College Basketball Nation: Bradley Beal

Video: Katz with top NBA draft prospects

June, 27, 2012
6/27/12
5:30
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Thomas Robinson, Bradley Beal, Harrison Barnes and Damian Lillard talk to Andy Katz on the eve of the 2012 NBA draft.

Take Three: Who should go No. 2?

June, 19, 2012
6/19/12
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There is no debate about No. 1 in the upcoming NBA draft. Anthony Davis has that one locked up. But who should go No. 2? Three of our writers weigh in on which player they'd take if they were drafting second overall:

[+] EnlargeKentucky's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Mark Cornelison/Getty ImagesMichael Kidd-Gilchrist has proven he can play and win, qualities general managers should be after.
Kentucky's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Dana O'Neil)

The NBA draft has confounded me for years, with general managers and scouts selecting players on upside and potential, imagining what a player might someday be instead of considering what he already is. To me, it should boil down to two simple, easily answered questions: Can he play and does he win?

With Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the answer to both is an emphatic yes. That’s why I’d take him with the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft.

As much as Anthony Davis dazzled through Kentucky’s national championship run, I believed it was Kidd-Gilchrist’s tenacity, especially through the slow grind of the regular season, that kept the Wildcats going. He was a freshman who never played like one, using his energy and toughness to lead vocally and by example.

Davis was the star, Darius Miller the veteran, but I believed MKG was Kentucky’s heart. He has the things you can’t teach -- relentless rebounding skills, a swarming defensive presence and a never-let-you-lose toughness -- and he's just 18 years old, so he can refine the rest. Yes, his jump shot would make most shot doctors’ "don’t" lists, but surely someone in the NBA can help clean that up.

I get the questions. I get that he doesn’t fit in neatly with the NBA’s checklist. He’s not an obvious No. 2 pick because he’s not exactly the right size for any one position and he’s not exactly an offensive player and he’s not exactly a slasher.

I’ve also never heard anyone wax poetic through the NBA Finals about a player’s wingspan and how it’s won a team games. The Charlotte Bobcats are in dire need of a lot -- an intervention, perhaps, at the top of the list -- but above all else, they need two things: They need guys who can play basketball and guys who know how to win.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist knows how to play and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist knows how to win.

Sometimes you just don’t need to make things more complicated than that.

[+] EnlargeBradley Beal
Jeff Blake/US PresswireA spectacular March put Bradley Beal in the conversation for the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft.
Florida's Bradley Beal (Myron Medcalf)

A former college standout once told me that regular-season performances proved little. “When the lights come on” in March and April, however, the true talents emerge, he said.

I respect that mantra. Former Florida Gator Bradley Beal lived it. The freshman earned instant street cred as a key piece in UF's run to the Elite Eight.

Beal looked like a top-10 prospect in the first three months of his first and only season of Division I basketball. And then March happened.

During an SEC tournament loss to Kentucky, Beal scored 20 points. He also finished with eight rebounds and five assists. He connected on 4 of 7 from beyond the arc.

But he didn’t stop there. Beal averaged 15.8 points per game and connected on 42 percent of his 3-point attempts during the NCAA tournament. A youngster who’d entered the Big Dance as a possible lottery pick had thrust himself into the “What if he’s the second-best player in this draft?” conversation.

Thomas Robinson might make more sense for the Bobcats at No. 2. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has a near-perfect build for an NBA small forward. Hard to argue against either of those guys.

But Beal deserves that slot based on his versatility and potential. He’s a 6-foot-4 guard who can play point and wing. He has range (34 percent from 3-point range). He’s athletic. And he commits to the little things, such as rebounding and defense.

In recent weeks, Beal has been compared to Ray Allen, Dwyane Wade and Eric Gordon. He’s a tough guard who can extend defenses with the 3-ball or crash the lane as a penetrator. He's definitely worth the gamble at No. 2.

[+] EnlargeThomas Robinson
Bob Donnan/US PresswireThomas Robinson has the potential to be an All-Star power forward in the NBA.
Kansas' Thomas Robinson (Eamonn Brennan)

The NBA draft is often about extremes, about choices between two disparate sets of needs. Do you draft for production or potential? Do you want a player with a limitless ceiling, or one who will deliver immediate results? Put more topically, do you want Andre Drummond or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist?

Perhaps no player in the 2012 NBA draft (other than Anthony Davis, of course) bridges these divides quite like Kansas forward Thomas Robinson. His projected competitors in the top five, players like MKG and Drummond and Brad Beal, will, regardless of position, force GMs to make some sort of underlying choice.

With Kidd-Gilchrist, you know what you're going to get. With Drummond and even Beal, you are assuming the player's potential will vastly eclipse his production as a freshman. (Beal seems like the much sounder bet here, but it is nonetheless a bet.) That might be right. It might not. Robinson presents the best of both worlds: Already a very good player -- the consensus runner-up for 2012 national player of the year -- T-Rob still has tons of room to improve.

Robinson's past two seasons (a sophomore campaign backing up the Morris twins and a breakout junior year) offer evidence of both. In 2012, the Kansas forward posted a rebounding rate of 30.5 percent, the highest mark in the nation in a skill that typically translates well to the NBA. Robinson's offensive rebounding rate fell to 11.5 percent last season from 18.8 percent in 2011, but that had as much to do with his new role as KU's go-to scorer as anything else.

Bottom line: At the very least, Robinson will do what every NBA power forward must do: He will rebound. He has the athleticism and tangible production to back that prediction. Worst case, if he ends up becoming a more-skilled Kenneth Faried, well, which NBA coach wouldn't sign up for that?

But Robinson's evolution from a rebound machine/energy backup to go-to guy is still a work in progress, one that should make most NBA scouts salivate. T-Rob is still building his offensive skills away from the rim, still finding a midrange-to-18-foot jumper, still working on post moves over both shoulders, still refining many of the offensive and defensive fundamentals that separate the best post players from the merely mediocre.

Robinson is not a finished product by any means. If this finishing process goes well, he could be an All-Star power forward one day. Even if you're being conservative, maybe he becomes a more athletic, above-the-rim version of Utah Jazz-era Carlos Boozer. Again: We're dealing with a high ceiling here.

There are players with more potential, and there are players who offer a stronger predictive picture without the ceiling to match. But other than Davis, I'm not sure there is a top-five-level player with equal measures of both. Less risk, more potential. If I'm an NBA GM and I can't take Davis, that calculation sounds pretty good to me.

The 2012 All-Tournament team

April, 3, 2012
4/03/12
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NEW ORLEANS -- It’s over.

The 2011-12 college basketball season wrapped up with a fascinating Final Four and national title game. Now, it’s time for some hardware.

Here’s my version of the 2012 All-Tourney team:

First Team

[+] EnlargeAnthony Davis
Richard Mackson/US PresswireAnthony Davis earned Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors after leading Kentucky to a national crown.
Anthony Davis (Kentucky): The Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player left his mark on college basketball by leading the Wildcats to the national title. He finished with 29 blocks in the 2012 NCAA tournament, No. 2 all time. Against Kansas, he became the first player to record 6 points, 16 rebounds, 6 blocks, 5 assists and 3 steals during an NCAA tournament game.

Jeff Withey (Kansas): The 7-footer blossomed in the NCAA tournament and really clogged the lane for the Jayhawks' defense. He was a big reason Davis finished 1-for-10 in the national championship game. Withey established a record for blocks in a tournament with 31 in this year’s installment.

Thomas Robinson (Kansas): The Wooden Award finalist didn’t go home with a ring. But he was crucial in his team’s run to the Final Four. The junior averaged 16.6 ppg and 12.5 rpg during this year’s tournament.

Doron Lamb (Kentucky): The sophomore’s 22-point performance (a game high) in the national title game was the culmination of an impressive run for the young star. He averaged 16.5 ppg during the NCAAs. Without Lamb, the Wildcats may have fallen short against the Jayhawks on Monday night.

Bradley Beal (Florida): The freshman fueled Florida’s run to the Elite Eight with a series of high-octane efforts. He had 21 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks and 2 steals during Florida’s 68-58 win over Marquette in the Sweet 16. He followed that with 14 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists in his squad’s Elite Eight loss to Louisville.

Second Team

Tyler Zeller (North Carolina): The ACC Player of the Year helped the Tar Heels stay alive when Kendall Marshall suffered a serious wrist injury that kept him out of an overtime win against Ohio in the Sweet 16 and a loss to Kansas in the Elite Eight. He had 20 points and 22 rebounds against Ohio and he finished with 12 points, 6 rebounds and 4 blocks against the Jayhawks.

Draymond Green (Michigan State): The versatile forward started the tournament with a triple-double against LIU-Brooklyn. He had 16 points and 13 rebounds in a win over Saint Louis in the third round. Green also played some point guard in that game. The Spartans scored only 44 points in a Sweet 16 loss to Louisville, but Green ended his career with 13 points and 16 rebounds.

Deshaun Thomas (Ohio State): His team’s season ended when Kansas launched a furious comeback in their Final Four matchup Saturday. Prior to his nine-point effort that night, however, Thomas had scored 31, 18, 24 and 14 points, respectively, in Ohio State’s four previous NCAA tournament games. If he comes back for another year, the Buckeyes will be a top-5 preseason squad.

D.J. Cooper (Ohio): Cooper scored 21 points during his team’s upset win over Michigan in the second round. He had 19 against South Florida. And he finished with 10 points and six assists during an overtime loss to North Carolina. Now, his former head coach has a new job as a result of his performances in the NCAA tournament. He should send Cooper a check. Once he’s finished with school, of course.

Dion Waiters (Syracuse): He had 18 points in his team’s 75-59 win against Kansas State in the third round. And in a tight Sweet 16 matchup with Wisconsin, he went 5-for-11 and scored 13 points. The athletic guard is going to the NBA, but he put together a solid string of performances on his way out.

Other noteworthy performances:

Norfolk State’s Kyle O’Quinn put his program on the national map with 26 points, 14 rebounds and 2 blocks during the biggest upset of the NCAA tournament, Norfolk State’s 86-84 victory over No. 2 seed Missouri in the second round.

Royce White used the NCAA tournament as an audition for NBA execs. He had 15 points and 13 rebounds against Connecticut in the second round. And he scored 23 points and grabbed nine boards in Iowa State’s loss to Kentucky in the third round.

Aaron Craft is a thief. The sophomore had 16 steals for Ohio State throughout the NCAA tournament and solidified his slot as one of America’s greatest on-the-ball defenders.

Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum scored 30 points in his team’s 75-70 victory over No. 2 seed Duke in the second round.

Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick, a 6-4 guard, scored just eight points in his team’s second-round win over Texas. But when the lights came on in the later rounds, Kilpatrick showed off his star power. He had 18 points against Florida State in the third round. And he finished with 15 against Ohio State in the Sweet 16.


PHOENIX -- Erving Walker tossed up his futile, last-ditch 3. As it plummeted to its pointless finish, the buzzer sounded and the scoreboard was clear. Louisville 72, Florida 68.

Rub your eyes for a moment, and check again. Louisville 72, Florida 68.

Ecstatic and unmoored, Louisville's bench sprinted across the floor, players hugging and popping their shirts and pointing at their fans and reveling in another incredible chapter of their unlikely story -- an 18-3 run to close the game, a recovery from Florida's lights-out first half, an Elite Eight victory over one of the hottest and most talented teams in the tournament.

The Louisville Cardinals were going to the Final Four -- this team! in the Final Four! -- and they meant to celebrate that fact.

But one player was restrained. As his teammates bounded and embraced, UL freshman Chane Behanan sat on his team's bench, head down, frozen in place.

"I felt like I was in a dream," Behanan said. "No way. No way.

"I don't know how we win that game. How did we win that game, man?"

In truth, the Cardinals won that game with the same characteristics that got them to the Elite Eight in the first place. Some are tangible, easy to see: versatile defense, rebounding, brilliant coaching adjustments, conditioning, Behanan's revelatory emergence.

Some are intangible, more difficult to define: unwavering self-confidence, pluck, intelligence, a knack for the big moment, the occasional dash of luck. Or, as guard Peyton Siva defined it: "heart."

Whatever you want to call it, the Cardinals are swimming in it. How else do you explain it? This is the same team that was riddled with injuries all season, played oft-horrific offense and lost four of its final six regular-season games.

These are the best guesses as to why this team hasn't lost since the start of the Big East tournament. These are the reasons why its coach, Rick Pitino, will appear in his sixth Final Four, why he'll become just the third coach (alongside Roy Williams and Jack Gardner) to take two different programs to multiple Final Fours. They're why Pitino moved to 7-0 against Billy Donovan, his former player and assistant and why, after three decades in the game, Pitino reserves a special place for this team.

"I never wanted a Final Four more than for these guys," Pitino said. "They give me every single thing they have in their bodies. They're just the most incredible group to coach."

Why? Saturday was the perfect example.

Florida came out hot -- hotter than it could have ever reasonably hoped, considering it faced the nation's No. 1-ranked per-possession defense. Two days ago, the Cardinals had stymied No. 1-seeded Michigan State with punishingly quick defense, with a zone that gave the Spartans no chance of offensive rhythm.

On Saturday, the Cards unleashed their zone again, but the Gators shredded it. In the first half, UF scored 41 points -- just three fewer than Michigan State scored in 40 minutes Thursday night -- on 14-of-21 shooting from the field and 8-of-11 from 3.

Not only was Louisville's defense not holding the Gators' attack back, but Florida was comfortable -- swinging the ball from side to side, finding trailing players for open 3s, knocking down everything, seemingly burying the game.

Seven of Florida's eight first-half 3s came against the zone. On the first play after the half, UF knocked down another jumper against the zone, and Pitino refused to sit by and watch. He knew he had to switch. So the Cardinals moved to their man-to-man.

[+] EnlargeRuss Smith
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesSophomore guard Russ Smith scored 12 points during Louisville's game-ending 25-10 run.
Of course, the pupil countered: Donovan exploited the man defense by running ball screens designed to force Louisville big man Gorgui Dieng to guard the perimeter. It worked, until the master countered back: Pitino told Behanan to wait until the last second on defense and switch with Dieng, flustering the designed screens just as they began to take shape.

It was around that point -- with 10:56 remaining -- that official Karl Hess whistled Pitino for a technical foul even though he was talking to Siva. ("I'm yelling at Peyton, 'Why would you foul, he's falling down,'" Pitino said. "I'm yelling, 'Why, why? Why would you foul?' And he gave me a technical.") Walker knocked down all four free throws on that dead-ball situation, Florida stretched its lead to 11 points, Siva was in foul trouble and the Cardinals looked like toast.

"I'm not going to lie," Behanan said. "I thought that was it after that."

That's when one of the Cardinals' quieter players called an impromptu, in-game team meeting. Kyle Kuric doesn't talk much, his teammates said, but when he does, they listen. And Kuric was talking now.

"Kyle grabbed everyone together and said, 'Listen, we're going through adversity,'" guard Russ Smith -- whose nickname, "Russ-diculous," couldn't possibly be more fitting -- said. "'They're hitting ridiculous shots. Let's just get some stops, because we're facing adversity. We've been here before.' We took off."

The Cardinals embarked on a 25-10 run to close the game. Smith and Behanan combined to score 23 of those points. Forward Behanan made key buckets down the stretch -- the one to tie the game at 66, the one with 1:12 left to play, when he cleared Dieng out and drained a turnaround jumper to give his team its first lead since the 14-minute mark in the first half.

Meanwhile, thanks to Siva's fifth foul at the four-minute mark, guard Smith finished the game on the floor. In typical "Russ-diculous" fashion, he threw the ball away to Florida guard Bradley Beal with 25 seconds remaining ... but lucked out when Beal traveled in the ensuing fracas.

"I could have cost us the season," Smith said. "I was very nervous. Thank God we won the game."

As for that defense, by the final whistle, the Cardinals had played 48 possessions in man-to-man. Florida shot just 11-of-29 against that pressure. In the second half, the Gators went 0-for-8 from long range and 9-of-25 overall. Pitino's adjustment, combined with Smith and Behanan's punctual baskets, changed the game.

So it was that, slowly but surely -- the product of conditioning and defensive adjustment and an uncanny knack for the timely play, more than any obviously overwhelming run -- Louisville won the game. It overcame a white-hot Florida first half, five fouls for its starting senior point guard, a second-half Pitino technical, and an 11-point deficit to get to the Final Four.

All season, it has overcome injuries and a putrid offense ("The other day we had an open practice, and I said to my son, 'We're about 2-of-50' -- and Gorgui made one of the two shots," Pitino cracked). Now, at the most important moments, it is overcoming teams with more talent, teams with more future draft picks, teams with more size, teams with more speed, lineups like Michigan State's and lineups like Florida's.

This Louisville team overcomes.

At the end, it all culminated with Walker's pointless heave, with a team hugging and screaming at midcourt, preparing to cut down the nylon net, with the freshman forward who had just carried them there sitting on the sideline, motionless, trying to take it all in.

"Somebody wake me up," Behanan said, before trailing off and laughing. "I still don't know how we won that game. I'm glad we did -- but it was crazy how we won."

Crazy? Sure. But par for the course for this Louisville team, which makes "find a way to win" less a cliché than a credo. It isn't pretty. It doesn't always make sense. But if Behanan was dreaming, he should roll over and hit snooze.

Somehow, his team is going to the Final Four.

It's not time to wake up just yet.
The Elite Eight begins with two intriguing matchups Saturday. Florida and Louisville overcame late-season challenges to reach this stage. Syracuse and Ohio State might be the most competitive matchup in the field.

(4) Louisville vs. (7) Florida, 4:30 p.m. ET, CBS

Things to know: Florida coach Billy Donovan once starred for Louisville's Rick Pitino at Providence. That’s the TV-friendly storyline that’s dominated the buildup to this Elite Eight matchup.

But first, we have to answer one question: How on earth did we end up with Florida and Louisville playing for a trip to New Orleans?

Prior to the NCAA tournament, the Gators had lost four of five. Three of those losses were by double digits. Before Louisville earned the Big East tournament crown, the Cardinals had lost four of six.

There just weren’t many reasons to consider this as a potential Elite Eight matchup once the Big Dance began. But both teams are riding serious momentum created by Sweet 16 upsets.

Louisville knocked off 1-seed Michigan State with one of the best defensive efforts in NCAA tourney history. The Spartans scored only 44 points, the lowest tally by a 1-seed since the introduction of the shot clock. Florida sent Marquette home after holding the Golden Eagles to 30.8 percent from the field.

The two teams have been carried by two athletes who’ve stepped up in the NCAA tournament.

Bradley Beal has recorded the following stat lines in Florida’s three NCAA victories: 14 points and 11 rebounds against Virginia; 14 points and 9 rebounds against Norfolk State; 21 points and 6 rebounds against Marquette. The freshman has competed like a veteran.

Louisville, No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings, has been the beneficiary of Gorgui Dieng’s surprising NCAA tournament production. The 6-foot-11 sophomore from Senegal has recorded 12 blocks and 5 steals in the Big Dance.

Look for the Cardinals to pressure point guard Erving Walker (8 turnovers in three NCAA tournament games), harass Florida’s potent shooters and dare the Gators to challenge Dieng inside. Look for the Gators to rely on Beal to play catalyst again and slice and dice a Louisville defense that doesn’t match up well with him.

The journey: Louisville defeated Davidson, New Mexico and Michigan State to reach the Elite Eight. Florida earned its shot at New Orleans with wins over Virginia, Norfolk State and Marquette.

Monitor his progress: When Patric Young gets touches (just 13 points on 9 shots combined in team’s last two games), the Gators are a better team. With Dieng surging for Louisville, the Gators need Young to produce on both ends of the floor.

Numbers to impress your friends: Michigan State shot just 22.2 percent from the field against Louisville’s zone (45 of 48 half-court possessions), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Game’s most crucial question: How will Louisville guard Beal?

The matchup: Peyton Siva vs. Walker. Two speedy point guards who aren’t afraid to attack bigger defenders.

Don’t touch that remote because … Both teams have overachieved thus far. And Dieng’s defensive prowess is worth watching.

(1) Syracuse vs. (2) Ohio State, 7:05 p.m. ET, CBS

Things to know: One of two No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchups in the Elite Eight, Syracuse versus Ohio State features an intriguing personnel matchup.

Syracuse has reached the Elite Eight, its first since 2003, via a zone that is anchored by depth, length and athleticism. The Orange have three of the toughest guards in the field -- Scoop Jardine, Dion Waiters and Brandon Triche. The trio scored 38 points combined against Wisconsin on Thursday. And the Cuse's frontcourt length is unmatched (C.J. Fair, Baye Keita, Rakeem Christmas).

It’s easy to focus on the 14 3-pointers that the Badgers hit against Syracuse in their one-point loss in the Sweet 16. But the final possession -- Jordan Taylor air-balled a 3-pointer -- showcased Syracuse’s defensive lockdown ability. The Badgers couldn’t find a good shot. Wisconsin shot 52 percent from the 3-point line against Syracuse but was 7-for-22 (31.8 percent) on 2-pointers.

Syracuse has everything a national championship contender needs. Ohio State, however, possesses the same profile.

Aaron Craft is the best pure point guard in the field. The sophomore is averaging 12.0 points, 4.0 steals and 6.3 assists in the NCAA tournament. The only blemish on his tourney experience thus far has been his issues with turnovers (11 in three games). That could be a problem against a Syracuse team that entered the Sweet 16 forcing turnovers on nearly one-quarter of its opponents’ possessions.

But Craft is not the Buckeyes' only weapon. Deshaun Thomas and Jared Sullinger comprise the best frontcourt in the field. The sophomores combined for 49 points and 18 rebounds in the Sweet 16 victory over Cincinnati. Syracuse’s chances of neutralizing the tandem decreased when Fab Melo was ruled ineligible for NCAA tournament play.

But the Buckeyes are also one of the top defensive teams in the country (No. 2 in Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings). Syracuse loves to play an up-tempo game, considering its knack for forcing turnovers and scoring on the break. But the Buckeyes (73rd in Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo ratings) can run, too.

Both teams are talented enough to adjust to any situation and/or style. Look for Ohio State to go to Thomas and Sullinger early in the paint. Syracuse doesn’t have the beef to keep the duo from the bucket. Look for Syracuse to trap William Buford and Craft (eight combined turnovers against Cincinnati) and to attack Thomas and Sullinger on offense, seeking early fouls.

The journey: Ohio State defeated Loyola (Md.), Gonzaga and Cincinnati to reach the Elite Eight. Syracuse beat UNC Asheville, Kansas State and Wisconsin.

Monitor his progress: This is a William Buford game. The Buckeyes will need the senior in order to advance to New Orleans. His shooting touch could be a crucial weapon against Syracuse’s zone. But Buford has disappeared at times this season. He scored four points against Cincinnati in the Sweet 16. The Buckeyes will need more from him against Syracuse.

Numbers to impress your friends: Ohio State has scored 55 points off 39 forced turnovers in three NCAA tournament games.

Game’s most crucial question: Will Ohio State crack Syracuse’s zone, despite Craft’s turnover challenges and a 33.6 percent clip from the 3-point line?

The matchup: Craft versus Jardine. Jardine leads one of the best transition attacks in the country. Craft is one of the nation’s top transition defenders. Both have cracked double digits in turnovers in the NCAA tournament.

Don’t touch that remote because … This matchup features two teams with few weaknesses and plenty of star power.


PHOENIX -- There is nowhere to hide. There are no secrets to keep and no shocking, revolutionary game plans to unveil.

With Louisville and Florida, this would also be the case in November: Is there a high-profile coaching duo as familiar with one another as Rick Pitino and his former star player and pupil, Billy Donovan? No.

That familiarity will play a factor, no doubt ... but it's also the default situation for any two teams squaring off with a Final Four berth on the line. By this point, the Cardinals and Gators are what they are. Both teams have revealed themselves in their three NCAA tournament victories to date. And both coaches will prepare their teams accordingly.

What do those preparations entail?

There's the obvious strength-on-strength matchup: Over the course of the season, Florida's offense has been one of the best and most efficient in the country. As of Friday's pregame press conferences, the Gators ranked No. 3 in adjusted efficiency, per KenPom.com. Louisville, meanwhile, has likewise been a great defensive team all season -- after Thursday night's historically brutal lockdown of No. 1-seeded Michigan State, the Cardinals rank No. 1 in the nation in defensive efficiency.

But there are also recent concerns to factor. Louisville's defense has gotten even better of late, but its offense has improved as the Cardinals have forced more turnovers and pushed the pace more often than during the regular season. And Florida, which struggled defensively all season, has morphed into a defensive beast in its own right. After allowing 1.04 points per possession in SEC play, the Gators have allowed just .80 points per trip in three impressive tournament wins over Virginia, Norfolk State and Marquette.

The Gators are eager to prove they're more than a deep shooting team -- a reputation they rightly earned throughout the season but which feels less applicable with each passing game. The Gators aren't shooting 3s particularly well of late, but they're winning all the same.

"Everyone already has an opinion on this team -- that we're a 3-point shooting team," guard Kenny Boynton said. "That's what everyone is saying. But we're not shooting a great 3-point percentage. In this tournament, it shows that we can score in different ways."

The Gators' newfound defensive toughness and overall versatility makes Pitino's game plan a bit tougher. He'll still be eager to unleash his team's hassling high-pressure defense on Florida's coterie of skilled guards, particularly primary ball handler Erving Walker. Pitino will also search for a team-oriented way to stop Bradley Beal -- the talented freshman swingman whose 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the field made the key difference in Florida's win over Marquette -- because the Cardinals don't have one player who matches up with a future NBA lottery pick on a sheer personnel level.

In general, Pitino's defense will look to keep the Gators from doing their favorite thing of all -- storming opponents with lethal 3-point shooting, whether they admit it or not -- and let big man Gorgui Dieng, who tied a Louisville tournament record with seven blocks Thursday, handle the rest.

[+] EnlargeErving Walker
Chris Pondy/Icon SMIFlorida will rely on point guard Erving Walker, right, to fight through Louisville's defense.
"Our ball pressure is tremendous," Louisville guard Chris Smith said. "We trace the ball wherever it goes. And we just really try to keep it out of reaching the 3-point line. And with this team, we have to step out even deeper to NBA range, because those guys can really shoot it."

Donovan, meanwhile, knows how good this defense is, and knows his team not only has to handle the Cardinals' ball pressure but also has to find a few easy buckets against Dieng on the inside. How? There are no secrets in the Elite Eight, and no easy answers for a Louisville defense this good.

"There's probably not a lot of stuff that they haven't seen run at them, being in the Big East and playing the schedule they've played," Donovan said. "Everybody's tried to attack it in a lot of different ways. But their defensive percentages from inside the line and behind the line are really remarkable."

Whom to watch:

Erving Walker, Florida: Walker's game may well determine whether Florida moves on. The Gators' point guard will handle much of the task of getting the ball across half court against Louisville's tricky off-again, on-again pressure, and he has been prone to turnovers in the past (his 18.0 percent turnover rate is the highest of any of Florida's starting guards, and the third-highest on the team). If Louisville guard Peyton Siva can create havoc for Walker, Louisville could again grind another opponent into submission even without much offensive efficiency of its own. Walker's ballhandling is absolutely crucial.

Chane Behanan, Louisville: The freshman was brilliant in Thursday's win, scoring 15 points, grabbing 9 rebounds and swiping 3 steals, and perhaps most impressive -- especially against Michigan State's defense, one of the best in the country -- was Behanan's calm, collected interior finishing. The Cardinals may need it again. Louisville isn't likely to shoot the ball well, especially against a Florida team with the quickness to keep up on the perimeter, and Dieng will likely neutralize much of what Gators big man Patric Young tries to do in the low block. Behanan, however, can be a matchup nightmare, too big for Beal, too quick and strong for Erik Murphy. Behanan is a tweener -- and he might be the Cardinals' best hope of posting something resembling an efficient offensive performance Saturday night.

What to watch:

To zone, or not to zone: On Thursday night, Pitino's team used a zone on 45 of its 48 possessions, holding Michigan State to just 22.2 percent shooting from the field in those trips. The ability to transition from a brutal midcourt pressure to a zone that slaps and claws and closes down angles -- well, needless to say, the Spartans didn't know what hit them.

In a perfect world, then, Pitino would bust out the zone again Saturday. That might not be the best idea. Florida loves to shoot those outside jumpers, and the team's biggest point of emphasis in recent weeks -- besides defense -- has been making sure everyone, from Walker to Boynton to Beal to Murphy and down the line, is hoisting shots with confidence. With all that backcourt quickness and the ability to fire from range, they may be the perfect zone-busting team. But can they be lulled into taking too many 3s? And is that what Pitino actually wants?

Whatever the Cardinals choose, it is likely to be effective. But the chess match between mentor and pupil, particularly when Florida has the ball, could be the tournament's most fascinating to date.


PHOENIX -- The No. 7 seeds in the 2012 NCAA tournament were as follows:

Notre Dame. Saint Mary's. Gonzaga. Florida.

Sing it with me now: One of these things is not like the others.

For starters, Florida was the only No. 7 seed to survive the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, and the only one -- after Thursday's 68-58 victory over Marquette -- to reach the Elite Eight and the one-game-from-the-Final-Four precipice it so intensely entails.

But even before the first weekend played out as it did, the Gators stood apart. Their No. 7 seed felt low -- but not because of the RPI or résumé. That part made sense. Rather, this vague feeling was about talent. It was about whether this team could come together at the right time, could flip the proverbial switch, could play up to the tantalizing possibilities presented by so much offensive firepower and future NBA potential.

Two weeks later, Billy Donovan's team has provided the answer.

Thanks to a defense that has suddenly morphed into a shutdown force -- and the continued emergence of talented freshman guard Bradley Beal -- Florida is back in the Elite Eight for the second consecutive season. If the Gators find a way to break down Louisville's vaunted defense Saturday, they'll be back in the Final Four for the first time since Donovan's back-to-back national titles in 2006-07 -- and would become the first No. 7 seed to make it to the tournament's biggest stage since the 1984 Virginia Cavaliers.

"We're starting to peak right now," Florida forward Patric Young said. "It's the greatest time to play your best basketball."

That did not appear to be the case in February, when Florida was drubbed at Kentucky, lost at home to Tennessee and finished SEC regular-season play with three consecutive losses, including a 76-62 defeat at Georgia on Feb. 25.

At that point, it was easy to have the Gators pegged: This was a good, sometimes great, offensive team reliant on 3-point shots and guard play, but one that didn't defend well enough to hold opponents back when that steady stream of outside shots failed to fall.

That once-shaky defense has experienced a sea change in the first three rounds of the NCAA tournament. Last weekend, the Gators held Virginia and Norfolk State to an incredibly low .74 points per trip -- combined. (They won both games by a total margin of 60 points.) On Thursday night, against a much better opponent in Marquette -- and one that boasted not one but two potent All-Big East players in Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder -- the Gators held that duo to 10-of-30 from the field and, in the process, allowed the Golden Eagles just .86 points per trip.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, the 153 points allowed by UF is the third-lowest total in a team’s first three tournament wins during the shot-clock era.

When your offense is one of the nation's five most efficient for an entire season (it is currently No. 3 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings) your defense doesn't have to be this good. When it is? Well, look out.

[+] EnlargeBradley Beal
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonFlorida freshman Bradley Beal led all scorers with 21 points and added 6 rebounds and 4 assists.
"When you don't make shots, the easiest thing to say is, well, we just missed shots that we typically make," Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. "That wasn't what happened. They were really good. They were outstanding."

And the Gators needed to be. Marquette is itself an awfully good defensive team, and one particularly inclined -- thanks to its coterie of guards and athletic bigs and focus on tight perimeter defense -- to take Florida out of its bombs-away 3-point shooting game. To some extent, that's what happened. The Gators struggled from the field, and especially from beyond the arc; they went 4-of-14 in the first half and just 3-of-13 in the second. In all, Marquette held UF to a mere 1.01 points per possession, an unusually low number for one of the nation's best offenses.

The difference, by the end, was Beal. The Gators not named Beal shot 16-of-49 from the field and 4-of-22 from 3. Meanwhile, the UF freshman played one of the most efficient individual games of the NCAA tournament to date, dropping 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting (and 3-of-5 from 3).

Fittingly, it was Beal's final basket, a soaring open-floor dunk, that truly signaled the end of Marquette's comeback bid, in which it cut a 14-point second-half lead to six with just 3:18 left to play. Donovan warned his players the Golden Eagles would "keep coming," and keep coming had finally, in the final minute, gone away. For all of Marquette's fight, for all its guile, and for all the ideal matchups it could field against Florida's guard-heavy lineup, Williams' team had no match for Donovan's surefire future lottery pick.

Williams put it in political terms:

"I think Bradley Beal is their swing vote," he said, "because he's so multi-versatile and talented."

Indeed, Beal's stature as one of the nation's top recruits -- he was the fifth-rated player in the class of 2011 -- was one of the main reasons Florida began the season so highly regarded despite losing forward Chandler Parsons from last season's Elite Eight team. With Beal joining Young and Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker and Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario, the promise of this team was limitless.

But Beal, like so many freshmen, took time to adjust to the college game -- to figure out how it feels when, all of a sudden, the game doesn't quite come so easily.

"At times he could get a little moody and get a little pouty and just didn't know how to handle it," Donovan said. "I had a hard time with him early in the year. ... I asked [Brad] one time, 'What's the most difficult part for you playing in college?' He said, 'Dealing with adversity and dealing with bad games -- because I didn't have a lot of those in high school.'

"He was always the best player on the floor."

Even with two of the nation's most talented teams on the court -- even with two Big East first-teamers on the squad opposite him -- there was no mistaking the best player on the court Thursday night.

His continued emergence, alongside a suddenly stout defense and an offensive attack still capable of sniping defenses into submission, has the Gators one win away from a Final Four. Of course, they'll have to topple another very good defense -- the Louisville Cardinals, who shut down No. 1-seeded Michigan State just minutes before Florida took the court Thursday. And Donovan will have to best his old coach and mentor, Rick Pitino, before UF can line up any Big Easy travel plans. (The over/under on the number of times you read about this dynamic in the next 48 hours is somewhere in the five-digit area. Fair warning.)

But one thing is clear: This is no normal 7-seed. The Gators had their share of ups and downs, sure, but this team is primed for March, playing its best basketball, as Young said, at the perfect time. We say that often about teams this time of year. Rarely does it ring so true.

"We're really locked in," Young said. "Hopefully we haven't reached that peak. Hopefully, we're still going up."

Video: Breaking down Florida's win

March, 23, 2012
3/23/12
1:26
AM ET


Dick Vitale, Hubert Davis and Rece Davis discuss Florida's defense and the play of Bradley Beal.


PHOENIX -- A quick recap of Florida's 68-58 win over Marquette Thursday night:

Overview: Maybe Florida can defend after all. The Gators' defense has been their chief deficiency all season, the one major factor keeping such a talented team -- and such a high-powered offense -- from truly breaking through. But after two huge defensive performances in their first two tournament wins, the Gators kept it up, holding Marquette stars Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom to a combined 29 points on just 10-of-30 shooting from the field.

Turning point: As usual, Florida's shooting made the difference. The Gators maintained a six-point lead for the first six minutes of the first half when Erving Walker and Bradley Beal made back-to-back 3s, opening a 12-point advantage the Gators more or less maintained until the final three minutes. That's when Marquette -- thanks to a steal, a timeout call, a made 3 and a fast-break layup, all from Todd Mayo, all in the matter of 50 seconds -- drew the game back to 58-52.

On the ensuing possession, Walker found Kenny Boynton for a wide-open 3. Boynton missed, but forward Patric Young corralled the rebound and kicked it out just in time to preserve the possession. Walker knocked down a 3 of his own, stretching the lead to nine. Crowder answered with a 3 -- as expected, the Eagles refused to go away --but four free throws from Boynton essentially sealed the game.

Key player: Bradley Beal. The freshman and likely NBA lottery pick has had a mostly unsung season for the Gators, but he remains as dangerous as any player on the floor at any given time. His 21 points -- the last two of which came on a thunderous punctuation-mark dunk in the game's final minute -- came in hyperefficient fashion on 8-of-10 shooting from the field. Beal doesn't force; rather, he picks and chooses his spots. He did so brilliantly Thursday night.

Key stats: The combined marks for Crowder and Johnson-Odom tell the tale; without efficient contributions from its two stars, Marquette scored just 58 points on 66 possessions, well below its typically stellar offensive averages.

What’s next: Marquette coach Buzz Williams saw his second straight team into the Sweet 16, but that's the ceiling yet again. The Golden Eagles will go back to the drawing board in 2012-13 without their two senior stars. Meanwhile, the Gators progress to the Elite Eight, where they will meet No. 4-seeded Louisville, which got there by posting the tournament's best defensive performance to date. That should be a fascinating matchup.
PHOENIX -- A lesson to those still getting to know Marquette coach Buzz Williams:

If you give him a chance to be self-deprecating, he will take it. Boy, will he ever take it.

Asked Wednesday how he would compare himself to the three other coaches in this region -- Florida's Billy Donovan, Michigan State's Tom Izzo and Louisville's Rick Pitino -- Williams didn't hesitate to draw the differences. And, as usual, he came prepared with numbers to buttress his case.

"Coach Donovan has won 27 NCAA tournament games," Williams said. "Coach Izzo has won 37. Coach Pitino has won 40. All of them have won national championships. All of them have coached in the [NBA] or decided they didn't want to coach in the league. And the league that I should be in is the Lone Star Conference, a Division II league in Texas. I should be an assistant in that league. So I don't belong. I don't compare.

"I wish that would have been a question on the SAT. I wouldn't have had to go to junior college. [On] the word association on the SAT, I would have gotten that right."

This is the Buzz college hoops fans have come to know the past four seasons: a witty, effusive presence who dresses to impress on the sideline (Williams says his one non-basketball hobby is clothes: "I really like looking at different shirts and ties and suits and gear"), dances when his players dunk (just YouTube it), dances to West Virginia's "Country Roads" in Morgantown (for which Williams again apologized Wednesday), and who, despite all the fun, works so relentlessly that in 2010 he was told by a doctor at the Mayo Clinic he would "die a very early death" unless he dedicated himself to getting more sleep.

[+] EnlargeBuzz Williams
AP Photo/Jim Prisching"He's very enthusiastic about what he does," senior guard Darius Johnson-Odom says of Marquette coach Buzz Williams, above.
Williams' edge is borne of his beginnings. He earned his nickname during his time at Navarro College, when Navarro coach Lewis Orr remarked that Williams constantly "buzzed" around the men's basketball program at the Texas school. At 21, Williams landed his first coaching job by first camping in a hotel lobby at the Final Four and then, ultimately, outside the house of University of Texas-Arlington coach Eddie McCarter.

Now 39 and four years into his tenure at Marquette, Williams has reconfigured an already successful hoops program in his image. Last season, Williams' first trip to the Sweet 16 came thanks to four former junior college players: Darius Johnson-Odom, Jae Crowder, Jimmy Butler and Dwight Buycks. Butler was drafted last season and Buycks graduated, but Crowder and Johnson-Odom remain, not only as senior leaders but as two of the top five contenders for Big East player of the year.

Crowder won the award, but Johnson-Odom was just as qualified. Together, they lead a team whose identity stems from its coach, and vice versa.

"There's no telling what you might see from our coach," Johnson-Odom said. "He's very enthusiastic about what he does. I think that's why a lot of people love him. When you have that much energy, to show your guys that 'I'm here for you guys,' the coach just wants to win because of the stuff he has been through as a coach. As his players, I think it's a joy to see."

Williams also brings another element to the table, one occasionally lost in the talk about shirt-tie combos and junior colleges and "Country Roads" -- few head coaches in the country are as open and fluent in the language of tempo-free statistics. To wit, of Florida, Williams said Wednesday:

"There's very few teams -- everybody knows that they lead the country in 3-point field goal makes, but there's very few teams that have that offensive rebounding percentage and at the same time have those offensive efficiency-type numbers. So it's as potent an offensive team as I've studied this year."

This isn't just manna for college hoops nerds (though we'll certainly take it); it's also a key reason Williams finds himself wedged in a West Region with three of college basketball's most successful coaches, just two winnable games away from the Final Four.

To get there, of course, his team will first and foremost have to handle Florida's aforementioned potent offense. The good news? Marquette's perimeter defense is among the best units remaining in the tournament; since Feb. 24, only one team (BYU) has shot better than 28 percent from beyond the arc against the Golden Eagles. That may be the key matchup in Thursday's second game in Phoenix (10:17 p.m. ET), and the one that could push Williams further than he's ever been in his head coaching career: to the Elite Eight.

Whatever happens, the matchup of two speedy, guard-oriented teams should be one of the tournament's best to date -- a reprise of Marquette's thrilling, hard-fought win over Murray State in the round of 32.

And if Williams' team wins, maybe we'll even see a little dance.

"How could you not love a guy like that?" Johnson-Odom said.

Who to watch

Marquette's Darius Johnson-Odom: DJO's offensive skills are well-documented, but where he will be especially important is on the defensive end. Florida's guards fire more 3s than most, and the Gators' offense -- which relies on ball screens and spacing and minimal post opportunities for forward Patric Young -- has to be efficient from distance to make up for what has been for much of the season a merely mediocre defense.

Florida's Kenny Boynton: Boynton has quietly had a stellar season, at least on the offensive end. There are plenty of worthy guards on this team -- from diminutive senior Erving Walker to likely lottery pick freshman Bradley Beal to former Rutgers transfer and bench spark plug Mike Rosario -- but Boynton's consistency has made him the most indispensable part of Florida's attack.

What to watch

Florida's defense: Florida's somewhat disappointing regular season -- at least relative to preseason expectations and the immense talent of its personnel -- had much to do with a defense that couldn't force stops or turnovers and would fall behind when UF's outside shooting hit occasional (though rare) slumps. But the Gators have shown signs of a postseason turnaround. In their two NCAA tournament victories, they allowed their opponents (Virginia and Norfolk State) a mere .71 and .77 points per possession, respectively. But is that improvement real, or the product of meager opposition? We know Marquette will come to play on defense, and we know the Golden Eagles are capable of scoring in bunches on the other end. Whether Florida has made legitimate defensive strides will almost certainly decide who goes home Thursday night.


OMAHA, Neb. -- Quick thoughts from Florida's 84-50 victory over Norfolk State at the CenturyLink Center.

Overview: Surprising as it was when it happened Friday, Norfolk State's upset of No. 2 seed Missouri seemed like even more of a shocker Sunday when the Spartans turned in a miserable performance in a 34-point loss to No. 7 seed Florida.

Norfolk State -- which became just the fifth No. 15 seed ever to defeat a No. 2 -- trailed by 28 points at intermission before things got even worse in the second half. Two days after shooting 54 percent against Missouri, the Spartans made just 27 percent of their field goal attempts against a Florida squad that advanced to the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive year.

Senior forward Kyle O'Quinn responded to his 26-point, 14-rebound effort on Friday with a 4-point, 3-rebound clunker in Sunday's loss. He was just 1-of-9 from the field. Norfolk State was outrebounded 48-31.

Anyone who wondered how Norfolk State could've lost to teams such as Division II Elizabeth City State had those questions answered Sunday. The only team that may have taken Norfolk State's defeat harder than the Spartans themselves was Missouri, which will now have an even tougher time living down Friday's epic choke job.

Overshadowed by Norfolk State's ineptitude was another impressive performance by Florida, which is one win away from its second consecutive Elite Eight appearance. The Gators, who will play Marquette in the next round, got 20 points from Kenny Boynton and 14 points and 9 rebounds from Brad Beal. Even though the win appeared to come easily for Florida, Billy Donovan's squad deserves loads of credit for entering the game with intensity and focus.

Turning point: Trailing 6-4 early in the first half, Florida went on a 25-0 scoring run to squelch any early momentum the Spartans may have had. Beal had seven points during the march while Boynton and Erik Murphy added six apiece. When it was all over, Florida led 29-6 with 9:46 remaining before intermission. The Spartans never threatened again.

Key player: Much like they have all season, the Gators exhibited tremendous balance on Sunday. Along with outstanding efforts from Beal and Boynton, Florida got 15 points from Erving Walker, 12 from Mike Rosario and 10 from Murphy.

Key stat: Norfolk State entered the NCAA tournament shooting just 31 percent from 3-point range. The Spartans made 10 of their 19 attempts in their win over Missouri. But they shot just 17.4 percent (4-of-23) from beyond the arc against Florida.

Miscellaneous: Thousands of Kansas fans rose to their feet and cheered Norfolk State's players loudly as the Spartans exited the court after the final. Jayhawks supporters took great delight in Norfolk State's victory over former Big 12 rival Missouri. ... Just like the previous four No. 15 seeds who upset No. 2 seeds, Norfolk State lost in the next round. No 15-seed has ever advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

Up next: Florida improved to 25-10 and advanced to play Marquette in the Sweet 16 this week in the West Region in Phoenix. The Golden Eagles (27-7) defeated BYU and Murray State in their first two NCAA tournament games. Norfolk State -- which was making its first appearance in the Division I NCAA tournament -- ends its season 26-10.

OMAHA -- Quick thoughts from Florida's 71-45 victory over Virginia Friday at the CenturyLink Center.

Overview: Florida advanced to the round of 32 of the NCAA tournament, but the Gators probably didn't throw much of a scare into their future opponent. At least not in the first half.

With the Missouri Tigers watching from the crowd, the Gators missed their first 15 3-point attempts before finding their groove in a 26-point dismantling of Virginia. As lackluster as Billy Donovan's squad was in the first half, Florida caught fire in the second. The Gators shot 69.6 percent after intermission in what turned out to be one of the more lopsided games in the NCAA tournament thus far.

Florida's performance was good enough to get past an injury-riddled, overmatched Cavaliers squad that hadn't defeated a high-quality team since beating Michigan on Nov. 29. But Donovan knows it will take a much better effort to get past No. 2 seed Missouri if the Tigers advance as expected by beating No. 15 Norfolk State.

Casey Prather and Bradley Beal had 14 points each for No. 7 Florida while Patric Young added 13. Virginia senior forward Mike Scott, an All-ACC performer, had 15 points in his final game as a collegian.

Turning point: Virginia opened the game on 10-2 scoring run, but not much went right for Cavaliers after that. Florida went on a 28-12 tear that resulted in a 30-22 halftime lead. It was never close in the second half.

Key player: Beal chipped in 11 rebounds to go along with his 14 points -- an impressive total for a guard.

Key stat: Florida and Virginia combined to miss their first 20 3-point attempts before Gators guard Scottie Wilbekin finally connected from beyond the arc late in the opening half. The teams were a collective 1-for-22 on 3-pointers before intermission.

Miscellaneous: Virginia was making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007. ... Tony Bennett's father, Dick Bennett -- the former Wisconsin head coach -- was in the stands Friday to support his son. ... Florida is now 26-9 in NCAA tournament games under Billy Donovan. ... The Gators advanced to the Elite Eight last season. ... Florida had lost four of its past five games before Friday.

What's next: Florida improves to 24-10 and advances to play either Missouri or Norfolk State on Sunday. Virginia ends its season 22-9.

Previewing Omaha: Afternoon games

March, 16, 2012
3/16/12
12:15
AM ET
OMAHA, Neb. -- Here’s a quick rundown of what to look for in Friday’s afternoon games in Omaha.

No. 7 Florida (23-10) vs. No. 10 Virginia (22-9), 2:10 p.m. ET

Florida’s Billy Donovan and Virginia’s Tony Bennett may respect one another -- but when they run into each other during the offseason, it’s pretty obvious the coaches don’t compare notes.

While Bennett prefers a slower, muddier game with the score in the 60s, Donovan likes his teams to push the tempo and rack up as many points as possible. It’s a scenario that makes Friday’s Gators-Cavaliers clash one of the most intriguing matchups of the day.

“Our styles,” Virginia forward Mike Scott said, “are going to clash.”

That’s not all that separates these teams.

Florida -- which won the national title in 2006 and 2007 -- is making its 11th NCAA tournament appearance in the past 13 years. Virginia is in the field for the first time since 2007 and for only the fourth time in the past 16 years.

“Their players have all been here and done this before,” Bennett said. “Hopefully, [by] the first five minutes after the media timeout, we’ll have enough experience to play well.”

Even though Florida finished in a three-way tie for second in the SEC, the Gators’ season has been a bit of a disappointment. Donovan’s squad has defeated just four teams (Mississippi Valley State, Vanderbilt, Alabama and Florida State) in this year’s NCAA tournament. It enters Friday’s contest having dropped four of its past five games.

Still, with a lineup that features standout guards such as Bradley Beal, Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker -- as well as likely future NBA forward Patric Young -- Florida has enough talent to erupt at any time. But the Gators know that won’t be easy against a Virginia squad that has held all but two opponents to fewer than 70 points.

“This year we have seen every type of defense you can,” Boynton said. “With our offense, we can adjust to any type of defense.”

Even though it has a gaudy record, it’s not hard to understand why Virginia (22-9) received a No. 10 seed. Other than a Nov. 29 win against Michigan, the Cavaliers boast just one win against a team in this year’s NCAA tournament. That came in a 61-60 victory against NC State on Jan. 28.

Bennett’s squad is hoping to reverse that trend Friday.

“[Coach Bennett] just tells us it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” guard Sammy Zeglinski said. “We’ve been at the school five years. We’ve been waiting for this our whole career.”

Added Scott: “The celebrating is over. We’re here to work and win games.”

Players to watch:

Florida’s Brad Beal: One of the nation’s top freshmen, the 6-foot-3, 207-pound Beal averages 14.6 points and 6.5 rebounds. But he’s shooting just 32.9 percent from 3-point range.

Florida’s Patric Young: He’s still raw, but the 6-9, 247-pound sophomore has made tremendous strides in his first year as a starter. Young, who said Thursday he plans to return for his junior season, averages 10.3 points and 6.4 rebounds.

Virginia’s Mike Scott: The first-team All-ACC selection is one of the most efficient offensive players in the country. The forward averages 18.1 points on 56.2 percent shooting. He makes 80.1 percent of his free throws and snares 8.4 boards per game.

No. 2 Missouri (30-4) vs. No. 15 Norfolk State (25-9), 4:40 p.m. ET

They were denied a No. 1 seed, but the Missouri Tigers may be the top team in the NCAA tournament in terms of confidence.

While schools such as North Carolina, Kentucky, Syracuse, Duke and Kansas all suffered losses last week, Frank Haith’s squad demolished its competition at the Big 12 tournament and is a popular pick to reach the Final Four.

“This is a senior-laden team,” Haith said. “We have had opportunities to lose focus throughout the year, but this team has been determined and resilient. I anticipate us having great focus Friday afternoon.”

Missouri certainly can’t afford to look past Norfolk State.

The Spartans defeated a Drexel team that many felt should’ve been in this year’s NCAA tournament. And they lost to Marquette by only two points back on Nov. 21. Norfolk State will be hard-pressed to stop Missouri’s four-guard offense, but its players didn’t sound all that intimidated by it Thursday.

“Yes, we’re going against better players from a different conference,” senior Kyle O’Quinn said. “But it’s not something we haven’t seen before. We’re comfortable going into the game.”

Missouri has won its past four contests by an average of 17.5 points. The Tigers are making 50.4 percent of their field goals, a mark that ranks third in the nation. The figure is even more impressive considering Missouri uses a four-guard offense, which means more outside shots.

Five Missouri players are scoring in double figures, led by Marcus Denmon with 17.6 points per game.

“We are hoping that our length will pose problems for them,” Norfolk State coach Anthony Evans said. “They have four great guards. We can post up a little bit, but we think that Kyle is our best chance of creating mismatches against them. Hopefully, he can kick it out to our shooters to make shots.”

Players to watch:

Phil Pressey, Missouri: The Tigers point guard is the key to Missouri’s four-guard attack. He’s one of the fastest players in the country with the ball in his hands. Although he’s a pass-first guard, Pressey can score when he needs to. The defensive standout led the Big 12 in steals.

Ricardo Ratliffe, Missouri: The 6-8 senior shoots an eye-popping 69.8 percent from the field. The Tigers’ guards get most of the attention, but Ratliffe is averaging a respectable 13.9 points and 7.5 rebounds as the only big man in Missouri’s starting lineup.

Kyle O’Quinn, Norfolk State: The 6-10 senior averages 15.9 points and 10.4 rebounds. He’s scored in double figures in all but one game this season. He also averages 2.7 blocks.

NEW ORLEANS -- A look at Florida's rugged win against Alabama.

Overview: JaMychal Green made quite a difference in Alabama's SEC quarterfinal rematch with Florida, but it wasn't quite enough.

Green, who missed the teams' first meeting because of a suspension, dominated to the tune of 22 points and 10 rebounds against the Gators, but it wasn't enough for the Crimson Tide.

Unfortunately for Green, a missed free throw in the dying seconds will probably offset a fantastic performance, in his mind.

The Crimson Tide buried a 3-pointer at the first-half buzzer, cutting a five-point UF lead to 26-24. The Gators tried to pull away in the second half, building a lead that got as big as 12. But the Tide surged back behind the efforts of Green, who took 14 of the Tide's 45 shots and connected on seven.

Turning point: Green went to the free throw line with a chance to tie the game with 21 seconds left. He was superb for Alabama all day, but he connected on only the first of his two shots, leaving the Tide at a 64-63 disadvantage.

With just seconds remaining, the Tide had to foul, and Kenny Boynton hit his free throws to make it 66-63. After hitting a late 3 to bury South Carolina on Thursday, Trevor Lacey got the call again, but his shot at the buzzer clanged off the rim.

Key player: Bradley Beal carried the Gators for most of the afternoon. He led the team with 16 points and connected on 7 of 8 free throws. But Boynton stepped up in crunch time. He scored five of his 14 in the final two minutes. They were Florida's last five points.

Key stat: The Tide nearly doubled up the Gators in the paint, outscoring Florida 38-20. The Gators didn't shoot very well from downtown, but their nine total 3-pointers helped offset the lack of post production.

Miscellaneous: Alabama shot a whopping 15 percent better from the field than Florida. But the Tide turned it over 11 times to the Gators' five.

What's next: Florida gets a third game against No. 1 Kentucky in one of the semifinals. The Wildcats handled the Gators in both regular-season meetings. Alabama is most likely in the Big Dance. Now it waits to see where, and hopes there are no nasty surprises.
Here are a few things we learned from the biggest games Saturday afternoon. Check back later for analysis of tonight's games.

No. 3 Ohio State 58, No. 20 Wisconsin 52: Ohio State is hardly a breakneck team, but its adjusted tempo this season is 68.9 possessions per 40 minutes, far above those of many of its Big Ten brethren. The Buckeyes like to get out on the break a little. Thad Matta has a ton of talent, shooting, athleticism, scoring, you name it, and the Bucks aren't shy about letting it shine in the open floor.

In other words, this is exactly how Wisconsin wanted this game to go. It wanted it to be slow -- as slow as possible, in fact -- and it was. These two teams traded 57 possessions Saturday afternoon. If you had told Bo Ryan this game would be this slow, he'd have given his team an excellent chance of knocking off what might just be the best team in the nation. This is the luxury of having Jordan Taylor commanding your team: If you want the game to be deathly slow, with supreme economy of movement and as few possessions as possible, you can't do better than the Badgers' point guard.

The only problem? Ohio State has Jared Sullinger. Wisconsin does not. "The Artist Currently Known As Sully" just so happens to be very comfortable playing half-court offense, and as good as UW was on defense -- as much as it shaded and doubled and harried and harassed -- Sullinger was simply too much. He played all 40 minutes Saturday. He scored 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field in the first half alone. He finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds (5 offensive), 3 steals, just 1 turnover and an 8-of-10 shooting mark at the charity stripe. He was too much. Jared Berggren did his best, and the Badgers kept their shape well defensively -- there's a reason OSU scored just 1.02 points per trip -- but they never found an answer for the big man on the block.

They also learned the lesson anyone who has played this Ohio State team (or last season's version, for that matter) already knows: The Buckeyes defend, too. Per Ken Pomeroy's metrics, the Bucks are the stingiest per-possession defense in the country. The second stingiest? Wisconsin. But while the Badgers allow .81 points per trip, OSU allows an absurd .77, the rare team that forces turnovers but doesn't give away fouls and one that also cleans up the defensive glass. UW has had its troubles scoring from time to time this season, but the Buckeyes are a whole 'nother animal.

Play fast, play slow, play at your court, play in Columbus. Play however you like. If you don't have someone who can guard Jared Sullinger -- never mind a group of players to check the insanely talented group around him -- and/or an offense that can find a way to score against this kind of defense, it doesn't really matter. Ohio State is going to beat you.

Wyoming 68, No. 13 UNLV 66: For much of the season, during a remarkably quick turnaround, San Diego State coach Steve Fisher has been the consensus favorite for national coach of the year. Deservedly so. But any mention of the words "coach of the year" should also, after today, be followed closely by the words "Larry Shyatt."

Shyatt's story is remarkable. Wyoming gave him his first head-coaching gig in 1997, but after a successful season, he left to take over at Clemson, where he stayed until 2003. Shyatt spent the past several years on Florida coach Billy Donovan's bench, until this offseason, when he returned to Laramie to start over and repay a debt he felt he owed for his quick departure 15 years ago.

And what a return it has been. In 2010-11, the Cowboys finished 10-21 overall and ranked No. 215 in Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings. After a two-point stunner over UNLV -- during which they led for nearly all 40 minutes and turned it over just eight times -- the Cowboys now are 18-5 and ranked among Pomeroy's top 60 teams in the country. This is primarily thanks to their defense, which Shyatt has transformed entirely. Last season, the Cowboys were hands down the worst defensive team in the Mountain West. This season, the defense is among the MWC's best, and on Saturday, it held UNLV to 3-of-14 shooting from beyond the arc.

The question now -- after the school's first victory over a ranked team in 12 years -- is whether Shyatt's miracle story can end with an NCAA tournament berth. The jury is still very much out, and Wyoming probably will have to grab another big win or two to be bubble-relevant going forward. But NCAA tournament or no, this team has made a drastic year-over-year turnaround. It has gone from a no-name afterthought to a program on the rise. And Shyatt's prodigal return is the reason.

Notre Dame 76, No. 15 Marquette 59: It's not fair to say the Fighting Irish looked totally irredeemable in their 8-5 nonconference start, but they certainly didn't look good. Notre Dame was dominated by Missouri, handled by Georgia, no match for Gonzaga, beaten by Maryland and overwhelmed by Indiana. Any time the Fighting Irish played a good (even decent) team, they looked exactly like what all thought they were: rebuilding, in transition, mediocre, meh.

Now? After Saturday's strong home win, which was keyed by a massive second-half run, it's impossible to discount the Irish. The Syracuse upset of two Saturdays ago was more than a random upset or a product of ND's mystically inexplicable propensity to upset elite teams in South Bend. No, Mike Brey's team is much more than that. Guard Eric Atkins is among the nation's most improved players, but he might be eclipsed in that category by forward Jack "Don't Call Me Mini-Harangody" Cooley, who, after years of geeks like me writing, "Hey, that guy looks exactly like Luke Harangody," is rapidly making his own name. (And Patrick Connaughton, whose Irish-name swagger deserves serious respect, was tremendous, too: 23 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 big blocks on huge defensive stops. Dude can play.)

Most impressive in this game was Notre Dame's late push, even if "push" feels like an understatement. With eight minutes remaining in the second half, the Irish led 54-48. The final score speaks for itself. Marquette is a good team, and the Irish simply ran away. The only conclusion: Notre Dame is pretty darn good, too.

No. 11 Florida 73, Vanderbilt 65: It was the opinion of this writer that Florida and Vanderbilt felt like identical SEC twins: guard-oriented perimeter offenses led by sharpshooters (Vandy's John Jenkins, Florida's Kenny Boynton), versatile play from outside-in small forwards (Vandy's Jeffery Taylor, Florida's Bradley Beal) and one true post presence apiece (Vandy's Festus Ezeli, Florida's Patric Young). So it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that this game's box score featured such near-identical numbers for both teams. Each team recorded 12 assists; each team snagged nine steals. Both teams turned the ball over at about the same rate. The teams' effective field goal percentages were similar. Vanderbilt shot 18 free throws. Florida shot 17.

You get the idea. So what was the difference? Simply put, 3-point shooting. The Gators made 11 of 24 shots from beyond the arc. VU shot just 8-of-25 from long range. There were other differences, too: Florida outrebounded Vandy on the offensive glass, grabbing 36.8 percent of its available misses to just 28.6 percent for the Commodores. But the real difference was shooting. Florida made three more of its 3s, and it shot 16-of-17 from the charity stripe.

All told, it wasn't Vanderbilt's best offensive day, but there are promising signs. For one, it didn't score the ball particularly well and still hung with a good team on the road. For another, there are signs Vandy's defense, which has played so well (surprisingly so) in the SEC campaign, is for real. It held the nation's best offense to 1.09 points per trip at home; compared to UF's usual output, that's not too shabby.

In the end, this is just what Florida does. It makes shots. It made a few more of them in this one. Not a bunch more. Just a few. But in a game this close, with such a doppelganger of an opponent, a few extra makes were all the Gators needed.

No. 24 Florida State 58, No. 18 Virginia 55: The scoreline says it all. If you don't like slow, plodding, offensively challenged basketball, this was not the ACC matchup for you. But it also was the rare game in which both teams can come away feeling pretty good. Virginia's task in Tallahassee was to take on one of the nation's best defenses and hottest teams, one that recently had found a scorching offense to go along with its typically staunch defense.

Florida State no doubt hoped to keep the good offensive vibes rolling, but more important in the end was holding serve on its home floor. After an incredible streak that included a 33-point win over UNC and a win at Duke, the last thing the Seminoles needed was a lackluster home loss to pull their record (and, maybe, their spirits) back to earth.

FSU didn't keep the offense rolling. Virginia's defense was nearly up to the task. The Cavaliers forced Leonard Hamilton's team into a turnover on 31 percent of its possessions. Unfortunately, UVa coughed it up even more frequently than did FSU. That's the thing about this Florida State team, which is now 7-1 in ACC play: When the Noles are shooting the ball well and scoring it with ease, they're just about unstoppable. But even when they're not, that defense will always be there, providing a baseline when the going gets tough. That has to be comforting, doesn't it?

No. 6 North Carolina 83, Maryland 74: How good are the Tar Heels? Sometimes it's hard to tell. They often look dominant, every bit the national title contender we assume they'll be in March. Just as often, though, they struggle, particularly on the road and frequently against teams they should rather easily handle. Maryland is one such team.

On Saturday, facing the Terrapins in front of a rowdy crowd, the Tar Heels struggled. There's no other way to put it. Maryland brought it, sure, but UNC often seemed to be on its heels, no pun intended. UM center Alex Len was excellent, and Terrell Stoglin showed why he probably should be an all-ACC inclusion by the end of the season. By the 17-minute mark in the second half, Maryland had opened a nine-point lead. Suddenly, as analyst Len Elmore said, the Heels found themselves in a dogfight.

Here's another reason Carolina is so often so hard to appraise: This team seems to have the fabled ability to "hit the switch," i.e., to suddenly focus its efforts, let talent take over and go win the game even when not playing well. And that's what happened Saturday. UNC seemingly flipped its switch, started locking down on defense, started getting easy buckets on offense, started making 3s -- you know, basically, all the things this team should do -- outscoring Maryland 46-34 in the second half en route to a victory. It wasn't pretty, and we often tend to expect more from purportedly great teams, but it's impossible to dismiss this team's talent and its ability to transform that talent at a moment's notice.

No. 2 Syracuse 95, St. John's 70: And so all was well in the land of the Orange. When sophomore center Fab Melo was lost to a lingering first-semester academic issue, Syracuse lost its first game of the season without him, and even in the two wins that followed -- at Cincinnati and in questionable fashion over West Virginia -- the Orange didn't look anything like their typically dominant selves. With so much depth and talent, it was hard to pin all this on Melo's absence ... but it was hard to compare Syracuse's offensive output with and without Melo (not to mention its block percentages, where Melo really excels) and not think the newly trim and focused big man didn't have a much bigger effect on this team's 20-0 start than many originally thought.

And then you watch Saturday's game, Melo's first since his return. You see the big man score a career-high 14 points on a tidy 5-of-6 from the field. You see the Orange roll St. John's to the tune of 1.34 points per possession on a day when they didn't shoot the 3 particularly well (just often). You see them tie a season high with 24 second-chance points and 52 in the paint.

Given all that, you can't help but think Melo is absolutely crucial to this team's national title chances. And then our fine friends at ESPN Stats & Information send along the following statistics, and you see the facts in all their glory: With Melo, Cuse is 21-0, and averages 38.9 points per game in the paint (28.7 without him), 14 second-chance points per game (6.3 without) and 1.18 points per possession (1.00 without), and has an offensive rebound percentage of 39.5 (25.5 without).

So, yeah, I suppose you could say he's pretty important. Impressive performance for Melo, impressive win for Syracuse.

Memphis 72, Xavier 68: "That Used To Be Us." It's the title of Thomas Friedman's questionably considered new book. It also feels appropriately descriptive of the Xavier Musketeers, who spent the first two months of the season earning difficult wins thanks to late rallies but were the victims of such a rally Saturday afternoon at the FedExForum.

Xavier opened a 10-point lead in the second half, but Memphis fought back. The Musketeers opened another one with seven minutes remaining, finding themselves up double digits (62-51) as the Tigers' ugly offense appeared headed toward a losing effort. And then something funky happened. Memphis used a 12-1 run to rally all the way back and tie the game at 63-all with 2:12 remaining. And then something even funkier happened. Memphis closed out the game with a score of made free throws. The Tigers shot 24-of-28 from the line, including 9-of-11 in the final two minutes. Joe Jackson alone was 12-of-12. All told, Memphis went on a 17-1 tear, and the game went from 62-51 to 68-63 before the Tigers closed it out.

It was a nice -- and much-needed -- win for Memphis, sure, but more than anything, it spoke to the seemingly downward trajectory of the Musketeers. This team hasn't been the same since the Dec. 10 brawl, of course, but at this point, the cause-and-effect is beginning to look tenuous. Now more than ever, it looks like X really wasn't all that good in the first place. Losing on the road is hardly a crime. Losing like this? It's something closer.

Some more observations from this afternoon's games:
  • Is Arizona on the rise? It's hard to ignore the three-day stretch the Wildcats had, getting not one but two wins on their Bay Area road trip. First, the Wildcats held on for a win over apparent league favorite Cal on Thursday, and then they looked even more impressive in their 56-43 victory at Stanford on Saturday afternoon, holding the Cardinal to just 16-of-63 (!) from the field and 3-of-12 from 3 in their own building. Zona might or might not get on the bubble by the end of the season, but these sort of performances might just carry the Cats to the top of the league's standings before all is said and done. At the very least, Sean Miller's team is worth keeping an eye on.
  • Butler's offense is not worth keeping an eye on -- and it continues to cost the Bulldogs games. It's been the case all season, really, and it was the case again today. The Dogs lost to a team that made just two of its 10 3-point field goal attempts and shot just 20-of-47, because Butler's offense was even worse: 18-of-51 from the field, 4-of-19 from 3, just one made field goal from any bench player, a tough 0-of-7 night from Ronald Nored. The Bulldogs can't score. Nothing new here. But give some measure of credit to Detroit for a tough win on the road. Hinkle Fieldhouse was sold out, and the Titans got the job done in Indy for the first time since 1999.
  • Baylor loves to play close games. It's either that or the Bears can't help themselves. Whatever the reason, the good news is Baylor seems more capable than most of winning those close games, particularly on the road. It did so twice this week. The first came in a three-point win at Texas A&M on Wednesday. The second came Saturday afternoon, when Oklahoma State rallied from a nine-point deficit to take a 57-56 lead on Keiton Page's 3 with 1:42 remaining. Baylor ended up finishing the game in the final moments, which is nothing new. The Bears have played eight games decided by five points or fewer this season. With the exception of the 89-88 loss to Missouri, they've won every single one. That might not be by design, and it probably doesn't help Bears fans' blood pressure levels, but it's the kind of trait that might come in handy in March.
  • Seton Hall is officially off the wagon. A loss at UConn is understandable, even forgivable, but the Pirates were absolutely smacked, 69-46, by a team that had lost six of its previous eight games, to say nothing of Jim Calhoun's sudden and indefinite medical absence. That's Seton Hall's sixth consecutive loss. Unfortunately, the Pirates' happy redemption story is rapidly shrinking under the rigors of Big East play. Shame.
  • Before Saturday, South Florida's Big East record was 6-3. Considering the Bulls entered conference play with a 7-6 record and their best conference win was at Villanova, it was fair to say that surprising league start had more to do with South Florida's schedule than its skill. After today's blowout loss at Georgetown -- USF's worst conference loss since joining the Big East and its worst loss period since 2004 -- I think we can officially cement that perception.

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