November 21, 2014

No. 8 Florida squanders late lead, edges ULM in OT

GAINESVILLE -- No. 8 Florida survived an overtime scare against Louisiana-Monroe, squeaking past the Warhawks 61-56 Friday night in the O’Connell Center.

Led by walk-on forward Jacob “Captain” Kurtz and junior sharpshooter Michael Frazier II, the shorthanded Gators rallied in overtime after squandering an 8-point lead with just over two minutes left in regulation.

ULM drilled back-to-back 3-pointers with under a minute left in regulation, including Nick Coppola’s 28-foot bomb to tie the game at 51-51 with 16 seconds remaining. Coppola finished with 11 points, and forward Tylor Ongwae led ULM with 19 points and eight rebounds. 

Despite the Florida's second straight collapse late, the Gators managed to regroup in overtime, staving off the upset by bleeding the game away at the charity stripe (8-of-12 in OT).

“There’s going to be some really painful moments. It is part of them getting scarred,” UF coach Billy Donovan said.

“They have no concept in what goes into winning. They have to take ownership in what that looks like each and every day.”

Florida won an ugly, sloppy contest, suiting up just six scholarship players and shooting a ghastly 33 percent from the field.

The Gators (2-1) played without forward Dorian Finney-Smith (hand fracture), forward Alex Murphy (ineligible) and guard Eli Carter (foot) -- UF’s leading scorer at 14.5 points a game -- and they struggled to generate consistent shots without their usual scoring punch. 

Frazier, who hurt his ankle late in the second half, led all scorers with 21 points -- 16 after halftime.

“I knew we were going to have struggling scoring tonight,” Donovan said.

“You take our two leading scorers off the floor and we’re going to be in trouble.”

Meanwhile, Kurtz was UF’s superglue guy, as the walk-on dominated the glass (13 rebounds) and chipped in a team-high three assists and six points, too. The 6-foot-6 forward had a key assist to center Jon Horford in overtime (UF's lone field goal) and drilled a pair of free throws. 

“He made a couple great plays. He kept a couple rebounds alive. He gets it,” Donovan said.

“He’s the one guy on the team that really, really gets. He has a clear-cut understanding what goes into winning.”

The Gators trailed 29-27 at halftime, erasing a 12 point deficit with a 10-0 run capped by Chris Chiozza’s 3-pointer at the buzzer. ULM rained 3-pointers (5-of-9) to establish its first-half lead.

But ULM’s wild shots stopped failing after halftime, and Florida grabbed control of the game with a 15-0 run -- spurred by six points from Frazier. 

Thanks to poor shot selection and bad defensive rotations, the Gators coughed up their late lead, but with both teams ice cold from the field (a combined 27 percent after halftime) they were able to survive the meltdown thanks to the free throw line.

THIS & THAT

Finney-Smith (injury, academics) will not travel to Florida's Thanksgiving weekend tournament 'Battle 4 Atlantis.' The Gators open play Wednesday against Georgetown. ... Carter will undergo an MRI on Saturday, determining whether he has a Lisfranc injury or a mild foot sprain. ... Sophomore point guard Kasey Hill had another miserable night (5 turnovers, 2-12 from the field) and is now 3-for-21 the last two games. ... Former McDonald's All-American Chris Walker made his season debut after being suspended Florida's first two games. The sophomore played 26 minutes, finishing with four points and six rebounds. 

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November 14, 2014

A start: Florida rips past William & Mary 68-45

GAINESVILLE -- No. 7 Florida smothered William & Mary 68-45 Friday night, as the retooled Gators proved they could play a little defense without last season’s historic quartet of seniors.

Michael Frazier (14 points), Dorian Finney-Smith (15 points) and Jon Horford (11 points) all finished in double-figures. The Gators won their 33rd straight game at home and improved to 19-0 in openers under Billy Donovan.

“We’re a well-balanced team,” Frazier said.

“On any given night it could be anybody.”

UF held the Tribe to a ghastly 31 percent from the field, with sophomore guard Kasey Hill bottling up Marcus Thornton, last season’s CAA player of the year. William & Mary’s senior guard was held to just 11 points, including 0-5 from 3-point range.  

“I was really proud of Kasey Hill. I thought he was phenomenal,” Donovan said. 

“The fact that he had to guard Thornton every minute he was out there, he did a terrific job on him.”

UF dominated from the start, ripping off a 21-4 run to end the first half. The Gators led by as many as 24, but were actually outscored by a point (27-26) in a lackluster second half.

PLAYER OF THE GAME

Frazier -- UF’s lone returning starter from last season -- keyed Florida’s hot start, scoring a team-high 14 points. The junior sharpshooter didn’t score in the second half, but he flashed his some off-the-dribble prowess, penetrating for several layups and hockey assists. He chipped in five rebounds, two assists and a steal, too.

STAT OF INTEREST

9.1 percent. The Tribe was dreadful from downtown, opening the game a paltry 1-for-19 from behind-the-arc. In all, William & Mary made just two 3-pointers on 22 attempts.

QUOTABLE

“You see 2-for-22 from the 3-point line and that number obviously is really, really loud. But I’m not so sure they didn’t get some pretty clean looks that didn’t go down. I’d like to see the percentage of those 22 shots where I sit there and say that we really defended this well. Or how many were wide open?”

-- Donovan

THIS & THAT

Finney-Smith sprained his left wrist in the first half, but the versatile forward led all scorers with 15 points, 11 after halftime. … The Gators shot 56 percent in the first period, compared to just 39 percent after halftime. … UF outrebounded William & Mary 39 to 31. … Freshman point guard Chris Chiozza dished nifty assists, finishing his collegiate debut with three dimes, four points and three steals. … Walk-on forward Jacob Kurtz had a productive night (6 points, 7 rebounds).

NEXT UP 

Florida hosts in-state rival Miami on Monday at 7 p.m. (ESPNU).

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

Prove It: Donovan not sold on UF's No. 7 ranking

GAINESVILLE -- Florida men’s basketball team opens its regular season tonight against William & Mary (6 p.m., SEC Network) ranked as the nation’s No. 7 team.

Coach Billy Donovan isn’t impressed.

“I know what those kind of teams look like -- and we’re not one of those teams,” he said, deadpanned.

UF struggled against Barry University, a D-II school in Miami, in last week’s exhibition game, winning just 79-70 in a contest that highlighted UF’s defensive deficiencies and invisible leadership.

The retooled Gators, replacing a historic quartet of seniors, shouldn’t have an issue scoring the basketball, but Donovan is legitimately concerned with the team’s lack of rim protection and consistent defensive awareness.

“We’ve got a long, long, long way to go,” Donovan said. “Whether or not we can get there, time will tell. … This year’s team, there’s a lot of unknowns.”

Despite the team’s lofty rankings, Donovan isn’t particularly concerned with expectations or overconfidence. A year after finishing the season as the nation’s third-best defense (59 points per game), the Gators are allowing 82 points and opponents are shooting 48-percent from 3-point range in three scrimmages this preseason, per Donovan.

The Tribe, led by 6-4 guard Marcus Thornton, run a precision, Princeton-style offense, and could expose Florida’s flaws defensively.   

“You start giving up 82 points a game and our defensive efficiency right now is 1.15. Basically, in 120 minutes of play, we're giving up 1.15 points per possession,” Donovan explained.

“That's like 127th in the country right now. That's a long drop from top 10. That's just reality. That's where we're at. I think our guys, when you talk about the expectations and the rankings and stuff like that, there may have been some of that before we started practice. I think some of that stuff has kind of dissipated, to be honest with you."

DONOVAN PREVIEWS THE TRIBE

“Thornton is a great player. He’s really, really good. He’ll be as good as any guard that we’ll play against this year. He can really score the ball, he’s got really good size, he’s got deep range,  he can play in pick n roll, he can play in transition. He’s a special player. You’re going to be playing against a team that’s going to run the Princeton style. They are really good in terms of passing, cutting, moving. They utilize the 3-point line very well, they get you on back cuts for layups. They’re a  team that stays true to their system, their style of play and what they’re doing. And then on top of that, they’ve got a high major really, really good player inside their system as well.”

CONFERENCE HONORS

Junior sharpshooter Michael Frazier and versatile forward Dorian Finney-Smith were named to the All-SEC coaches’ first-team Thursday. Frazier is Florida’s lone returning starter, while Finney-Smith was the league’s sixth man of the year in 2013-14.

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October 15, 2014

Chris Walker still not "a savior," suspended 3 games

 

GAINESVILLE -- Florida forward Chris Walker will miss the team’s first three games (including an exhibition contest) for violating team rules, coach Billy Donovan announced Wednesday. 

At the team’s media day, the 6-foot-10, 225-pound sophomore declined comment on his suspension, only saying, “It’ll be tough, but I’ll get through it.”

Walker, a former five-star prospect and McDonald’s All-American, played just 18 games in 2013-14 after failing to qualify academically until December and later serving a NCAA suspension for receiving improper benefits. 

“He has such a long way to go as far as being reliable, accountable and disciplined,” Donovan said.

Walker averaged just 1.9 points, 1.3 rebounds on 4.8 minutes last season, and many expected the talented big-man -- currently projected as a 2015 NBA first-round pick -- to play a key role this year. 

Maybe, but maybe not, according to Donovan. 

“His biggest challenge this year is going to be his ability to manage expectations,” he said. “Chris Walker played four minutes a game and everybody thinks he’s this savior. I can’t really tell you he is ready to handle that or even capable of handling that.”

Donovan continued: “I’ve never seen a guy have more hype coming into the middle of a season. … I don’t know what kind of impact he’s going to make. He’s got a long way to go.”

Meanwhile, freshman point guard Brandone Francis is academically ineligible for the entire 2014-15 campaign, per Donovan. 

“He needs to prove himself academically,” Donovan said. 

Francis is enrolled at UF, but the 6-6 guard from the Dominican Republic, who moved to Jacksonville and finished high school at Arlington Country Day School, won’t practice with the team the first semester. 

“There’s things he has to do academically while he’s here to get himself eligible to play,” Donovan explained. “If he progress like we hope he will, he’ll be allowed to come back to practice for the second semester.”

INJURY UPDATE

Swingman DeVon Walker will miss the entire season with a torn ACL sustained during summer workouts, but Donovan said the junior guard may return to practice in January or February. 

Eli Carter (leg) and Dillion Graham (hips, ankle) are cleared for contact but both players remain limited as the Gators open practice. Carter and Graham both missed the entire 2013-14 season, receiving medical redshirts.  

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July 30, 2014

UConn, Kansas highlight UF's non-conference hoops schedule

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GAINESVILLE -- Florida released its 2014-15 men’s basketball non-conference schedule Wednesday, with a rematch against reigning national champion Connecticut highlighting the strong slate. 

The Gators close out their non-conference schedule hosting the Huskies on Jan. 3. UConn ended UF’s season with a 63-53 victory in the Final Four, snapping Florida’s school-record 30-game winning streak. 

"You learn a lot about yourselves as a team when you are challenged early in the season," coach Billy Donovan said in a statement. 

"Those experiences have really helped us in the NCAA Tournament the past several seasons."

The Gators, who will play at least three games against 2014 NCAA Tournament teams, open at home against a stout William & Mary squad (Nov. 14) before hosting in-state rival Miami later in the week (Nov. 17). Florida will also play at Florida State a day before New Years Eve (Dec. 30). 

As previously announced, UF is participating in the Battle 4 Atlantis, a Thanksgiving week trip to the Bahamas with potential matchups against powerhouses North Carolina, Georgetown, UCLA, Wisconsin and others. 

UF will also visit Kansas on Dec. 5 as part of a return trip in the SEC/BIG 12 Challenge. 

FLORIDA'S 2014-15 NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULE 

Nov. 6 - Barry (exhibition)

Nov. 14 - William & Mary

Nov. 17 - Miami 

Nov. 21 - Louisiana-Monroe

Nov. 26-28 - Battle 4 Atlantis (UCLA, UAB, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Georgetown, Wisconsin, Butler), Paradise Island, Bahamas

Dec. 5 - at Kansas 

Dec. 8 - Yale

Dec. 12 - Texas Southern 

Dec. 14 - Jacksonville 

Dec. 20 - Wake Forest (Orange Bowl Classic), Sunrise, Fla. 

Dec. 30 - at Florida State

Jan. 3 - Connecticut 

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July 01, 2014

Gators-Hurricans renew rivalry

GAINESVILLE -- The Gators and Hurricanes will square off after all in 2014 -- just on the hardwood.

Florida and Miami will play on Nov. 17 in Gainesville to kickstart a home-and-home series with its in-state rival, UF announced Tuesday.

Although a return date in Coral Gables has yet to be scheduled, the two schools are likely to square off again in South Florida sometime in November 2015. 

The last time to two teams met, the Gators trumped the Hurricanes 74-60 at home in the second round of the 2009 NIT. 

Florida leads the all-time series 45-22, winning 15 of the last 17 showdowns. 

Meanwhile, Florida also announced official plans for renovating the O’Connell Center, with Davis Architects, CPPI Construction Management and TLC Engineering green lighting the $45-50 million project.  

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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

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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  

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