Ahhh…the Final Four. It’s always a bittersweet feeling when the NCAA Tournament reaches this point. Sure the Final Four is a great sporting event and this coming Saturday evening promises to be full of drama, booze, and more inane puns from Jim Nantz than you can shake your proverbial stick at. It's also a night that brings into focus the tremendous void that will exist in the sports viewing lives of many of us for the next couple of months.
Softening the blow of this realization for me is the fact that the Gators are still alive and kicking after the tournament’s first two weekends. Something that hasn’t happened since I was a young, drunk undergrad. The feeling this time around is far different than that of the Gators’ last Final Four run in 2000. First, I’ve got a job now and a certain level of responsibility that makes drinking a 12 pack on a Wednesday afternoon something you might label a “questionable decision”. Secondly, when UF made it all the way to Indianapolis in 2000 it was a completely new and foreign feeling to most (if not all) of the Gator nation. Though Florida had made it to the Final Four in 1994, that team was led by Lon Kruger and his vulcan-esque unibrow. By the time 2000 rolled around, Lon and his sparkling personality had moved on to greener pastures at Illinois (Don’t believe me? Just ask Zook.). After Kruger left (actually before) the Gator basketball program once again sunk into the pattern of mediocrity and inconsistency that had been a staple of the University of Florida’s basketball program for as long as anybody could remember.
In 1997, Billy Donovan would inherit a program that was low on talent and downright substandard in terms of support, from both the administration as well as the student body. Donovan made an immediate impact by changing the culture of things in Gainesville. He produced excitement with his style of play and exuberance. He even created a student section that sat right on the floor of the O’Connell Center and was free to any student who wished to attend. The 2000 Final Four run was the final step in Donovan’s model of success that would result in crowds, excitement and expectations of which the University of Florida’s basketball program had never been subjected to.
While Florida is still undeniably a football school, the community and student population have embraced the idea of UF becoming a dominant basketball program which is due (in large part) to the success experienced by the 2000 team. Other than Mike Miller’s buzzer beater against Butler in the first round, my most vivid memory from that run to the National Title game was the scene in Gainesville on the Monday afternoon of the Championship game. Me and some friends of mine decided to go out early and get ourselves a good seat for the game (or so we thought). When we made our way down to the local bars at about 4:30 (for a 9:15 tip, mind you) , we found that we’d already been beaten to the punch by hundreds of other students. We ended up going to 5 different bars that afternoon before we finally found a place to sit with an unobstructed view of a TV. Though Florida would go on to lose that evening, the scene that we witnessed in downtown Gainesville that night was something that resonated throughout the student population.
Though many predicted a “Pitino at Kentucky” like run of success for Donovan after the Gators’ runner-up finish in 2000, it was not to be. A combination of early defections, bad defense, and less than desirable team chemistry conspired to produce a string of NCAA Tournament disappointments. Ultimately culminating in last year’s second round exit at the hands of Villanova and the subsequent early entries of Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh. After these events, it finally seemed as though Billy Donovan’s many critics would have ample opportunity to rail against him as the Gators were poised to have the worst season since Eddie Shannon was popping out his glass eye in order to make to scare the bejesus out of some poor student trainer.
A funny thing happened on the way to all of that, Billy Donovan molded a group of unselfish, team first players into a great team. A team that is far more than the sum of it’s collective parts. A team that would lead the University of Florida to it’s highest ever win total in Men’s basketball while winning the SEC Tournament Title and earning an invitation to the Final Four. All those critics who seemed to take such great pleasure in everything that Billy Donovan and the University of Florida weren’t (tough, defensive minded, unselfish…winners) are now left with nothing but a plate full of crow and a date with their televisions this Saturday evening.
Eddie "Columbo" Shannon: Still scaring people senseless across the pond.
A few more UF related tidbits:
- I’m not going to sit hear and tell you that UF is a Cinderella. That’s virtually impossible for a school the size of UF and it’s definitely not a term that applies to a team that was ranked as high as #2 in the country this year. I am going to remind everybody that Florida was picked #45 in the country to begin the year by the very same people who are now labeling UF as the prohibitive favorite in Indianapolis. While not nearly the kind of feel good story that George Mason is, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that a team that lost three NBA Draft picks, and whose leading returning scorer averaged just 7 pts/game, has managed to win 31 games and make the Final Four. Can we all agree that Donovan is a good coach and recruiter now?
- Pat Forde shed some light on Matt Walsh’s departure from Gainesville last spring. This revelation further escalates the eery comparisons between the career tracks of Brett Nelson and Matt Walsh.
Both were stars as freshman and All-SEC performers as sophomores on UF teams that lost in the tournament’s first round. Both had enormous flaws in their games exposed as their careers progressed, especially within SEC play. Finally, both got knocked out by an athletic swingman late in their junior year. At least Walsh didn’t lose his starting job during his senior year.
By the way: For those wondering what Matt Walsh is up to these days, he quit his NBDL team (after being cut by the Heat) and is now “working” at IMG Academy in Bradenton. Good to see things have worked out just as he’d planned them.
While I’m on the subject of former Gators who I don’t miss in the least but, here’s an update on uber-bust Christian Drejer.
- In case you didn’t think that I have enough University of Florida sports on my plate right now, there this: Spring practice opens today for the Gators, officially kicking off the beginning of year #2 in the Urban Meyer Era. Of course, I’m not complaining, on the contrary. I’m actually planning a trip to Gainesville for the Orange & Blue game...I might drink a little while I’m up there too.
- It’s like the gods have decided to give me all my blessings in a one week span, you absolutely have to check out this link. Can you imagine the amount of dadgummits that pic birthed? Similar to Grandpa Bowden, I couldn't be prouder.
- While I’m on still focused on the Gators, enjoy these quotes from David Lee on former teammate (and Gator) James White. We all knew he was a freak, but this is just ridiculous:
- "That was a strange dude. One of the weirdest guys I ever roomed with. He would never take a shower after practice -- he would just come back to the room with all his gear on, ankles still taped, change from his sneakers into Timberlands and just fall asleep until the next day."
- On beating him in the McDonald's all-American dunk contest: "He got the last laugh -- he beat me in Midnight Madness. He went up with his heel on the elbow and through the legs. I still have it on tape -- it was that serious. Only thing his, he can't dunk in traffic. He can only dunk off one foot. Off two feet he dunks like Jackie Butler."
- "I'll give you a quote -- he'll have an easier time winning the [NBA] dunk contest than he will making the League."
Lee went on to say that he thinks White WILL make the League (as a second-round pick), and that his way of dealing with White's bedtime habits (lights, TV and stereo all on) was to basically move in with his girlfriend.
Unbelievable hops, worse body odor.
- With all of the talk about the NCAA Tournament/Final Four, I’d be remiss if I didn’t update the status of my bracket. I went from 7 of 8 in the Elite Eight to 1 of 4 in the Final Four. The one team: UCLA, who (coincidentally) was the team in which I had the least confidence when I was filling out my bracket. Surprisingly, this Gonzaga-esque collapse down the stretch didn’t bother me very much. I obviously had no problem with Florida knocking off Villanova and I’d have to be Satan himself to root for UConn over George Mason. In fact that only game that really bothered me was LSU-Texas, mostly because I was so mad at myself for trusting a backcourt of Kenton Paulino and Daniel Gibson but also because the thought of Florida having to play LSU for a third time (with a healthy Tyrus Thomas) scares the ever living shit out of me. However, that irritation quickly subsided when I heard 325 lb. Glen Davis declare that he had “tapeworms” in his belly. How could I possibly be angry after a quote like that? I can’t.
One last thing about LSU: I’ve gone on record in questioning the overall offensive skill level of Tyrus Thomas and (to a certain degree) I stand by that statement. He has no post moves to speak of and still needs to figure out how to create his own shot. However, his jumper seems to have become far more reliable since earlier in the SEC season and his ballhandling has improved as well. With all of that said, here’s something I’ve noticed the last few games: Unlike many collegiate power forwards, Thomas appears agile and athletic enough to possibly become a 3/4 in the NBA (not that he needs to, he could survive just fine at the 4). If Thomas can continue to expand his game he would become an absolute nightmare on the next level. Too quick and athletic for 4’s and too strong and tall for 3’s. He has Shawn Marion like potential in that regard, though he’s more of a natural 4 while Marion is more of a natural 3.
-Speaking of the NBA, the Orlando Magic have won 4 games in a row. More importantly, they’ve won two consecutive road games and came back from a 4th quarter deficit for only the third time all season last night against the Bulls. While the playoffs are highly unlikely for this club, it’s worth mentioning that the Magic’s current streak has them only 5 games out of the eighth spot in the East. Finally, for those interested in the progress of Darko, here are his stat lines for the last four games:
Points: 12 13 11 13
Rebounds: 8 5 1 7
Blocks: 4 2 1 4
Fact worth noting: Tyler Hansbrough is the same age as Darko. That’s right, Hansbrough is 20 years old. I’m not quite sure how he was able to participate at a public school last year at age 19, but I do think it should be noted that he’s significantly older than your average freshman. Just for the record, I don’t see Hansbrough being all that great in the NBA. He’s a terrific rebounder with limited athleticism and an average set of offensive moves in the post. He also doesn’t have “legit three point range” as one writer claimed after the second UNC-Duke game. Which I can only assume was the writer’s only time watching Hansbrough play, based on said writer’s galling lack of knowledge about collegiate sports. Can you really imagine him being that much better than Nick Collison? I guess what I’m saying is that I’ll gladly take Darko over Hansbrough or any other big guy who might come available in this June’s draft.