Saturday, March 19, 2005

The Guide to Villanova/Florida - NCAA Tournament Second Round

To the Wildcat faithful-

Wondering about the Gators? A short sketch of Villanova's next opponent in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Meet the Gators...

This is entitled "The Guide to VU/Florida", in marked contrast to "The Ultimate Guide to VU/New Mexico", because of time constraints, being the second-round guide. It will be a lot shorter than the ones for New Mexico. Should Villanova triumph, an "Ultimate Guide" to the next opponent will appear sometime next week.

My personal biases...

I'm going to try to be as objective as I can, but in my opinion, schools like Florida - Southern football factories - are representative of everything that is wrong with college athletics. Although to its credit, over the last seven years - the Billy Donovan regime - Florida's academic awards dwarf those of its SEC rivals; the Gators have nearly twice as many SEC Honor Roll Awards as Mississippi State, its closest competitor. On Selection Sunday, I was really happy when we drew New Mexico in the first game, because it's an interesting program with devoted fans, from far away, that we never get a chance to see much. And I was really disappointed when Ohio U. couldn't pull off the upset against Florida:

not only because now we have a tougher second-round opponent, not only because I would have liked to have seen the underdog win, not only because it would have been a great comeback, but because I would much rather have researched and written about Ohio U.'s program than a football factory like Florida, whose basketball team is on CBS all the time anyway.

Every year, I root for Florida in football against Florida State, because I hate Florida State, but that's about it. In the Steve Spurrier, Fun-and-Gun era, they were entertaining to watch. (BTW - That's a serious rivalry... I once read a story about a Florida shopping mall Santa Claus, a Seminole fan in civilian life, who was fired for - with a straight face - telling some poor little boy who wanted some Florida gear for Christmas, "Gee... Santa doesn't like Gator fans... you shouldn't expect anything this year." The guy might have been right - Santa must love FSU, and that's why they get all those shoes every year. FSU stands for "Free Shoes University" for a reason... but I digress.. :)

It's not a coincidence that I begin a story about Florida with football, because football is the unquestioned king in Gainesville, Florida, and for the U of F community. Basketball ranks a distant second in popularity, and Gators baseball has its fans, too. (Cynics might contend that Florida hoops may also rank behind spring football and, especially in this Internet era, football recruiting in the U of F sporting hierarchy :).

Ironically, in light of the fact that it's the permanent second banana, Florida hoops has been pretty good over the last few years. Win some bar bets with this one:

Name the four teams that have been a #6 seed or higher, in each of the last seven NCAA tournaments.

Duke, Kentucky, Kansas - all likely suspects, and all correct. And then, not Syracuse or Arizona (the two I'd have guessed - but...

Florida. (Granted, the seeds have been lower than the other three - #6, #5, #3, #5, #2, #5, #4. But still...)

Not bad company for a program that had never even qualified for the NCAA tournament until 1987, much less won it. Over the last 18 years, the Gators have made up for lost time, though: a dozen appearances. Furthermore, they have enjoyed a lot of success, going 17-11 in the tournament and reaching the Sweet 16 four times. The centerpiece achievements were reaching the Final Four in 1994 and then again in 2000 (as a #5 seed) reaching the title game before losing to a superior Michigan State team led by the "Flintstones" and Mateen Cleaves. They've developed a rivalry with Kentucky, as although the two schools are geographically very distant, they have jockeyed for pre-eminence within the Southeast Conference's East Division. (They have true rivalries, as in the SEC you play your division rivals twice every year and the other division's teams only once.) One can only imagine what the typical Wildcat fan, with its glorious tradition, thinks of Gator fans..

This year's team

The Gators finished the season hot, with a 24-7 record and winning the SEC tournament championship; they finished 12-4 in the SEC regular season. It was good enough for second place in the East Division, two games behind division leader Kentucky. But the Gators beat their archrival Wildcats twice in eight days over the last two weeks. (Hopefully all their anti-Wildcat luck has been exhausted...) They currently are ranked #16 in the AP poll, and were, after all, seeded higher than Villanova, as a #4.

Out-of-conference, they've been pretty weak. The schedule was just OK, and they don't have a win over anyone good. Their best win is over Donovan's alma mater, Providence (a 18 point home triumph). After that, they doubled up Eastern Kentucky, 98-49, which looks more impressive now after the Colonels qualified for the NCAA tournament as a #15 seed and fought in-state rival Kentucky hard for a while, before losing by just eight. They played their in-state football rivals, FSU and Miami, but lost to both ACC schools. Their best loss is a four-point defeat to Louisville. Probably when the schedule was drawn up, Donovan thought he'd have a RPI powerhouse, but Providence and FSU both had terrible seasons, sinking to the bottom of their conferences. Most of their other games were against Sunshine State cupcakes, all of whom they cruised past.

Within the SEC, though, they were good. They did very well against the other SEC tourney qualifiers, finishing 6-3 against them. They beat UK two out of three, two wins over Alabama (a 31 point win at home and then again by six in the SEC tourney), split with LSU, lost at Mississippi State, but then beat the Bulldogs in the tournament. Three of their four SEC losses were against NCAA qualifiers, the only bad one being a home loss to Tennessee in overtime, and the Gators won the subsequent game at Knoxville. (Tennessee had a sufficiently bad year that its coach, Buzz Peterson, got fired this week.)

Billy Donovan likes to use a ton of players, way too many to keep track of, and no starter averages more than 30 minutes a game as a result. (Gotta spread the playing time around...) He's got 12 guys that average at least nine minutes a game.

Billy Donovan

The steward of the program's most recent successes is a young coach who, as a guard, led Providence to the Final Four in 1987, the same year Florida debuted in the tournament, by the name of Billy Donovan. Rick Pitino, way back then, made his rise on the national scene by taking the Cinderella Friars to the Final Four as a #12 seed (the lowest, before or since, to ever get that far) and his player Donovan became one of his proteges, and arguably his most successful one. As a player, Donovan was a first-team All-Big East honoree his senior year, and was named Most Outstanding Player of the Regional the Friars won to reach the Final Four. Donovan was an assistant to Pitino at Kentucky, became the head coach at Marshall for two years, and then arrived in Gainesville for the 1996-97 season, replacing Lon Kruger. His first year, the Gators struggled. His second year, they reached the NIT, and beginning in 1999, they have made the tournament every year and never been seeded lower than #6.

Donovan is part of two very exclusive but overlapping fraternities. One is coaches who have both played and coached in a Final Four - there are just six, including Dean Smith (who played for Kansas and coached at North Carolina) and the odious Bob Knight (who played for Ohio State and coached at Indiana, now at Texas Tech). The other consists of two guys: Donovan and one other guy, Dick Harp, who played for Kansas and also coached at Kansas in the 1950s. The pair are the only coaches ever to play AND be an assistant coach AND a head coach in the Final Four (Donovan was an assistant on Pitino's 1993 Kentucky Final Four team). Harp played for the Jayhawks, and was also an assistant coach and head coach at Kansas during Final Four appearances, apparently.

Donovan, who will turn just 40 in May, was a white-hot commodity in 2000. He had taken a ridiculously young and talented team to the title game, as a #5 seed, and was the subject of a great deal of sniping from other coaches, especially SEC rivals, for what charitably might be described as a relaxed attitude toward NCAA recruiting regulations. Since 1998, Donovan has signed no fewer than NINE McDonald's All-Americans: Mike Miller, Teddy Dupay, Donnell Harvey, Brett Nelson, David Lee, Jason White, Kwame Brown (who never played for him), Anthony Roberson, and Cory Brewer. Lee, Roberson and Brewer are all current members of the team. (Villanova's Jason Fraser was also a McDonald's All-American, but his injuries have slowed his development.)

Donovan's youth, his dazzling recruiting successes, and the tantalizing promise of future national titles seemed to indicate that the next Rick Pitino was indeed lurking in - of all places - the football-addled swamps of northern Florida. Donovan became overexposed in the national media, and his prominent widow's peak became almost as familiar as Dick Nixon's.

But you don't hear about Donovan as much anymore. Mainly because his star has receded quite a bit, as his Gators - despite their undeniable blue-chip talent - have unceremoniously washed out to sea in each of the last four tournaments. From 2001-04 - despite all those high seeds - the Gators managed to win a grand total of two games in four appearances, and did not reach the Sweet 16 at all. And in 1999, they were upset by Gonzaga, as a #6 in the Sweet 16.

All in all, that's a lot of losing to lower seeds over a seven year period, and there's been some rumbling in Gainesville about Donovan's inability to win consistently (or nowadays, at all :) in the Big Dance. He's been in the NCAA tournament seven straight years now. But outside of the 2000 run, he has NEVER won a game against another power conference team in the NCAAs, and his career NCAA record is just 5-5. (It's 10-6 overall, including yesterday's victory.) During his Florida tenure, his non-2000 NCAA victories have come against Penn, Weber State, Western Kentucky, Sam Houston State, and Ohio University, all lower-seeded programs dwarfed by Florida's size. And he has upset, white-jerseyed losses to Gonzaga (1999), Creighton (2002), and Manhattan (2004). Far more than any other program, the Gators have now become a staple of CBS's inspirational Cinderella montages to open its tournament broadcasts, but on the wrong end - as the foils.

In light of this history, there was likely a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth in Florida when #13 seed Ohio U. made its charge on Friday afternoon, after Florida had led by 20 with 12 minutes to play. (Here we go again...) And the Gators were truly LUCKY to escape yet another upset defeat at the hands of a Cinderella. The Bobcats threw away that game in the final two minutes. They missed a dunk which would have given them a two-point LEAD, they committed an unforced turnover, and Florida then lucked out when a short airball dropped into a Gator's arms under the basket, and he was able to convert a traditional three-point play. Had Florida fallen again, it would have been its second straight first-round exit. It also would have been its fourth upset loss in seven years, and far and away the most humiliating one.

Of course, Donovan would likely scoff at the notion that he's struggled in the tournament. He would - accurately - point out that in 2000, he beat a veritable murderer's row of traditional power teams - Duke, Illinois, Oklahoma State, and North Carolina - with a 5 seed. (His critics would reply that he was lucky to get out of the first round, when #12 Butler took them into overtime and it took a miracle shot for the Gators to pull it out.)

Regardless of the identity of the coach, Florida has a lot of the elements in place for a successful program, with the two exceptions of being in football's long shadow and the lack of a pre-Reagan-era winning tradition. Namely: great weather, fun place to go to school, proximity to talent, on-campus arena, state school money, power conference membership, etc. Donovan's done well in the SEC and he'll always have that 2000 title run, but if he's ever going to approach the status of his mentor Pitino, he needs to at least make a deep run every once in a while. (Or at minimum, stop losing to the underdogs everyone loves and becoming favorite fodder for CBS's video editors.)

The clear implication of Donovan's critics: Donovan is the personified cliche of a young, flashy, sophisticated Northeastern coach who talks a great game on the recruiting circuit, but can't coach come game day, on the bench.

Of course, all this spells good news for Villanova. Clearly, Donovan's Florida teams have historically struggled against teams that are unfamiliar in the NCAA tournament. And Villanova's talent, unlike many of those mid-major teams, can go toe-to-toe with the Gators'. In a battle of basketball IQ, I'd take Jay Wright over Billy Donovan every day of the week and twice on Sunday (especially THIS Sunday :)

Villanova Wildcats/Florida Gators ties

The only significant one is Matt Walsh, a native of Holland, Pa., a pleasant suburb in Bucks County, and graduate of Germantown Academy, the same school that produced Villanova's own Alvin Williams. Walsh has played a lot of pickup games against the current Wildcats and "knows Wright well". He's the Gators' second leading scorer.

Very few others that I could imagine. There was of course, the late, great Al E. Gator's on Lancaster Avenue in Haverford, a popular, spacious Main Line hangout back in the day (the late '90s). Gator's offered decent food in a casual environment and lots of big screen TVs for the game, but the place was big enough that there was pretty much something for everybody. (Trying to remember if they had DJ's, dancing there - anybody remember? I think so...)

Gator's met its demise, unfortunately, due to its massive size. The parcel of real estate was so valuable, that a cash-cow casual restaurant simply wasn't profitable enough, for the lucky devil who owned the property. So, in early 1997, it was announced that Gator's would officially close on March 18, one day after St. Patrick's Day (trying to milk one last bit of cash out of the Main Line bar crowd before selling out!) - and that it would be demolished to make room for a Lexus dealership. If you're into $50,000 vehicles, you probably liked the change, but if not, too bad. Gator's the night it closed was a fun scene. Mobbed, but fun. And so now it lives on as a Lexus dealership.

But seriously... very few. The Wildcat legend Howard Porter, star of the 1971 Final Four team that lost to UCLA in the final, was from Sarasota, Florida. I don't remember anyone else of any prominence from the Sunshine State. Villanova and Florida have only clashed twice, as they played a home-and-home series during the Kerry Kittles era. On December 22, 1993, Florida won at the Pavilion, 85-77, and on January 14, 1995, Villanova won at the O'Connell Center, 72-70.

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