On a roll, Florida seeks redemption

Ncaa Regional

Syracuse

March 18, 2005|By Jeff Darlington | Jeff Darlington,ORLANDO SENTINEL

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - At one point this week, Ohio coach Tim O'Shea remembers feeling lucky.

His Bobcats had just won an improbable Mid-American Conference championship, and he just found out Ohio would be playing Florida - a team prone to postseason disappointment in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

"It's funny," O'Shea said. "I hadn't watched Florida all year. But I remembered watching the Manhattan game [which Florida lost] last year. So I thought, `Hey, maybe we didn't get such a bad seeding.'"

The coach then watched the Gators' lethargic win against Georgia, and the smile continued to grow.

"We might have a chance here," O'Shea recalls thinking.

Then, suddenly, the sweat began to build. The happiness began to fade.

As O'Shea started watching Florida's more recent games against Alabama, Mississippi State and Kentucky, he began to realize what the rest of the nation is also slowly learning: Today, the fourth-seeded Gators (23-7) might be one of the most dangerous teams in the country.

"This year's team would kill last year's team," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "There's absolutely no comparisons to last year's team. Last year, I heard we were soft, wouldn't guard and weren't a good rebounding team. We came in as an emotionally-drained basketball team.

"I thought we gave our heart and soul just to get in. We limped in here."

If last year's Florida team came into the tournament with a limp, this year's team is in the midst of an all-out sprint.

Florida is currently riding a seven-game win streak that included two victories over Kentucky and the school's first Southeastern Conference tournament title.

Not to mention, the Gators want to atone for the disappointment of the past four postseasons. No player on this year's team has advanced beyond the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. And people like senior David Lee, who has a career record of 1-3 in the tournament, remembers quite clearly how bad it felt to lose in the first round against Manhattan last year.

"It's awful," Lee said. "March Madness is the best postseason tournament in any sport. To only be a part of it for a short time, then watch a team that beat you play, it really hurts."

But emotion can only take a team so far. Why should anyone believe this year's team can avoid the late-season letdown that has become such a habit for Florida? For starters, players say this year's team knows how to grind out a game. The Gators know how to win even when everything isn't going their way.

"My first two years, I felt like maybe if we got on a roll, we could win some games," guard Matt Walsh said. "This year, I feel like we should win some games."

As Florida finally finds its groove at the right time of the season, it certainly seems possible that No. 13-seeded Ohio (21-10) could become the victim of four seasons without much tournament success. The Gators are playing impressive basketball and the team's chemistry appears stable. Something seems different. Now, Florida will attempt to make sure things stay that way.

"I don't think you can look at past years," Lee said. "If this was like past years, we would have lost to Kentucky at home. We would have lost in the SEC tournament.

"I'm excited. I would tell you if I was nervous about the NCAA tournament, but I'm not. I love the makeup of our team, and I know that with the guys we have, we're going to be ready to play."

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.