place to be than on our campus when there's a football game going on. That being said, I do think that there is an incredible affinity in the state and nationally for the University of Florida, and I always look at, right now, one, the support administratively, the support by fans, what our building is like, what the commitment has been, and I think our commitment and our support has been as good as anywhere in the country, and I think there's a lot of people that are involved with that.”

-- Donovan, on Florida as a football school vs. a basketball school

THIS & THAT

Pitt holds a plus-6.3 rebounding margin, tops in the ACC. … The Panthers, who rarely faced an aggressive press in the ACC, also led the conference in assists per game (15.6) and Donovan called them, “An outstanding passing team.” … After shooting just 50 percent from the charity stripe in the SEC Tournament, Florida was 14-for-18 (77.8 percent) against Albany.  … Donovan said freshman point guard Kasey Hill, who scored 10 points in his first-career NCAA Tournament game, is “fine” and has no lingering issues with his toe injury. … Florida’s four seniors are just one win away from setting the school-record for most wins by a single class.  … Pitt topped Albany 58-46 earlier this season, allowing just 18 points in the first half. However, the Panthers’ 12-point margin was the same as Florida’s final margin against the Great Danes.  

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

Donovan confesses NBA "intrigue"

ORLANDO -- Billy Donovan is happy in Gainesville, very happy in fact, but No. 1 Florida's coach acknowledged the next logical step on the coaching ladder still "intrigues" him.

“To me the NBA part of it for me is ‑‑ it's all basketball,” Donovan explained. 

“I got into coaching because of the basketball piece of it, and there is an intrigue as it relates to that.  One of the things that I think I've learned, when you try to project where your future is, where you're going to be, and you don't know because I don't have a crystal ball, all I can say is I am happy here at Florida.  I love being here.”

A trip to Orlando has spurred memories of when Donovan spurned the Magic in 2007. Florida's coach agreed on a contract, only to change his mind and later walk away.

Donovan has remained at UF ever since -- 18 seasons since first accepting the job in 1996. 

“It was just something internally I felt like this was where I needed to be,” said Donovan, remarking on his change of heart in 2007.

“Who knows where I'd be right now.  I don't know.  Maybe TV, maybe sitting on a beach somewhere? I don't know.  I'm excited that I'm still at Florida and still having a chance to coach, and I'm happy that making that decision there's been a lot of things that I've had a chance to experience.”

Although Donovan wouldn’t commit to staying with the Gators forever, he was adamant he’s quite content -- for now.

“When you say a lifer, that means to me I'm never, every going to go anywhere and be there,” Donovan said.

“Who knows?  They may get sick of me at Florida and want me to move on.  But I don't like coming out making bold predictions or statements.  I would say right now I'm extremely happy with my life right now at the University of Florida.”

And for that, Gators fans are extremely thankful. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

March 20, 2014

NCAA Notebook: Gators "survive", Frazier contained & more

I(Courtesy Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

ORLANDO -- It was supposed to be easy, but it wasn’t.

Top-seeded Florida dispatched a scrappy 16-seeded Albany 67-55 Thursday afternoon in the Amway Center, avoiding a monumental upset as its road to the Final Four started out much rockier than anticipated.  

The Southeastern Conference Champions -- winners of a school-record 27 straight games and top-overall seed in the NCAA Tournament -- survived a scare from the American East Champions, but you wouldn’t have known it postgame.

Florida’s locker room felt like a funeral, and a despondent group acknowledged they must play better.

Fast. 

"I think we should look at this game as a blessing,” senior center Patric Young said.

“We can't have this same type of energy going into the next game, this same type of mindset or focus, whatever it was. We have to flush that and just remember that we have to be somebody we have been the whole year going into the next game. Hopefully learning from this game will help us do that next game.”

Florida was “out of sync” all afternoon, as senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said the team lacked energy, focus and connectivity from the start.

Coach Billy Donovan told the team afterwards they “were lucky to get one more.”

“He said if we play like we did tonight then that will be the last one we get,” Wilbekin explained.

“We just got to flush this game and get ready for Pittsburgh.”

FRAZIER SILENCED

Sophomore sniper Michael Frazier, Florida's third-leading scorer, hit a trey for the 18th straight game, but the prolific shooter struggled to generate many looks from behind the arc (1-for-4).

The Gators, bottled up by the Great Danes’ stingy (ever-changing) zone defenses, hit just 3-of-13 three-pointers -- their fewest treys since Feb. 15 at Kentucky. 

“We played a lot of junk defenses,” Albany coach Will Brown said. “The triangle-and-two, diamand-and-one, matchup zone, we just wanted to know where [Frazier] was at all times.

“We had all sorts of names for him: Ray Allen, Jesus Shuttlesworth. He has the smoothest stroke since Ray Allen. We were determined not to let him get a free look.”

ERVING WALKER 2.0?

The Great Danes had their own Mighty Mouse and he nearly sparked the upset.

DJ Evans -- Albany’s 5-foot-9 point guard -- scored a game-high 21 points (6-for-12, 2-of-5 from behind the arc) while taking a beating in the process.

Evans, who had ice wrapped on his elbow postgame, took a knee the head at one point and later crashed to the floor following a nifty shot-fake.

It was a valiant effort by a tough little guy.

“I have a lot of bumps and bruises,” Evans said. “It was a dog-fight. I just didn’t want to let my teammates down.”

QUOTABLE

“You see the size of Patric Young? If he couldn’t make it in the NBA he’s going to have a shot in the NFL. If he doesn’t go to the NFL, he’ll be in the WWE. If he doesn’t go there, maybe UCF. I mean, that guy is enormous.”

-- Brown, on Florida’s size and athleticism

THIS & THAT

Young added 10 points and 10 rebounds, finishing with his first double-double in 45 games and 11th of his career. … The Gators had five scorers in double figures: Casey Prather (16), Young (10), Wilbekin (10), Kasey Hill (10) and Dorian Finney-Smith (16). Prather also added three blocks (tying a career-high) and two steals. … Donovan was named one of five finalists for the Naismith Coach of the Year award, given to the nation’s top head coach.

For more, a notebook, checkout all the latest action from the NCAA Tournament: Today's gamer on Florida's too-close-for-comfort victory, a sidebar on two reserves playing key roles and a column outling UF's chase for greatness. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

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

March 17, 2014

Gators reap rewards following historic regular season

GAINESVILLE -- Florida -- the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament -- finished the regular season as the top-ranked team in the Associated Press poll for the first time in school history, collecting several additional awards in the process.

The Gators (32-2) have never opened the tournament as the nation's No. 1 ranked team, but they will do so Thursday (4 p.m., TBS) when they take on the winner of Tuesday's play-in game between Mount St. Mary's (16-16) and Albany (18-14).

"We got a number one seed. Now that the seeding is set, the only thing that matters is playing well and putting yourself in a position to win and advance,” coach Billy Donovan said Monday.  

“We’re excited to be in the tournament. We’re excited for another opportunity to play but the number one seed, the overall seed, whatever it is, it’s great. But that’s 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.”

Meanwhile, senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin was named the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and Donovan was named the SEC Coach of the Year for the second straight season, the AP announced Monday.

"I’m sure maybe when we lose, I get maybe too much blame and when we win I probably get maybe too much praise," Donovan said.

"But the thing that I’ve always looked at is whether or not I get credit, what kind of impact I have made in those guys’ lives?"

Donovan led the Gators to the greatest season in SEC history, capping a 21-0 run through league play with a dramatic tournament title over rival Kentucky.

Wilbekin, who was named the MVP of the SEC Tournament after averaging 13.3 points, 3.0 assists and 3.3 steals over three games, was a unanimous All-SEC first-team selection and was joined by Gators forward Casey Prather.

Senior center Patric Young was an All-SEC second-team honoree.

Last week, SEC coaches named Wilbekin the player of the year and Donovan the league's coach of the year.

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton


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