College Basketball Nation: Erving Walker

Let's take a break from all the Bo Ryan sturm and drang, shall we? Here's a story from the lighter side of life, one in which Erving Walker ended up paying $301 for a taco-truck taco.

How did this happen? On March 30, Walker was named in an arrest report, charged with petit theft and resisting an officer without violence at 1 a.m. ET on Main Street in Gainesville, Fla. According to an arrest report, Walker ordered and received a $3 taco from a food truck, but left the scene without paying for it. Police chased Walker and told him to stop, but Walker kept running. A few blocks later, police caught up to him. Walker said he was "just playing around," which ... OK then.

In any case, Walker had his court date Thursday morning. He plead no contest to the petit theft charges -- the state dropped the resisting charge -- and Walker's only fine was his $301 in court fees.
"It was just a silly mistake," Walker said after his court appearance. "I apologize to everybody. I'm embarrassed about it. That's not me. I'm just trying to put it behind me and move on."

That's a mighty steep taco, but as The Daily's Dan Wolken tweeted, we all go through times when $301 for a taco would feel like fair market price. I love tacos.

All's well that ends well, I suppose. But let this be a lesson, kids: Never flee the scene with your taco. (Or something like that. There's got to be a lesson in here somewhere.)

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.

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 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."

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.

Florida shuts down Norfolk State

March, 18, 2012

OMAHA, Neb. - Pleased as he was with the victory, Florida center Patric Young responded to Sunday’s 84-50 shellacking of No. 15 Norfolk State with a sigh and a shoulder shrug.

“We haven’t accomplished anything yet,” Young said.

That’s not entirely true. Sunday’s victory propelled the seventh-seeded Gators into the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive year, which is more than 52 other NCAA tournament teams can say after the opening weekend of postseason play.

But it was easy to see how it may not have felt like all that big of a deal to Young and his teammates after annihilating a Norfolk State squad that was so bad it was embarrassing.

Where was the Spartans team that shocked the world by upsetting Missouri on Friday? What happened to all those long, lanky 3-point shooters who couldn’t miss? And what about Kyle O'Quinn, the vivacious 6-foot-10, 240-pound center who had 26 points and 14 rebounds 48 hours earlier against the Tigers.?

O’Quinn had just four points and three rebounds Sunday.

“He didn’t come out with the passion and energy I thought he was going to have,” Young said. “That affected him and it affected his entire team.

“We hadn’t anticipated anything like that.”

Granted, Norfolk State probably didn’t realize just how good of an opponent it would be facing in the Gators, who have won their two NCAA tournament games by an average of 30 points. Florida defeated Virginia 71-45 in the Round of 64 on Friday.

[+] EnlargeErik Murphy
Peter G. Aiken/US PresswireErik Murphy and the Florida defense held Norfolk State to 27 percent shooting from the field.
Florida will take on Marquette on Thursday in Phoenix. The Golden Eagles are the No. 3 seed in the West Region.

“I haven’t seen Marquette play a lot,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said, “but I’ve heard unbelievable things about them. Certainly, their seed is a reflection of who they are.

“Certainly, I will have a chance to watch them a lot starting tonight. I know they’re a good team. I know they play hard.”

So, too, do the Gators.

Sparked by their trademark, full-court defensive pressure, Florida rendered Norfolk State helpless. The same team that shot 54 percent from the floor against Missouri connected on just 27 percent of its field goal attempts Sunday.

The Spartans were just 4-of-24 (16 percent) from 3-point range and were outrebounded 48-31.

“They have a different type of athlete,” Norfolk State coach Anthony Evans said of Florida. “Having (Erving) Walker and those guys get up and pressure you for 94 feet is different than some of the other teams we’ve played.

“Maybe it was fatigue, but we don’t want to make excuses about it. They did a great job. Hats off to them.”

Florida trailed 6-4 early but then went on a 25-0 tear that gave the Gators a 29-6 lead. Brad Beal scored seven points during the march while Kenny Boynton and Erik Murphy added six apiece. It was a never a game after that, as Florida led by 28 points at intermission. It extended its lead to as many as 38 points in the second half.

Boynton led five Gators in double figures with 20 points. Beal added 14 points and a team-high 9 rebounds. Marcos Tamares scored 12 points for Norfolk State, which received a standing ovation and loud cheers from the thousands of Kansas fans who were waiting for their team to play Purdue in the nightcap at the CenturyLink Center.

Jayhawk supporters were thrilled that the Spartans defeated former Big 12 rival Missouri two days earlier. As bad as it played Sunday, no one can ever take that away from the Spartans, who are one of just six No. 15 seeds in history to defeat a No. 2 seed.

Norfolk State was playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.

“If you look at where we came from, this is a big step,” O’Quinn said. “So for everybody to witness that step that we took as a university ... you’ve got to be proud. You have to be.

“We’re not satisfied with losing, but we knew coming in that you either win a national championship or you go home. That’s the nature of the game.”

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.

Previewing Omaha: Afternoon games

March, 16, 2012
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.

What we learned from Saturday night

February, 19, 2012
This Saturday was always going to be a bit more underwhelming than recent weeks, but boy, did it end well. Once it ended, that is. Creighton students rushed the court before the game was officially over. Their reverse storm, in which they calmly walked off the court, was one of the most surprisingly orderly things I've ever seen. Bravo, Bluejays fans. Bravo.

Read up on Long Beach State-Creighton, Michigan-Ohio State and the rest of Saturday night's action here. If you missed our afternoon recap, catch up now.

No. 19 Michigan 56, No. 6 Ohio State 51: Here's something I learned Saturday -- Michigan hasn't won a Big Ten title since 1986. As Dan Shulman said on the broadcast, that's kind of hard to believe. Here's something else we learned Saturday: The Wolverines have a legitimate chance to break that streak this season.

The race for the Big Ten title is officially a three-way affair. How did Michigan get there? By taking care of business at home. Saturday's win was the Wolverines' 16th consecutive victory in Ann Arbor. For much of the past 10 years, under Tommy Amaker and then John Beilein, Crisler was usually a cold, detached, almost lifeless place. On Saturday, it was rocking in Minute 1 and Minute 40 and constantly in between.

Of course, a home atmosphere is nice, but it doesn't mean much if your team can't play. And Michigan most certainly can play. Point guard Trey Burke continued his impressive freshman campaign against the Buckeyes, scoring 17 points -- including a flurry of much-needed late buckets, one of which he took straight at former grade-school teammate Jared Sullinger -- and dishing five dimes against the best perimeter defender in the country, Ohio State guard Aaron Craft. Tim Hardaway Jr. added efficient perimeter scoring, while forward Jordan Morgan scored 11 points and 11 rebounds against Sullinger. Those matchups -- point guard and forward -- should be Michigan's weaknesses, particularly against OSU. In this one, Burke and Morgan turned them into strengths.

That said, Michigan won the game on the defensive end, where it held the Buckeyes to .91 points per trip, and in some part it has the Buckeyes to thank. Shooting guard William Buford struggled yet again, going 3-of-12 and continuing his senior slump. Credit the Wolverines for forcing the Bucks into perimeter jump shots, but also blame Ohio State, which often settled for those jumpers without first attempting to get Sully into an iso situation on the low block. When Sullinger did touch the ball, the Buckeyes usually got a score. They figured this out eventually, which is what got them back into the game in the second half. But it was too little, too late. You wouldn't think you'd need to "figure out" that you should probably give the ball to Sullinger because, you know, he's really good.

Look, Ohio State remains a very good defensive team. After all, holding Michigan to 56 points on its own floor is no easy task. But the Buckeyes' offense, particularly its perimeter shooting (or lack thereof), looks like a serious liability. It lurched helplessly against Michigan State's defense last Saturday, and it played right into Michigan's hands tonight. As a result, OSU allowed its sworn rival to tie it in the league standings, a game behind MSU in the loss column. If the Buckeyes can't fix these problems, their March ceiling -- once as limitless as any team's in the country -- will suffer accordingly.

No. 14 Murray State 65, No. 16 Saint Mary's 51: How much fun is Murray, Ky., having right now? With a rare national audience and Dickie V in the house, the Racers played as well as they have all season, as their fans -- an intense, buoyant bunch -- gleefully soaked it all in. Judging by Vitale's rave reviews of the small burgh, I'd say Murray might be one of the best places in the country to spend this exact Saturday night. I kind of wish I was there. (My colleague Jason King is and had this to say about the game.)

In any case, the nation got a chance to see what this Murray State team was all about, and the timing couldn't have been better. After its loss to Tennessee State two weeks ago, the tone of the discussion around the Racers changed from "Whoa, this team could go undefeated!" to "Well, that was fun, but check out that at-large profile -- Murray State could miss the tournament!" I think we can put that debate to rest. The Racers might not be a national title contender, but with Isaiah Canaan leading the way (he had 23 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 steal, a 5-for-8 mark beyond the arc and at least two or three downright crossovers that made this viewer yelp in enjoyment), they are certainly one of the better mid-major teams in the country and one that can give plenty of outfits issues in the NCAA tournament. Sure, some of the wins were shaky, and sure, the Ohio Valley Conference is bad, but when you win your first 23 games, guess what? You're pretty good.

Saint Mary's was far less convincing. The Gaels' offense was hobbled by Matthew Dellavedova's rolled ankle and Rob Jones' early foul trouble, but those weren't the primary causes -- and the road atmosphere and tough Murray defense don't explain it all, either. In reality, the Gaels, who have lost three of their past four (all by double digits), are just flat-out struggling. Over the course of the WCC season, the Gaels have posted about 1.17 points per possession (adjusted), best in the league. In their three recent losses, Dellavedova & Co. have failed to exceed a point per trip. Much like Creighton, this team's defense isn't nearly good enough to get the job done when the offense struggles. Much like Creighton, if the Gaels don't throw points in at something near their usual rate, they're going to lose. It's really just that simple.

Creighton 81, Long Beach State 79: Speaking of fun, how much fun was this? The finish -- Antoine Young's brilliant left-handed, last-second game winner -- was merely the icing on the cake. The 40 minutes that preceded that shot were chock full of high-octane mid-major awesomeness. LBSU's Casper Ware, T.J. Robinson and Larry Anderson trading deep 3s and inside moves with Young and Doug McDermott? Yes, please.

We couldn't have predicted the ending, but we should have seen the entertainment value coming. These teams both excel most at one thing: scoring the basketball. That's what Creighton does. When the Bluejays don't put the ball in at a high rate, they lose, as they did in their recent three-game losing streak, culminating with a home blowout at the hands of Wichita State last weekend. The defense simply isn't good enough to save Creighton from an off night.

Fortunately, Creighton has Doug McDermott. McDermott has been great all season, though he's struggled of late, and it's no coincidence his team had lost three of its past four in that span. But on Saturday night, he was amazing. Not "amazing" in a "wow, this sesame chicken is amazing" sort of way; McDermott was actually, literally amazing. He scored 36 points on 14-of-20 shooting and added 11 rebounds, six of which on the offensive end. The most impressive came late in the second half, when McDermott flew to the hoop and somehow tipped in a wayward shot arcing halfway over his head. Once it was clear McDermott was on, LBSU coach Dan Monson ordered his charges to begin aggressively double-teaming the opposing coach's son. But McDermott's eager passing and ability to make plays without the ball in his hands -- see the aforementioned tip-in -- neutralized that strategy. He was just so good. And at the perfect time, too.

As entertaining as this game was, as memorably as McDermott performed, the good news for Long Beach is that a loss at Creighton hardly hurts its at-large profile. Chances are, this team will continue its blistering Big West pace and get to the NCAA tournament in academic, auto-bid fashion. But if something goes awry in the conference tournament, LBSU's crazy nonconference schedule -- the toughest in the country by, like, a lot -- should be more than worthy of the committee's respect. Whatever happens, we'll always have Saturday night in Omaha. What a game, man. What a game.

Other observations from the night that was:
  • All season, Arkansas has been bad on the road (where it is still winless) but great in its own building (where it was undefeated). That trend ended emphatically against the Gators. Florida hung a 98-68 offensive blitz on the young, up-tempo Razorbacks, led by Erving Walker's career-high 31 points on 9-of-11 from the field, 5-of-6 from 3, and 8-of-8 from the free throw line. Walker has been criticized this season, and rightfully so; his insistence on forcing bad shots in bad situations (at Kentucky, for example) is maddening. But you can't really play much better than he did Saturday night. Insane line.
  • Harvard's vaunted defense handled rival Yale with relative ease, which immediately brings to mind images of old men in smoking jackets, teasing each other over cigars and snifters of cognac. (This is how I see Harvard-Yale. I know it's silly, but I can't help it.) This creates a rather compelling finish to the conference season: Harvard, the long-dormant program with sudden title expectations, will face traditional league powers Penn and Princeton at home this week. If the Crimson win, they'll sew up at least a share of the Ivy title, maybe more. There's something slightly poetic about that.
  • Huge win for Xavier, which held on to its slim margin in the final seconds of overtime to beat Dayton, 86-83. The Musketeers have been flagging badly along the bubble cut line lately and they desperately needed a home win tonight to stay viable. Oh, and here's a fun fact (unless you're a Dayton fan): This loss made it 27 straight for the Flyers at rival Xavier. Dayton hasn't won there since -- get this -- 1981. Yikes.
  • Speaking of fun facts, after an 18-point effort in a 64-53 win over Minnesota, Northwestern forward John Shurna became the Wildcats' all-time leading scorer, toppling Billy McKinney's 35-year hold on the honor. That's all well and good, but Shurna is no doubt more focused on the here and now, where the Wildcats couldn't afford to drop this game and still hope to land an at-large NCAA tournament bid, at least if the bracket was selected tomorrow. The victory keeps Northwestern very much alive. Minnesota's chances, unfortunately, will suffer in proportion.
  • When it rains, it -- well, you know. The cliche certainly applies to Villanova, which is struggling through an uncharacteristically bad season but had, even without Maalik Wayns (knee) and James Bell (ankle), a 20-point lead in this game. Notre Dame came back and won in overtime and, well, yeah: That's a tough way to lose. Villanova could surely have used some brief flash of sunlight in an otherwise dark year. It was so, so close Saturday. And then it wasn't. Brutal. Notre Dame, meanwhile, won its eighth game in a row. The Irish don't always look pretty, but they get the job done.
  • Southern Miss lost at Houston. Yep. That happened. It's bad news for Larry Eustachy's team, of course -- it puts a definite dent into the Golden Eagles' otherwise stellar tourney résumé, which features gaudy RPI and SOS numbers -- but also bad news for Conference USA, which would no doubt prefer to be a multi-bid league this season. Speaking of which, Memphis took its own awful loss today, too, 60-58 at home to UTEP. Yes, Memphis lost to UTEP at home. The Tigers had been quietly working their way through C-USA play with relative ease, but the offensive inconsistency that plagued them in their nonconference slate crept back in against the Miners, and that doesn't bode well for the coming tournament. Mild C-USA intrigue abounds!
  • Speaking of bad losses by Mississippi teams, what is going on at Mississippi State? The Bulldogs were listless at Auburn -- Auburn! -- in a 65-55 loss, MSU's third in a row in a season that is stunningly spiraling in the direction of the bubble. The Bulldogs are just 6-6 in the SEC and have games against Kentucky and at Alabama this week. Uh-oh.
  • And speaking of uh-oh and three-game losing streaks, Gonzaga lost in the closing seconds at San Francisco -- the third consecutive year it's lost to the Dons on the road. The Zags shot 51 percent and yet still lost, falling into a tie with BYU for second in the WCC, one game behind 12-2 Saint Mary's.
  • Colorado State held on for a rather ugly win over Wyoming. This was a definite bubble elimination game, one Wyoming couldn't afford to drop if it wanted to preserve any chance of at-large consideration. The victory won't put CSU in the field by any means, but it keeps the Rams alive, if only barely.
  • Watching Georgetown, it's hard not to be impressed with the Hoyas' pinpoint Princeton offense. But this team's real strength is its defense. We saw that again Saturday, as Georgetown held Providence to 25 percent shooting at the Dunk, a win that pushed Georgetown to 10-4 in the Big East and should quell any lingering concerns its fans may have had about another late-season collapse. That's not happening.

Behind the box scores: Tuesday's games

February, 8, 2012
A scan of the college basketball box scores each night guarantees all kinds of statistical oddities and standout performances. Here are some we found from Tuesday:

Kansas State 65, Texas Tech 46
The two teams combined for 26 made field goals, matching the fewest in a Division I game this season (Cal Poly and USC combined for 26 in a 42-36 Cal Poly win Nov. 19). Texas Tech and Kansas State also combined for 53 fouls Tuesday. It’s the first time this year two teams combined for at least twice as many fouls as field goals. The differential of 27 more fouls than field goals is three more than in any other game this season.

Ohio State 87, Purdue 84
Purdue committed only four turnovers, none of which led to an Ohio State steal, but still lost Tuesday night in Columbus. Ohio State became the sixth team overall to win a game this season without recording a steal, and Purdue became the first Big 6 team to lose when not having the ball stolen. It’s the third time this season (and second in a row) that Purdue has lost a game in which it turned the ball over four times or fewer. No other team has lost more than one such game this year.

Kentucky 78, Florida 58
Florida’s Erving Walker was held without a point in the loss, his first scoreless game since Dec. 30, 2008. He had scored at least one point in each of his prior 118 games.

Rutgers grows up in a hurry vs. Florida

December, 29, 2011

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Before his team faced No. 10 Florida, Rutgers coach Mike Rice sat the Scarlet Knights down for a home movie, hoping that celluloid evidence of what a team could accomplish with a little faith might somehow spawn some belief in their skeptical minds.

The video was less than 12 months old, made on Feb. 9 of this year, when Rutgers upset then-No. 10 Villanova.

It might as well have been the Zapruder film.

Films of victories over top-10 programs are rare, grainy artifacts in the Rutgers archive room. There were, in fact, just seven lonely -- and mostly dusty -- videos in the library.

Now there are eight.

The Scarlet Knights, a team parked in the outliers’ version of relevant, upset the Gators on Thursday in double overtime, 85-83.

That the Knights, who previously this season hadn’t beaten a team with a winning record or an RPI better than 224, were able to pull off the stunner was only slightly more stunning than how they did it.

Rutgers rode the backs of a trio of backcourt freshmen who managed to play with more skill and poise than Florida’s dynamic duo of Kenny Boynton (a junior) and Erving Walker (a senior). Eli Carter, who exploded for a career-high 31 points, Myles Mack (14) and Jerome Seagears (13) did more than just outplay Boynton and Walker for the game; they skewered them in the extra periods. The freshman trio scored 17 of the Scarlet Knights’ 19 overtime points to just five from Florida’s pair.

“Our freshmen’s faces lit up,’’ Rice said of watching the Villanova video. “I just said, ‘This is what happens when you believe. This is what happens when you don’t think impossible is impossible. This is what happens when young men are determined to follow the formula and play for one another.' It’s a process.’’

That’s the same term Billy Donovan used in discussing his team’s loss, a process.

His “team didn’t play the right way,’’ the coach said, citing not just the Gators’ 18 turnovers but foolish decisions in various offensive sets and an inability hold on to what looked like a reliable 9-point first-half lead.

But neither coach was willing to make wholesale trades on his team’s fortunes based on this one game in December.

Nor, history says, should they.

A season ago, the Gators lost to Jacksonville at home. And went to the Elite Eight.

A season ago, Rutgers beat Villanova. And promptly lost its next four and six of its final eight.

The result, both coaches know well, doesn’t matter nearly so much as what you do with it.

“What we need to do is see how self-reflective we’re willing to be,’’ Donovan said. “What do we need to do differently as coaches and as players? How you handle situations like this is a big part of any young player’s development. It’s a matter of what comes out of this. That’s why I say it’s bigger than this game.’’

What comes next is truly the question.

This could be a huge first step for Rutgers, a program that has been locked in an abysmal purgatory for years.

In his second season at RU, Rice now has two wins against top-10 teams. Only the legendary Tom Young has more (four) in school history.

That tells you all you need to know about Rutgers’ run of irrelevance. That and the 20-year chasm between NCAA tournament berths.

[+] EnlargeEli Carter
Jim O'Connor/US PresswireRutgers freshman Eli Carter pulls up for the jumper that sent the game into double overtime.
Rice, most would agree, has the Knights headed in the right direction. It’s just taken them a little time this season to find the map. Rutgers beat up on an unappetizing menu of walkovers -- an RPI doesn’t reflect everything, but when your team RPI is 256 and you have seven wins, it tells you plenty -- and lost to anyone with a pulse. That included Miami, Illinois State, Richmond, LSU and Princeton.

Rice knew things could get better because he had talent. A year ago he was getting by on smoke and mirrors, fully aware he didn’t have the sort of transcendent player you need to survive in the Big East. He has that guy now in the form of Carter, but he needed Carter to recognize it, too.

Finally -- or suddenly -- this week, he got a glimmer of hope, sensing in practice that his team was finally buying into the lessons he was preaching, maybe even ready to take a big step.

And then there were the steps, in living color, on the court, against, of all teams, Florida.

Carter hit a dead-eye, fearless 3 to force the second overtime and swished a driving leaner to score the go-ahead bucket in that frame. Mack then sealed the deal with his own 3 with under a minute to play.

Those were just three of a highlight package of clutch shots those two and Seagears hit during the game.

“The guys really got after it this week in practice,’’ said Carter, who logged 46 of the 50 minutes. “Not just the starting five, but everyone, down to the walk-ons. We knew we were better than we were playing. We never put our heads down.’’

Now the Knights need to make sure their heads don’t get in the clouds.

Florida, meantime, has nothing to be ashamed of. The Gators have lost three games this season -- at Syracuse and at Ohio State, the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the nation -- and on the road here.

But how UF processes this one is what people will be looking at. Brad Beal finally looked like a freshman, with seven turnovers, and Patric Young disappeared until the overtime periods. Neither can afford too many repeat performances.

More crucially, Walker and Boynton need to be more dynamic and less enigmatic. They can be a duo you love for their fearlessness and detest for their carelessness, sometimes in the span of two possessions.

If Florida is to be as good as advertised, the Gators need to find a rhythm with one another and within the game.

“We didn’t maximize each other,’’ Donovan said. “There were too many guys standing around and watching, but I think this is something we have to go through, as much as you may not like it, to reach our full potential.’’

Another balanced effort, another Cuse win

December, 3, 2011

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Syracuse continues to flip a switch, find a catalyst and ultimately win.

The recipe worked in the NIT Season Tip-Off last week when the Orange beat back Virginia Tech and rallied against Stanford at Madison Square Garden.

And it was used again Friday night in a top-10 matchup against ninth-ranked Florida at the Carrier Dome in the featured game of the Big East/SEC Challenge.

The No. 3 Orange, now 8-0 for the fourth consecutive season, have the talent to win the Big East and compete for a Final Four berth in New Orleans. And so far, Syracuse has shown no reason why it can’t stay on that path.

Dion Waiters and C.J. Fair were needed late in New York, and they came through. Scoop Jardine was called up Friday night, and he answered, contributing 16 points, seven assists, four steals and four rebounds in his team's 72-68 victory over the Gators.

It was his 3-pointer with 3:53 to go that turned a five-point lead into eight. And it was his two made free throws with 16 seconds left that sealed the game. He also became a 1,000-point career scorer during the victory.

“If he didn’t get it, then we wouldn’t be talking about winning,’’ Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “He literally won the game. He made a couple of drives that were really hard that came off a screen.’’

[+] EnlargeScoop Jardine
Mark L. Baer/US Presswire"He literally won the game," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said of the 16-point, 7-assist, 4-steal, 4-rebound effort of Scoop Jardine.
The Orange length, exemplified by Fair and Fab Melo, will be a problem for teams throughout the season. The tandem helped get Florida’s Patric Young in foul trouble in the first half, and the Gators simply couldn’t get into the Syracuse zone and had to settle for jump shots and 3-pointers. That option didn’t work well in the first half as the Gators, who came in leading the country in 3-point shooting, went 3-of-14 from beyond the arc.

The long-range accuracy picked up in the second half thanks to Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton, but heralded freshman Brad Beal and Mike Rosario were off all night, combining for an 0-for-7 performance from 3.

Florida coach Billy Donovan said Beal’s 10 boards showed he could contribute in another fashion, but Rosario, who played only six minutes, wasn’t right emotionally and his defense was not up to Donovan’s standard. Donovan said earlier Friday that Rosario has had some issues dealing with the transition from being a star and go-to player at Rutgers to being a UF role player coming off the bench. Rosario has to work on his defense to ensure his playing time, Donovan said.

Clearly, the Gators need him to figure it out and for Beal to be an offensive option if they’re going to hang with a team such as Syracuse. It also wouldn't hurt to get forward Erik Murphy back. He's out with a knee injury, but it turned out to be a bone bruise rather than a torn meniscus that would have required surgery. That’s great news for the Gators, and Donovan said after the game that he’s hopeful Murphy can play Wednesday against Arizona.

The Gators, whose two losses have come on the road against top-5 teams (Ohio State was the other), are still trying to get healthy and discover an identity before the SEC begins and the chase of Kentucky commences.

The issues the Gators must fix -- rebounding, frontcourt scoring and depth off the bench -- aren’t a problem for Syracuse. The Orange have gotten inspired play from a refined and rebuilt Melo, and a more active Fair. The rotating contributions from Jardine, Waiters, Brandon Triche (who led SU with 20 points) and Kris Joseph (with a usually solid 14) make the Syracuse perimeter one of the deepest in the country.

Boeheim said he essentially has seven starters with Fair and Waiters coming off the bench. He didn’t use Rakeem Christmas or James Southerland much Friday night (a combined 13 minutes), but he does have them both as options.

The schedule is still decent with Conference USA contender Marshall coming in next. Boeheim said the Thundering Herd might be one of the most talented teams the Orange have faced to date. Going to improved NC State won’t be a walk on Dec. 17, either.

But this SU team shouldn’t fret. The length of the players, the ability to fluster teams with its zone, the effectiveness of its fast break and the experience shown when this team gets pushed late in the game are all positive signs for Syracuse in the early going.

Boeheim said the Orange easily could have lost two of the past four games. And that's true.

But they didn't.

As we get further into the season, fewer and fewer teams are going to be able to say that.

Rapid Reaction: Syracuse 72, Florida 68

December, 2, 2011
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- A quick look at the marquee matchup of the Big East/SEC Challenge, No. 3 Syracuse's 72-68 win over No. 9 Florida on Friday night at the Carrier Dome:

Star of the game: Scoop Jardine. Last week in New York, SU's senior guard was replaced at times by Dion Waiters for some energy and scoring off the bench. Against the Gators, Jardine hit a number of key shots, including a 3-pointer with just less than four minutes to give the Orange an eight-point lead. Jardine showed his experience by handling the Florida guards and coming up with timely shots. He finished with 16 points (6-10 FG), seven assists and four steals.

What worked for Syracuse: The Orange's length is always going to be a difference-maker. The Gators had issues with getting the ball inside and consistently finding Patric Young, who wasn't all that effective. What was effective was the Orange working their break, using it to change the momentum on several occassions. The Orange had the versatility to go to different scorers, but that also meant they lacked the hot hand on a consistent basis.

What worked for Florida: The Gators relied heavily on perimeter shooting. Mike Rosario was off early, but Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton picked up later. Had the 3s not fallen -- nine in total -- the Gators wouldn’t have been able to hang with Syracuse. The Gators will have to have more of an inside presence to be a factor nationally, though.

What didn’t work for the Orange: Syracuse still has to work on being patient. SU was shoot-happy at times, and that allowed Florida back in the game. The Orange also were just 3-of-17 (18 percent) from beyond the arc.

What didn’t work for the Gators: Taking care of the basketball was an issue for the Gators. Florida had way too many turnovers (20) on the road. The UF guards alone had 14 turnovers to just nine assists.

At the half: In the first half, Florida became too much of a perimeter-shooting team (made just three of 14) because the Gators couldn’t get much inside due to Young's foul trouble. UF also was careless with the basketball, committing 10 first-half turnovers and coming away with empty possessions. The Orange relied on their ability to create spurts with Fab Melo finishing inside or Brandon Triche and Kris Joseph making key shots to hold off any Florida run.

Give Florida credit: The scheduling wasn’t all done by coach Billy Donovan, but the Gators are playing three true nonconference road games for the first time in his tenure, already having gone to Ohio State and with a road game at Rutgers still to come. This is the first time the Gators have played two top-10 nonconference teams on the road under Donovan.

Odds and ends: Syracuse is 8-0 for the fourth straight season. ... Under Donovan, Florida is now 0-8 on the road against top-5 teams. ... Over the past three seasons, the Orange are 9-2 against teams ranked in the top 10. ... In each of their first six games of the season, the Gators managed to connect on at least 11 3-pointers. They didn't get there Friday, hitting on nine of 26 shots from beyond the arc.

What’s next: Florida hosts Arizona on Wednesday, and the hope is that forward Erik Murphy will be healthy. He suffered a bone bruise, not a torn meniscus. The fear was that Murphy could be out four to six weeks. Donovan said earlier Friday that Murphy would have greatly helped bust the Orange zone with his face-up ability. Meanwhile, next up for Syracuse is a Tuesday home game against potential C-USA contender Marshall, which already has one road win against the Big East (Cincinnati).

Buckeyes guards prove their value

November, 16, 2011
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Jared Sullinger gets most of the attention for No. 3 Ohio State, and rightfully so. He's a legitimate candidate, if not the leading one, for player of the year honors this season.

Yet on a night when Sullinger had a good but not great game, the Buckeyes still managed to beat No. 8 Florida 81-74 at home Tuesday. That's because one of Ohio State's few questions -- its perimeter play -- showed it deserves a little more attention.

If the Gators figured to have one advantage coming into Value City Arena, it was the backcourt led by veterans Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker and talented freshman Bradley Beal. They left Columbus singing their counterparts' praises.

[+] EnlargeAaron Craft
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesAaron Craft held Erving Walker to just 1-of-6 in 25 minutes of play.
"Their guards are just tremendous," Boynton said of Ohio State.

For the second straight year, Florida was bedeviled by point guard Aaron Craft, a sixth man who played starter's minutes last year. Craft dissected the Gators' full-court pressure defense in Gainesville last season in just his second college game. Billy Donovan decided not to press him nearly as much this time around, but Craft found different ways to control the action.

Ask Walker. One of Florida's top scorers, the senior suffered through a 1-for-6 shooting night with Craft guarding him. Craft had three steals and seemed like he had his hands in the middle of every play, diving for loose balls and causing deflections with nonstop hustle.

"I thought clearly he dominated the game from start to finish," Donovan said. "He was the whole key, to me, in the game. More importantly, he really did it defensively. I mean, he physically beat up our guards. And I'm not saying our guards got fouled. Wholly within the context of the rules of the game, he physically manhandled our guards."

If Craft makes up for the loss of defensive stopper David Lighty from last year's top-ranked team, then William Buford picks up some of the scoring slack left by former 3-point specialist Jon Diebler. Buford has always been able to fill it up -- he has averaged double-digits since his freshman year and should finish his career as one of the top scorers in Ohio State history.

But this year he also must serve as the only senior on a team that's starting four sophomores. So it made sense that he took over the game in the second half with Sullinger on the bench with foul trouble. When Florida center Patric Young got hopelessly mismatched on the 6-foot-6 guard, Buford tripped him up with a sick crossover dribble before draining a 3-pointer for a 62-46 lead, the largest of the game.

How important is Buford? In Ohio State's Sweet 16 loss to Kentucky last season, he shot just 2-for-16 and missed a 3-pointer at the end as the Buckeyes fell 62-60. That disappointment caused him to make some changes in the summer to vary his game.

"I'm just valuing every possession more now," he said. "Trying to be more aggressive and shoot more free throws."

Buford got to the line six times Tuesday night. Ohio State coach Thad Matta talked to Buford during a couple of timeouts about avoiding rushed shots, and the senior did that in the second half.

"He's the one guy who's been through these wars numerous times," Matta said. "So we need him to do that."

Florida led most of the first half, beating Ohio State with some dribble penetration and pick-and-pops while hitting six first-half 3s. Then Craft and Buford got more aggressive with their defense, and the Buckeyes closed out on shooters like Erik Murphy, who surprised them with three 3s in the first half. The Gators looked lost for about a six-minute scoreless stretch between the first and second halves, allowing Ohio State to pull ahead for a comfortable lead it would never relinquish.

"It seemed like it was going to be a long night early on," Craft said. "But we did a good job adjusting as a team."

The slimmed-down Sullinger took only eight shots and went long stretches without getting many touches, though he did go to the free-throw line and make all eight attempts. Florida's Young played him to a virtual standstill, though, scoring 14 points to Sullinger's 16 and grabbing six more rebounds than the All-American. Yet the Gators needed a flurry of 3s late just to make the final score close.

"That says a lot about us," Buford said, "because he's the best big man in the country."

The Buckeyes' guards proved they're pretty good, too.