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Monday, March 8, 2004
Sleep walking to Dance

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

Christian Drejer was hailed as the type of player who could take a team deep into March. It never happened at Florida. In fact, the Great Dane's departure actually brought Florida together this month.

Sunday's 20-point loss at Rupp Arena aside, the Gators have adjusted to life without their Danish defector.

But the question remains: Can the Gators get on a roll at the right time and once again matter in March ... both in the SEC tournament and NCAAs? Florida hasn't seen the second week of the NCAA Tournament since reaching the 2000 national championship game. And only once in the last eight SEC tourneys have the Gators gotten to the semifinals (2001).

Florida had won four straight games since Drejer's decision to turn professional. Kentucky ended the Gators' run emphatically, 82-62. But the loss didn't seem to deter the Gators from believing they could be an SEC "sleeper" in what most feel is a two-team conference tournament.

Winning three straight in Atlanta this week seems like a reach, considering the Gators beat one, maybe two, NCAA teams (South Carolina and Georgia) during the post-Drejer success. But while wins at Ole Miss and Arkansas, as well as over Georgia, don't make up for the debacle at Kentucky -- where the young Gators' backcourt was exposed by UK's seniors and Rupp's environment -- Florida expects to be one of the semifinalists as one of only three teams with a SEC record over .500.

The Gators, seeded No. 2 out of the East Division behind UK, play the winner of Tennessee-Alabama in the quarterfinals. The Gators split with Tennessee and beat Alabama. But all three games came with Drejer when Florida was a different team with their most versatile player.

Matt Walsh
Florida was knocked down by Kentucky on Sunday, but closed the regular season strong without Christian Drejer.

But while the 6-foot-9 Drejer provided Florida with a player who could handle the ball (4.0 apg), as well as 10.2 points a game, the Gators lacked overall chemistry and direction. The Kentucky loss aside, the Gators are a more cohesive group, which may or may not translate into a few more wins this week in Atlanta.

If Florida can get past the quarterfinals, it'll likely meet Mississippi State in the semifinals. The Gators don't seem to match up well against the Bulldogs, but ...

"We've pulled closer as a team since Christian Drejer decided to leave the team," Donovan said Saturday before the Kentucky loss. "Our guys have hung together through the adversity. Christian took pressure off of Anthony Roberson because he didn't have to handle the ball as much. We've had to simplify things since the offense ran through Christian and we don't have another guy like that to take his place."

When Drejer abandoned his teammates last month to play in Barcelona, the Gators were understandably ticked off. But they were also determined to prove that he made a selfish move. Donovan said the players weren't about to let Drejer's departure ruin what Florida had worked so hard to achieve over 20 games. They didn't mope. If anything, they closed the book on Drejer and turned the page on their season.

Both Roberson and Matt Walsh said Sunday that this team is closer. Both believe Florida can do what is expected each season, which is challenge for the SEC title and make a deep NCAA run. Winning four straight proves to at least the Gators that they are capable of beating anyone in the SEC and beyond.

Roberson (17.3 ppg) had two of his most productive games in the days after Drejer's exit, scoring 24 points in both wins over Ole Miss and South Carolina. He also had 14 assists in a two-game stretch against South Carolina and at Arkansas.

Meanwhile, Walsh is still committing too many turnovers. He had seven against UK and five in the win over Georgia. But Roberson must still get him the ball if Florida is to win. Walsh (16.3 ppg) has scored 20 or more points in five of nine games. The third option is up-and-down David Lee inside, who had 17 against Kentucky and 18 at Arkansas, but no more than 11 in any game since a season-high 24 at Alabama back on Jan. 27.

The Gators, who were headed the wrong way at 14-8 in mid-February, have certainly turned things around. Whether or not they can be a factor this week remains to be seen. But Florida won the games necessary to make Championship Week about conference pride and not a NCAA bid.

The same can't be said for a pair of SEC teams who've hovered around the bubble all season. Georgia must beat Auburn in the first round and Kentucky -- for a third time this season -- in the quarterfinals, just to earn an NCAA bid. LSU, losers of five of six and limping into the SEC tourney without Jaime Lloreda, should meet South Carolina in the quarterfinals on Friday where the loser could be the odd-team out come Selection Sunday.

Alabama shouldn't have to beat Tennessee to get into the field, but it would help. Beating Florida in the quarters would be a bonus. Vanderbilt has to beat Ole Miss before a matchup with Mississippi State to feel secure about a berth.

As for the rest of Championship Week, here are the story lines to watch as conference tournaments tip off Wednesday.

Atlantic Ten

Sleeper: Richmond
The Spiders are also a bubble team after nonconference wins at Kansas and Colorado this season. But Richmond has a realistic shot to also get to the final and possibly challenge Saint Joseph's for the A-10's automatic bid. The opening round game against Fordham should be a walk. The Spiders then get Temple in the quarterfinals, a team they beat earlier in the season in Philadelphia. If the Spiders get past the Owls, beating the host Flyers will likely be required in the semifinals. But Richmond is one of the toughest road teams in the league, losing by just five in Dayton earlier this season.

Bubble: Dayton
In something of a role reversal, Dayton is a team that can't afford to pull a BU and lose in first round of its conference tournament on its home court and expect kind words from the committee. As the top seed out of the West Division, Dayton plays the winner of UMass-Duquesne, not exactly tough stuff for a home team. So, losing that game would be unacceptable. Xavier's fleeting hopes rest on a run that would include beating St. Bonaventure, Saint Joseph's and likely George Washington and/or Rhode Island to get to the final.

ACC

Sleeper: Maryland
The Terps head to Greensboro, N.C., off the best week of their season, winning at N.C. State and beating Virginia in a potential bubble-busting matchup Sunday. Beating the Cavs all but sealed a bid to the NCAAs. Maryland's last loss was at home to Wake Forest and guess who the Terps drew in Friday's quarterfinals? Yep, the Deacs (ESPN2, 9 ET) The Terps will have plenty of incentive and if they can upset Wake, the semifinal matchup would likely be against NC State. See a pattern here? Once in the title game, if they manage to win twice, it won't matter who the foe is, the young Terps will be on a roll and playing with plenty of confidence.

Bubble: Virginia, Florida State
It's hard to fathom a team in the ACC play-in game making the NCAA Tournament. But that's the predicament facing Virginia and shows how deep the ACC is this season. The Cavaliers must beat Clemson and then take out Duke to have any shot to dance. If they do beat Duke, well hope is certainly restored, regardless of a win over North Carolina or Georgia Tech in the semifinals. Florida State, meanwhile, must beat NC State to sleep easier -- not to mention end a four-game losing streak. If the Seminoles (18-12) do beat the Wolfpack, it'll show they can win at least on a neutral court. The tournament isn't played in true road games, so winning neutral court games can carry just as much weight at this time of the season.

Big East

Sleeper: Boston College
Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon believes the Eagles are the team to keep an eye on at the Big East tournament. He's not alone.

Boston College coach Al Skinner said his team has proven it can do more than win a game as its No. 5 seed would suggest, especially with the way its playing defensively after winning at Providence to close the regular season with five straight wins. That doesn't mean Skinner is sleeping any easier with 21 wins, not after getting snubbed a year ago by the NCAA committee despite winning the Big East East Division. But the Big East tournament bracket could break nicely for the Eagles.

The Eagles open with Georgetown in the first round Wednesday (ESPN, 2 p.m.). Barring a major upset, the Eagles would play fourth-seeded Syracuse 24 hours later. BC's strength is inside, as is Sryacuse's. But, if the Eagles' guards can score, they can win. Two wins and BC is likely facing a semifinal against top-seeded Pittsburgh. The Eagles have the toughness to scrap with the Panthers, which is what BC did in a 68-58 loss back in January in Pittsburgh.

Bubble Team: Notre Dame
Notre Dame must beat West Virginia in the first round and then Connecticut in the quarterfinals to have any hope of getting an NCAA bid. Taking out Providence and/or Seton Hall in the semifinals would certainly lock up a bid for the Irish. But Notre Dame can't bow out early and expect to have a chance. The Irish are likely the only bubble team left with Rutgers losing to Seton Hall at home Sunday.

Big Ten

Sleeper: Michigan
It would be foolish to count anyone out of the Big Ten tournament. In fact, the only way the conference gets a fourth bid is by having one of those "other" teams win three or even four straight. While coaches won't admit as much, the league has been down this season, which means expecting the favorites -- Illinois, Wisconsin or Michigan State -- to win the title isn't prudent. Enter Michigan, which has just as good a shot to win the title as anyone.

The Wolverines (17-10) beat Wisconsin at home and are coming off a win at Northwestern this weekend. And the draw is about as manageable as they come for a No. 5 seed. The Wolverines open with No. 4 Iowa in the quarterfinals Friday (ESPN, 2:30 p.m.). The Wolverines lost at Iowa this season, but have the talent to beat a Hawkeyes team that lost 11 times this season -- especially on a neutral floor in Indianapolis. A potential semifinal against Illinois won't scare Michigan, nor would drawing Wisconsin or Michigan State in the final. This team is capable of playing and beating anyone over three days this week.

Bubble: Purdue
Purdue has to beat Minnesota in the first round, which would end a three-game losing streak. The Boilermakers (17-12) then need to revert back to the days of January when they beat Wisconsin, Michigan State and Illinois. Another win over Wisconsin in the quarterfinals would make taking out Michigan State in the semifinals less important, but certainly a plus. Of course, when teams that are locks lose like Southern Illinois, Purdue's road to the NCAAs gets even tougher to get a bid. Iowa is still holding on by a thread but would need to beat Michigan in the quarters and Illinois for another quality win to have a chance.

Big 12

Sleeper: Nebraska
The Cornhuskers are a legit darkhorse to make noise in Dallas. Nebraska (16-11) can beat Oklahoma in the first round Thursday. The Sooners are struggling offensively and they are down to two post players. If the Cornhuskers were to get past Oklahoma, the quarterfinals bring a Texas team reeling a bit after losing two straight to finish the regular season. Nebraska had Texas beat at home before Royal Ivey beat the Huskers with a corner jumper. Take out Texas and Nebraska gets the Kansas-Missouri winner in the semifinals. The Huskers waxed both the Jayhawks and Tigers in Lincoln this season. If the Huskers get to the final, well winning one more wouldn't be out of the question.

Bubble: Missouri, Oklahoma, Colorado
Missouri will get past Texas A&M in the first round, but a rematch with Kansas looms in the quarterfinals. The Tigers must beat the Jayhawks to feel somewhat secure about a potential bid. They can't afford to lose to them three times and twice in a week before Selection Sunday. Meanwhile, Oklahoma has to beat Nebraska, and have a good showing against Texas for any hope. Colorado isn't a lock but a win over Texas Tech in the quarterfinals would do wonders for its cause. The Red Raiders probably don't have to sweat losing to the Buffaloes in the quarterfinals.

Conference USA

Sleeper: Marquette
Why are the Eagles dangerous? Did you see the win over Louisville on Saturday? Marquette's bubble may have been burst a week ago, but it's still capable of beating any team that finished in the five-way tied atop the conference. They've got one of C-USA's best players, Travis Diener, and one of the conference's best shooters in Steve Novak. Marquette should beat TCU in Wednesday's first round and drawing DePaul in Thursday's quarterfinals won't scare Marquette. If the Eagles get by DePaul, the top of the bracket features either UAB or Charlotte in the semifinals. Once again, Marquette is talented enough to beat either on a neutral court. The Eagles could find themselves playing their way into the NCAA field if they can get to the C-USA title game.

Bubble: UAB
UAB remains the weakest of the likely six NCAA teams from C-USA. That means the Blazers can't afford to lose their first game in the conference tournament. The good news is that it will likely be against a top team in Charlotte. The bad news is Charlotte beating the Blazers wouldn't be a shock. Getting a quality win and advancing to the semifinals is a must for the Blazers. It's hard to imagine DePaul, which is the top seed, not getting into the NCAAs even if the Blue Demons were to lose to Marquette in the quarterfinals. Louisville, while the No. 6 seed, just can't afford to lose to East Carolina in the first round. A loss any later won't alter the Cardinals' NCAA future.

MWC

Sleeper: UNLV
The Runnin' Rebels usually are considered a favorite when the tournament is in Las Vegas. But the MWC moved it to Denver. UNLV is 4-7 on the road this season, 2-5 in the MWC. The Runnin' Rebels can win on the road, unlike bottom-dwellers New Mexico, San Diego State, Colorado State and Wyoming -- each of whom whiffed at every MWC stop this season.

UNLV drew New Mexico in Thursday's first round (ESPN, midnight), easily a winnable game after clipping the Lobos last week. Playing No. 1 seed Air Force wouldn't be a problem, either. UNLV beat the cadets in Vegas and competed with them in Colorado Springs as well as any other team in the league. Get by the Falcons and the Runnin' Rebels can handle any of the other teams on the opposite side of the bracket. UNLV lost at the buzzer to BYU last Saturday at home, giving the Rebels plenty of confidence, not to mention a revenge factor, should they meet in the final.

Bubble: Utah
A potential Utah-BYU semifinal could also turn into an elimination game for the Utes. While BYU isn't a lock for the NCAAs, the eight straight wins down the stretch must count for something. Utah, meanwhile, would be all but out of the at-large conversation if it lost. Air Force won the regular season, but getting past UNLV and into the semifinals would make Selection Sunday much less stressful. That won't be easy for the Falcons, but nothing ever is for a team that hasn't danced in 42 years.

Pac-10

Sleeper: USC
The easy pick here is Washington, but are they really a "sleeper" after beating Stanford? The Trojans, meanwhile, have been the hardest team to figure throughout the season. Just when it seemed they were dead, they awoke to beat Oregon State and go from maybe being out of the Pac-10 tourney to the sixth seed. USC already clocked Arizona once this season and the Trojans could do the same to the Wildcats in Thursday's quarterfinals. If the Trojans get past Arizona, they have a winnable game against UCLA or Washington. Get to a final against most likely Stanford and the Trojans find themselves matched up against a team they played extremely close a few weeks ago at the Sports Arena. The Craven twins, Errick and Derrick, are done serving their suspensions and the combination of their quickness, the inside prowess of Jeff McMillan and the wild shooting of Desmon Farmer make this team a must watch throughout the Pac-10 tourney.

Bubble: Washington
The Huskies are the only bubble team and getting by UCLA shouldn't be a tough chore, but a must to keep the momentum going. Even though the Huskies are playing the Bruins in Los Angeles, an NCAA bid is all but on the line in the first round. As for USC or Arizona in the semifinals? That will be a tougher task. Lose the semifinal game and the Huskies still could be in a tenuous spot, depending upon the way they lose. If Washington were to beat Arizona three times, the Huskies will erase all doubt. Arizona just needs to get to the final to help its sliding seed.

WAC

Sleeper: Hawaii
This may not sound like a stretch, but the Rainbow Warriors are the fifth seed. Hawaii always plays well in the conference tournament. The Rainbow Warriors usually get over to the mainland early enough to get adjusted. Hawaii can beat Rice in the quarterfinals and certainly is capable of beating Nevada in a possible semifinal matchup. If Hawaii were to play UTEP, Boise State or host Fresno State in the final, don't expect the Warriors to wilt. Hawaii coach Riley Wallace has kept his team poised, even through rough road losses.

Bubble: Nevada, UTEP
The top half of the bracket is stocked, which means Nevada has to get by Rice or Hawaii to get to the final. UTEP has an easier road to the final with Boise State and even a depleted host Fresno State. UTEP may have to meet Nevada in the final for the league to get multiple bids.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. Click here to send Andy a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.