College Basketball Nation: Mike Rosario


 
ARLINGTON, Texas -- At 11:46 p.m. CT on Friday at Cowboys Stadium, a group of Florida fans rose from their seats and began a rather sobering chant.

“Al-most mid-night!,” they yelled. “Al-most mid-night!”

Standing on the nearby court, Florida Gulf Coast’s players could only hang their heads. The clock was about to strike 12 on one of the better Cinderella stories in NCAA tournament history. The first No. 15 seed ever to advance to the Sweet 16 finally came off its cloud in a 62-50 loss to Florida.

“We made history,” guard Brett Comer said. “We did something that nobody in the nation thought we would do. I just hate that it has to end.”

The rest of America -- other than Florida fans, of course -- likely feels the same way.

The Eagles might have lost, but they hardly looked out of place or outclassed against third-seeded Florida, which advanced to the Elite Eight for the third consecutive season. The Gators (29-7) play Michigan at 2:20 p.m. ET Sunday for a chance to go to the Final Four.

FGCU came out on fire and led 15-4 at the 13:38 mark of the first half. And it was 24-14 after Christophe Varidel made three straight foul shots with 5:23 remaining. Florida, though, ended the first half on a 16-2 run and controlled the game after intermission.

[+] EnlargeSherwood Brown
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsSherwood Brown, the lone senior among FGCU's starters, buries his head after the Eagles' loss.
“When they started their run, we didn’t have the energy we did in the other two games,” Eagles forward Chase Fieler said. “It got us down. We weren’t playing with the same energy, the same fire we showed before.

“They’re a great team and they did a great job of slowing us down and making us run our plays from five feet deeper than we wanted to. They got us out of our game.”

Indeed, Florida’s overall defense and physicality in the paint ended up being too much for the Eagles, who had 20 turnovers and were outrebounded on the offensive glass 13-5.

“I thought we did a great job of putting pressure on those guys and making them feel uncomfortable,” Florida guard Mike Rosario said.

Rosario scored 15 points while backcourt mate Scottie Wilbekin added 13. Three FGCU players (Sherwood Brown, Fieler and Varidel) all scored in double figures for a team that shot 45.5 percent from the field.

“I think that, for whatever reason, they felt like the two teams they played before us (No. 2 seed Georgetown and No. 7 San Diego State) disrespected them,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “I don’t know if that’s true or not. But we certainly went into the game with a lot of respect for them.”

Brown is the only senior in the Eagles’ starting lineup, so there’s a good chance we haven’t heard the last of Florida Gulf Coast (26-11), which might have been under-seeded at No. 15. Coach Andy Enfield’s squad beat eventual ACC champion Miami during nonconference play.

“We learned that we can play with anyone in the nation,” Comer said. “We learned that we can literally do anything that we put our minds to if we play with the right energy.

“We did some things here that will never be forgotten.”

 
ARLINGTON, Texas -- A quick look at Florida's 62-50 victory over Florida Gulf Coast in a South Regional semifinal Friday at Cowboys Stadium:

Overview: FGCU's moment in the national spotlight is over. At least for this season. The first No. 15 seed in history to advance to the Sweet 16 saw its magical NCAA tournament run end at the hands of the third-seeded Gators.

The Eagles (26-11) committed 20 turnovers against Florida's menacing defense and never could respond after the Gators closed the first half on a 16-2 run. Michael Frazier II made back-to-back 3-pointers to ignite Florida's march, which turned a 24-14 deficit into a 30-26 lead.

Florida (29-7) surged ahead by as many as 13 points in the second half, but Andy Enfield's FGCU team kept the score respectable and never completely went away.

The Gators advanced to play Michigan in the South Regional final at 2:20 p.m. ET Sunday at Cowboys Stadium. This will mark the third consecutive season Billy Donovan's squad has appeared in the Elite Eight. Florida has not advanced to the Final Four since 2007.

Key player: Mike Rosario scored 15 points for Florida and Scottie Wilbekin added 13. Sherwood Brown (14 points), Chase Fieler (12) and Christophe Varidel (10) tallied double figures for Florida Gulf Coast.

Key stat(s): Florida forced 20 turnovers and won the battle of the offensive boards, 13-5.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Leading scorer Sherwood Brown was a walk-on. Guard Bernard Thompson’s awkward shot scared most schools away. Dunking phenom Eddie Murray scored 11 points in an entire season two years ago.

Point guard Brett Comer led the Atlantic Sun Conference in assists this season. Not bad for a guy who had no idea how to play the position when he arrived in college.

These are the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles, the first No. 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16 -- and the team you’ll be rooting for Friday evening.

Unless you’re a Florida fan, of course.

The third-seeded Gators (28-7) will try to avoid becoming FGCU’s latest upset victim when the teams square off in the South Regional semifinals at Cowboys Stadium. Andy Enfield’s squad opened NCAA tournament play by defeating 2-seed Georgetown and 7-seed San Diego State.

“We know the nation is behind us,” Murray said. “Everybody loves a Cinderella.”

Especially this Cinderella, with its motley crew of a roster filled with basketball vagabonds and unlikely success stories. The Eagles’ personalities make them easy to root for -- and their loose, high-flying, slam-dunking style of play has made them the must-watch team of the tournament.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Livingston
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsLeonard Livingston and FGCU are enjoying the ride to the Sweet 16, where No. 3 Florida is next.
“Our main goal is to have fun,” Comer said. “You’ll see Sherwood Brown with some kiss-blowing, some flexing. You’ll see Christophe Varidel do a heel click after a 3. It’s just the way we are.”

And that’s fine with Enfield.

“It’s the personality of our players and our team and our culture,” he said. “What you’re seeing is genuine. They enjoy being here. They enjoy playing the game of basketball.”

The Eagles (26-10) have certainly earned the respect of their opponent.

“It’s tremendous what they’ve done,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “It’s been a great ride for them. NCAA tournament-history-wise, this has never happened. It’s a state-of-the-art, new thing.”

And the Florida Gulf Coast campus is relishing it.

When forward Chase Fieler walked into the bookstore on the school's Fort Myers campus this week, he said the place was so packed he could hardly move.

“You can’t really describe the atmosphere on campus,” he said. “It’s just been a busy week, with the attention and the media being around. It’s exciting.

“At the first news conferences [last week], people weren’t really sure what questions to ask us. They looked at us with blank stares. Now they’re asking us how we’re preparing for a No. 3 team, or they have questions for us personally. No matter what happens from here on out, this is something we’ll never forget.”

WHOM TO WATCH

Florida’s Erik Murphy, Patric Young, Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario each average between 10.3 and 12.8 points per game. Guard Scottie Wilbekin is the Gators’ defensive specialist. Florida Gulf Coast’s Eddie Murray and Chase Fieler have produced some of the NCAA tournament’s best dunks thus far.

WHAT TO WATCH

Florida Gulf Coast is the first 15-seed to advance to the Sweet 16, so it’d obviously be a huge feat if the Eagles ended up in the Elite Eight. Florida has lost in the Elite Eight each of the past two seasons.

STAT TO WATCH

Billy Donovan’s Gators have been brutal in close contests this season. Florida is 0-6 in games decided by single digits.

AUSTIN, Texas -- Mike Rosario, he of the broken finger, bum ankle, tender back, nagging hip pointer and bad first NCAA tournament game, decided to put the hurt on someone else Sunday.

And, yes, there were tears involved. That's usually the case at this one-and-done point of the season. But third-seeded Florida and Rosario were feeling no pain as they wide-tooth grinned their way into the Sweet 16 after a 78-64 win over No. 11 seed Minnesota in the Frank Erwin Center.

Florida, which is in its third straight Sweet 16 for the first time in school history, will play 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast in Arlington, Texas, on Friday.

"I told myself, 'I can't let my guys down,'" Rosario said. "I was beating myself up that I didn't bring the full Mike Rosario in the first game and I felt like had to come out the second game."

[+] EnlargeMike Rosario
Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY SportsAfter struggling in Florida's NCAA tournament opener, senior Mike Rosario shined against Minnesota.
He came out and stayed out. The senior guard scored 25 points on 8-of-12 shooting, with 17 of those points coming in the first half as Florida staked itself to a 23-point lead over the Gophers.

"When you shoot 6-of-9 [from behind the arc], even if you are by yourself that is pretty impressive," Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. "Those were really tough shots."

It wouldn't be Rosario if they weren't. He is a player more apt to struggle down the rocky road than stroll down the smooth path. A transfer from Rutgers, Rosario has been a player and personality who has not exactly been at odds with Florida coach Billy Donovan in his Florida career but has not exactly been on the same wavelength, either. As a junior Donovan was pushing him through the injuries, letting him know what it meant to be a big-time player every night in a big-time program. And even in this, Rosario's senior season, Donovan has twice limited his minutes in the final weeks because of Rosario's failure to do the lithe, and essential, things on the court.

"There are times with Mike when he can come not focused and not be accountable and not be responsible in terms of doing the things he needs to do," Donovan said. "The reason our relationship is sometimes rocky is that I have held him to a higher standard."

Donovan, and everyone else, held Rosario in high esteem Sunday. Really there was no other place to put him. Even after the 17-point first half, Rosario, who has what is surely an infuriating ability to check out, stayed focused and nailed a 3-pointer that quelled a Minnesota run midway through the second half.

"I felt that every time I have an open look at it I'm going to take it," Rosario said. "And they were falling tonight."

That wasn't the case against Northwestern State on Friday. Rosario failed to box out on a play and because of that found himself on the bench for the majority of the game. Ditto with a few weeks ago against Kentucky when his carelessness pushed Donovan to the brink and Rosario right back to the bench.

But Rosario doesn't go to the bench to sulk.

"Mike will assume responsibility," Donovan said. "He is not a finger pointer and is not blaming other people. The best thing about Mike is that Mike lets me coach him. I am on him all the time a lot because I want him to be the best he can be on and off the floor."

Sunday Rosario was just that.
AUSTIN, Texas -- The Minnesota Golden Gophers couldn't handle the pressure of the NCAA tournament, thanks in large part to the pressure applied by the Florida Gators as third-seeded Florida extended its defense and, as a direct result, its run in the NCAAs with a 78-64 win over the No. 11 Gophers at the Erwin Center Sunday.

Overview: Florida built a 23-point first-half lead behind its defense and prolific shooting, weathered a flurry of 3-pointers from Minnesota's Andre Hollins, and moved into the next round. The Gators were led by guard Mike Rosario (25 points) and forward Erik Murphy (15). That pair combined to score 24 of Florida's first 30 points and hit eight of their first nine shots. Hollins, who had 25 points, made a run midway through the second half to help the Gophers get within single digits a couple of times. But Florida and Rosario had the answer each and every time.

Turning point: Florida opted for a full-court defense early in the game and was able to not only fluster Minnesota's offense but also kick-start its own scorers. The Gators hit their first four shots and didn't cool off much from there as they went on to shoot 65 percent in the first half. Murphy and Rosario proved to be a prolific duo from beyond the arc as they combined to hit 10 of 14 3-pointers in the first half.

Key player: Rosario, who was benched during the Northwestern State game Friday because of a failure to block out, made sure he wouldn't be taken off the floor Sunday. The guard, who has averaged 12.2 points, had a game-high 17 in the first half on 71 percent shooting. He was a 44 percent shooter coming into the game.

Key stat: Minnesota had been dominating teams on the boards and finished the Big Ten season tied for first in rebounding margin with a 7.8 differential. Against Florida, the Gophers were unable to consistently get to the glass. The Gators had a 16-8 rebound margin in the first half. The Gators limited the Gophers to no second chance points while Florida had six in the first 20 minutes.

Next up: Florida advances to play the winner of the San Diego State-Florida Gulf Coast game in Arlington, Texas, on Friday.

Florida's Prather steps in, steps up

February, 12, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Casey Prather left the Florida locker room after the Gators’ 69-52 victory over Kentucky with a small red bump on his lower lip near the corner of his mouth.

That wasn’t a lot of damage for the 6-foot-6 swingman despite an evening of playing inside against the nation’s top shot-blocker and a 7-footer. The Gators hope he can hold up that well throughout the rest of the regular season.

That’s pretty much the only way UF can weather the loss of Will Yeguete and put itself in position to make another deep NCAA tournament run.

[+] EnlargeFlorida's Casey Prather
AP Photo/Phil SandlinCasey Prather scored 12 points and took three charges for the Gators.
"It [stepping in for Yeguete] wasn’t really in the back of my mind," Prather said after scoring 12 points, grabbing three rebounds, blocking two shots, and dishing out two assists. "I would just say I was trying to give the team a big boost, big energy boost, and so I was just glad to help the team out any way I could."

The 6-7 Yeguete -- the Gators’ second-leading rebounder, best post defender, and the key to UF’s full-court press -- underwent surgery last Friday to clean out loose bodies in his right knee. Replacing part of Yeguete’s production fell to Prather, and he has embraced the challenge. He had 12 points and five rebounds in the Gators’ rout of Mississippi State last Saturday, but the Bulldogs sit in the SEC’s cellar and have won just seven games. It was going to be a much bigger task to do it against Kentucky and 6-10 Nerlens Noel, the nation’s leading shot-blocker (4.5 per game), and 7-foot center Willie Cauley-Stein.

Prather not only held his own, he drew three charges and had a big first half to help the Gators rally from a slow start. With Erik Murphy on the bench for much of the first half with two fouls, Prather scored eight points -- two of which came on a dunk in front of Cauley-Stein.

"It's just a matter of confidence with that guy," UF center Patric Young said. "Because, I know he can do that day in and day out. He's just really athletic with really active hands. It was a night where he could show what he can do."

Prather has had limited opportunities to do that in his three seasons. He had trouble getting off the bench because he turned the ball over too much and just didn’t fit in the backcourt. He also has battled injuries throughout his career, including two concussions and a sprained ankle this season. He has played well in spurts -- he had 14 points in an NCAA tournament victory over Virginia last season -- but struggled with consistency.

Florida coach Billy Donovan, though, challenged Prather after Yeguete’s injury, and so far he has responded the way Donovan wanted.

And Prather relishes the task.

"I kind of like the challenge because I’m not as strong as them, or tall as them [inside], so I just take the challenge and try to use my quickness to my advantage," he said. "I like being able to just help the team. Coach challenged me so I had to just take it on to myself as a challenge."

The key will be Prather duplicating what he did against Kentucky -- not necessarily the points, but his defensive effort and work on the boards -- the rest of the regular season, beginning with Saturday’s game at Auburn. The hope is Yeguete will be able to return for the SEC tournament March 13-17.

After the past two games, he’s got his teammates’ confidence.

"I commend Casey a lot because he had a lot of bumpy roads since he’s been here and I feel like this is his opportunity to step up and he’s taking advantage of that," guard Mike Rosario said. "And I commend him because he never lost sight of getting better every day. And even though he went through his little injuries and he missed a couple games, he bounced back for us, especially when we needed him to. That shows a lot about his character and how much he cares about the team"


GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- A quick look at No. 7 Florida’s 69-52 victory over No. 25 Kentucky on Tuesday night at the O’Connell Center:

Overview: Florida got off to a slow start, but quickly recovered and rolled past Kentucky to snap a five-game losing streak to the Wildcats -- and secure first place in the Southeastern Conference at the same time.

UF missed its first five shots, fell behind 4-0, and Patric Young wen to the bench with an early foul in the game’s first three minutes. An 8-0 run -- started by an Erik Murphy 3-pointer -- erased that deficit and the Gators (20-3, 10-1 SEC) never trailed.

The 17-point margin is tied for the second-biggest margin of victory for Florida in the series. Five UF players scored in double figures.

Florida now has a two-game lead over Kentucky (17-7, 8-3) in the SEC standings.

Turning point: Kentucky was in position to cut Florida’s lead to less than 10 points with eight minutes remaining in the game, but an injury to Wildcats forward Nerlens Noel sapped UK’s momentum. Noel, who had posted double-doubles in his last previous games, smashed his knee on the basketball support after blocking Mike Rosario’s attempted layup. Florida was leading 57-45 at the time of Noel’s injury. Noel finished with eight points and six rebounds.

Key player: Florida G/F Casey Prather gave the Gators great minutes off the bench, especially in the first half. The 6-foot-6 Prather has been pressed into playing power forward because of the loss of Will Yeguete, and he responded with 8 points, 1 rebound, 1 block and 1 assist in the first 20 minutes. He also drew a pair of charges.

Key stat: As usual, the Gators feasted on turnovers. UF scored 20 points off 17 Kentucky turnovers.

Miscellaneous: UF coach Billy Donovan is now 2-7 against Kentucky under John Calipari. … The 25 points Kentucky scored in the first half was tied for the fewest the Wildcats have scored in a first half this season. … Florida improved to 12-0 at home this season.

Next game: Florida plays at Auburn on Saturday; Kentucky plays at Tennessee the same day.

Video: Florida 83, Mississippi State 58

February, 9, 2013
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Mike Rosario scored 18 points to lead five Gators in double figures as No. 2 Florida bounced back from its first SEC loss to beat Mississippi State 83-58.

Video: Florida 68, Texas A&M 47

January, 17, 2013
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Erik Murphy, Patric Young and Mike Rosario combined for 53 points as No. 10 Florida improved to 13-2 with a 68-47 victory at Texas A&M.

Conference Power Rankings: SEC

January, 11, 2013
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Just when we thought we understood the enigma known as the SEC -- just when I’d felt comfortable with my weekly rankings -- SEC play began. And the madness continued. We’ll get through this together.

1. Florida -- The Gators have the most complete team in the SEC right now. They opened up SEC play with a 33-point win against Georgia on Wednesday night. They’re balanced, experienced and talented. Few teams in this league can say that. Their losses (Arizona, Kansas State) weren’t bad losses. And I still think that this team is growing. Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario and Patric Young anchor Florida’s core, but they’re also assisted by talented reserves such as Will Yeguete.

2. Missouri -- The Tigers were more efficient in their Tuesday victory against Alabama than they were in a nail-biter against Bucknell over the weekend. But they lost Laurence Bowers to a knee injury in that game. That’s clearly a concern as they prepare for an Ole Miss team that is more than capable of pulling off the upset, especially at home. I still think that the Tigers rely on Phil Pressey too much, and that’s going to cost them at times this season, possibly as soon as Saturday when they face the Rebels without Bowers.

3. Ole Miss -- The Rebels had such a poor nonconference strength of schedule (No. 241 per ESPN.com’s RPI rankings) that their impressive stats (top 40 in Ken Pomeroy’s offensive and defensive efficiency ratings) have been difficult to trust. But Ole Miss opened up SEC play with a dominant win at Tennessee. No, the Vols aren’t the crème de la crème of the conference. But they’re definitely better than Mississippi Valley State and East Tennessee State, two teams the Rebels faced during their nonconference slate.

4. Kentucky -- As I watched the Wildcats on Thursday night, I realized that I’d given the hype more credit than it deserved. Yes, I still believe Kentucky could be the best team in the conference by the end of the season. But what evidence do I really have to assume that the Wildcats will come anywhere close to their potential? They blew a 47-31 lead at Vanderbilt, a team that lost to Marist by 17 points. So I’m still waiting for Kentucky to prove that it’s more than a bunch of NBA prospects that can’t play together.

5. Tennessee -- Tennessee’s offense has been a concern all season. But in its past two games, its defense has been the issue. The Vols gave up 85 points to Memphis and 92 points to Ole Miss in back-to-back losses. I still think Tennessee is one of those squads that could give any team in the conference trouble. But the Vols haven’t put together a run that has showcased their potential. This pattern will lead to an average finish in the SEC if Cuonzo Martin can’t find a way to reverse it.

6. Auburn –- So, I’m surprised, too. But I think Auburn deserves a slot in the top half of the league. Why not? Tony Barbee’s program knocked off LSU in its SEC opener Wednesday night, even though leading scorer Frankie Sullivan (17.2 ppg) fouled out after scoring 10 points. Junior Allen Payne has played well during a stretch that’s featured five wins in seven games (the Tigers suffered a two-point loss at Illinois on Dec. 29).

7. Texas A&MElston Turner (15.5 ppg) and Co. have won three in a row since a 53-51 home loss to … Southern on Dec. 22. The Aggies crushed Arkansas 69-51 in their SEC opener Wednesday night. So perhaps that loss to Southern won’t define their season. The Aggies have held their opponents to 58.6 ppg, second in the conference. But like so many teams in this league, they amassed that sexy stat against a lukewarm nonconference slate. Their dominance Wednesday night, however, suggests that they might be one of the best average teams in the conference. A road win against Kentucky on Saturday would send a message to the league.

8. Alabama -- I was searching for signs of progress on Tuesday night. I mean, Bama has to do something. Fast. And the Crimson Tide had their chance in Columbia. The team was down 40-36 at halftime. And then, Bama arrived. Anthony Grant’s squad was outscored 44-32 in the second half. Alabama finished with 16 turnovers and shot 5-for-17 from the 3-point line. This isn’t an issue with injuries. This is just a team that apparently can’t complete games. They’re talented enough to play with any team in the conference in stretches. Winning, however, is still a problem.

9. LSU -- Johnny Jones’ squad didn’t commence SEC play with a bang. Instead, the Tigers lost on the road to Auburn. They didn’t accrue any meaningful wins during a weak nonconference slate. So I never believed the 9-2 record that they took into that game. I figured if they couldn’t handle the ball against McNeese State (19 turnovers) and Houston Baptist (15 turnovers), then they’d probably have trouble in the SEC. Their 12 turnovers in the Auburn loss were costly. They missed 6 of 10 free throws. LSU’s inflated nonconference record might have been debunked in the SEC opener.

10. Arkansas -- The Razorbacks average 80.6 ppg, ranked 11th nationally. That offense is their only ticket to any respectable finish in the SEC. BJ Young and Marshawn Powell average 31.4 ppg for Mike Anderson. So how did Arkansas end up with 51 points at Texas A&M? Well, Powell’s foul trouble and zero points certainly didn’t help. This squad had won five in a row against a lackluster assembly of nonconference opponents entering the game. Meaningless. They barely cracked 50 points against a midlevel SEC squad. It’s not the end of the world for the Razorbacks. But Anderson has to figure out what’s up with Powell (17 points combined in past three games) going forward.

11. Mississippi State -- Speaking of effort, how about the Bulldogs winning their SEC opener against South Carolina 56-54? After the win, Mississippi State head coach Rick Ray tweeted, “Thank you to the Bulldog fan base for all of the congratulatory tweets. I appreciate it. Prepping for Georgia now. Grindin' for my State!” He should be pumped for his program, which has struggled all season. The Bulldogs have won three of four.

12. Vanderbilt -- Kudos to Kevin Stallings’ squad for nearly knocking off Kentucky at home Thursday night. The Commodores overcame a 16-point deficit and put themselves in a position to pull off the upset. But they fell short. Now, it should be noted that the finish was corrupted by an obvious shot-clock violation on a Nerlens Noel bucket with 17.3 seconds to go. But the true moral of the story is that you should always avoid a 16-point deficit when possible. Vandy’s effort in the second half was commendable. But the SEC standings don’t have an “effort” column.

13. South Carolina -- Frank Martin, this is your team. The Gamecocks, like most of the league, grabbed 10 nonconference wins against a poor schedule. So they entered SEC play as a mystery. They hadn’t proven anything. What did they do in their first conference test? They committed 24 turnovers. The Gamecocks have been fumbling all season against lesser programs. And that weakness affected the outcome in their conference opener. Check the box scores. Turnovers have plagued this program all season. And it will be its biggest issue in SEC play.

14. Georgia -- Mark Fox has a really, really good player named Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (17.0 ppg). He’s a star. But he doesn’t have much to put around him. So the Bulldogs are averaging just 59.4 ppg, No. 321 in Division I. In their 33-point loss to Florida on Wednesday night, Caldwell-Pope (11 points) was the only player who cracked double figures. Now, the loss did stop a four-game winning streak. But it’s just difficult to see how Fox’s program will avoid the league’s basement if it expects one player to carry the load every night.

Weekend Watch: Florida-Arizona preview

December, 14, 2012
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Mark Lyons and Kenny BoyntonUSA TODAY Sports, Icon SMIDon't be surprised to see Kenny Boynton, left, and Mark Lyons take crucial shots on Saturday night.
Editor's note: Each Friday morning, Jay Bilas will break down the weekend's top game. This week it’s No. 5 Florida (7-0) at No. 8 Arizona (7-0) at 10 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN.

Gators outlook: The difference for Florida this season is defense. Last season, UF gave up 40 percent shooting from 3-point range and got hurt by being overextended. This season, the Gators are staying home more and packing it in. Instead of playing out in passing lanes and denying, they are playing off more, not playing as far up the line, and showing their chests to the ball and building a wall to protect the lane and the rim. That has meant fewer help rotations and better defensive rebounding, limiting opponents to one challenged shot (outrebounding opponents by 10.7 per game). The results are obvious. Florida has a top-five defense, and has done it with both man-to-man and zone. The Gators still press, speed the game and make you play at a speed you don’t practice. And they have done a great job of not just forcing turnovers, but converting off turnovers. Florida has scored more than twice as many points off turnovers as its opponents (21.3 to 9.9).

On the offensive end, UF is a ball-screen team that can really stretch out a defense, and really attacks and gets to the free throw line. Florida has made more free throws than its opponents have attempted. Four Gators average between 14.4 points and 10.3 points per game. This is a team that scored 74 points against Wisconsin, a team that gave up only 53 points per game last season, and blasted Marquette and Florida State.

Florida has good, experienced guards in Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario and Scottie Wilbekin, a strong presence in Patric Young (an interior player who, when he keeps it simple, can be really effective), and an elite and versatile defender in Will Yeguete, who can defend multiple spots, get offensive rebounds and affect the game without scoring.

Wildcats outlook: Last season, Arizona was not a great shooting team, but could not compensate for it with second-shot opportunities or post-ups because Sean Miller did not have the personnel. This season, he has the personnel. The Wildcats have great size up front and very good depth. (But don’t listen to those who suggest that having big-guy depth gives you extra fouls to waste, which is silly. You don’t waste fouls, which puts your opponent at the free throw line for common fouls and leads to losses.) With freshmen Kaleb Tarczewski and Grant Jerrett, Miller has two big men who can affect the game. Tarczewski is a traditional low-post banger who seeks out contact and can score around the goal, and is the team's top rebounder. Jerrett is a long-armed big man who can step away and knock in an open 3-point shot.

Arizona has good guards, good size and good balance. Another frontcourt player to watch is Brandon Ashley, a freshman who has a terrific understanding of the game, can really hit the glass and can go off the bounce. Ashley has been up and down, but he put up 20 points and 10 rebounds against Long Beach State, and just had nine points and six rebounds at Clemson. With Xavier transfer Mark Lyons, Miller has an experienced, big-game guard who is unafraid of anything but takes some criticism for being loose with the ball. Lyons has more turnovers than assists, but he is hardly a turnover machine. He can attack pressure and score or get fouled, and that will be an asset against Florida.

Nick Johnson is leading the Wildcats in scoring, assists and steals, and is a tremendous athlete with explosiveness, transition ability and the ability to defend. Johnson can shoot it and can get to the rim and finish. He has been the Wildcats’ best player in the first month and a half. A key player against Florida will be Solomon Hill, a versatile and skilled wing who can see the floor and handle the ball. He will be vital in the press offense. Hill has not shot the ball well this season and is coming off a 2-for-16 night at Clemson, but he is UA’s most versatile and most valuable player.

Gators go-to: Kenny Boynton. An outstanding defender who has been doing a very good job getting into the lane and getting to the free throw line, Boynton is one of the best senior guards in the country. He is averaging 14.4 points and 4.1 rebounds per game, and is shooting 90 percent from the free throw line. He can get hot in a hurry and is rarely rattled. Boynton needs to play well for Florida to win on the road.

Wildcats wonder: Lyons. He is an attack guard who can really score and is willing to take on any challenge. Lyons is averaging 13 points per game, yet is third on the team in shots taken, and is coming off a 20-point game against Clemson. Against the full-court pressure of Florida, expect Lyons to be on the attack and to look to score against pressure.

Gators X-factor: Erik Murphy. The most impressive individual performance I have seen all season was Murphy’s 24-point perfect game against Wisconsin in which he did not miss a single shot. Murphy can really shoot it and is a terrific pick-and-pop big man. He is skilled and can score in the post or step away. He will provide a tough matchup for any Arizona big man, but I expect Hill to take him on, which will be a great matchup. Hill is an underrated defender, and he was terrific this summer at the Nike Skills Academies.

Wildcats X-factor: Kevin Parrom. This strong senior wing has been through a lot in his career and has come through stronger. He originally signed with Xavier, was the victim of a gunshot wound in his own home in New York, yet has been an efficient offensive player who excels in transition, can drive the ball, hit open 3s and find the open man. Parrom also is a willing defender. In a high-level game with young teammates, his toughness and ability can make a big difference.

Key stats: Three-point field goal defense and points off turnovers. Florida feeds off turnovers and can turn a mistake or a bad shot into a layup or opportunistic 3 on the other end. And the Gators are not shy about pulling the trigger on a 3 in transition. The Wildcats cannot turn the ball over and expect to win. Turnovers take away a shot opportunity but also take away a chance for an offensive rebound or foul while putting your defense at a disadvantage. Arizona does not defend the 3-point line as well as the rim, and Florida will involve the young big men in ball screens high and flat and on the sides. How the Cats guard those screens and rotate will be a key factor in the game.

Who wins: Arizona has to get out in front of Florida early and stay in front. The Gators have trailed only twice this season and have not trailed a single second after the first five minutes of any game. This game will be about making decisions and completing plays. The Wildcats have to guard ball screens with a plan, handle pressure in full-court situations, and then handle both man and zone with both aggressiveness and patience. Florida is the better team, but this is the toughest environment the Gators have faced this season. I favor the Gators in this one, but not by much. Florida wins 76-72.
Editor's note: ESPN.com’s Summer Shootaround series catches up on the offseason storylines for each conference. For more on the SEC, click here.

Five freshmen to watch in the league ...

Nerlens Noel, Kentucky: He is the No. 1-ranked recruit in the country, the early favorite for 2013's No. 1 overall NBA draft pick, and the centerpiece of another massive talent haul for coach John Calipari and the Wildcats. He is purportedly one of the best shot-blockers we've seen enter the college stage in years -- including predecessor Anthony Davis. If Noel is even 75 percent as good as that, the Wildcats will be a defensive force yet again.

Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin, Kentucky: I didn't want to make this entire list Kentucky's recruiting class, nor did I want to exclude Poythress and Goodwin, both of whom are worthy of your attention next season. Poythress will bring athleticism and rim-attacking rebounding from the wing. Goodwin is a polished, multifaceted scorer. Both will start, and both will be crucial to Calipari from the outset.

Devonta Pollard, Alabama: The No. 28-ranked player in the Class of 2012, Pollard has drawn rave reviews from scouts, and comparisons to Travis Outlaw, for his end-to-end athletic ability. He'll have to round out his offensive game, but he'll be a tremendous cog in Anthony Grant's defense-first system.

Braxton Ogbueze, Florida: Four-year guard Erving Walker graduated, and conveniently enough, Florida coach Billy Donovan has the No. 7-ranked point guard in the 2012 class signed up to fill the spot. Ogbueze could see starter's minutes right away, or he could fill in behind Mike Rosario, Kenny Boynton and Scottie Wilbekin. Either way, the Gators' backcourt is in fine shape.

Jordan Price, Auburn: After a rather brutal 15-16 season, Auburn coach Tony Barbee desperately needed an infusion of talent. Price and forward Shaquille Johnson, both top-100 players, will help immediately.


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 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.

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