Spring football can wait
Even Spurrier impressed with Gators' run to Sweet 16
Posted: Tuesday March 16, 1999 09:07 PM
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) -- Steve Spurrier walked up to the podium, took out his sheet of paper and started going down the list.
"No. 1, Billy Donovan's basketball team in the Sweet 16, playing Gonzaga. That's a big story," he said.
And suddenly, spring football practice didn't seem quite so important at Florida anymore.
These days, cutout masks of Donovan are the hottest item in Gainesville and Florida's upcoming regional semifinal has pushed Spurrier's team right off the front page of the sports section.
For one of the rare times in the checkered 84-year history of the program, Florida feels like a real "basketball school."
One more tidbit: the Final Four will take place just down the road in St. Petersburg. Could the good lord be smiling on the Gators, as Spurrier likes to say?
"I haven't thought too much about that," Donovan said Tuesday in a telephone interview from Phoenix. "All the focus is going toward Gonzaga. They're an outstanding team. I think what I'm trying to do is enjoy the moment right now and not look ahead. If we're fortunate to win, I'll probably have different feelings."
Some critics have dismissed Florida as nothing more than a decent team in the right place at the right time.
Due to a series of upsets in the West region, the sixth-seeded Gators have beaten No. 11 seed Penn and No. 14 seed Weber State and next face a No. 10 seed for the right to play themselves into the Final Four.
But doubters are nothing new to this program.
Florida wasn't expected to make the tournament at all this year. Coming off consecutive losing seasons, the Gators were chosen to finish fifth in the SEC East and possibly make a run at the NIT.
Somehow, Donovan squeezed more out of last year's highly regarded recruiting class than even he expected. The results were on display last week.
Yes, that was a freshman, Teddy Dupay, hitting the key 3-pointer to give the Gators the lead toward the end of regulation in the 82-74 overtime victory over Weber State. And yes, Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem and LaDarius Halton -- all freshmen, as well -- are all playing key roles in this unexpected run.
"You know when you're relying on freshmen, you're going to have your ups and downs," Donovan said. "You hope guys like [seniors] Greg Stolt and Eddie Shannon are going to carry you, and whatever bonus you get from the freshmen is real helpful."
Stolt, the sweet-shooting forward, and Shannon, the point guard with only one eye, figured to finish their careers without a whiff of the NCAA. Instead, they were beneficiaries of an influx of talent at just the right time.
"In the past, we didn't have the talent to be in the Sweet 16," Shannon said. "Now that we got the talent, we've had to use that talent and gel it with a good work ethic."
The appearance in the round of 16 matches Florida's progress in its first NCAA appearance in 1987, when Vernon Maxwell and Dwayne Schintzius led the downtrodden program to national prominence for the first time.
Drug charges and NCAA violations under then-coach Norm Sloan left a black mark on that team. Since, that era of Florida basketball has largely been swept under the rug.
Seven years later, the Gators made the Final Four, only to see a quick decline and the eventual departure of coach Lon Kruger.
Donovan stepped in, bringing his tournament experience as a player and coach, along with the idea that Florida didn't have to settle for simply being a football school anymore.
In three seasons, the Gators have shed their label as a perennial doormat. The next test will be to see if they can make the success last.
But that's for later. This season's adventure is still in full swing.
"We didn't come to lose at the Sweet 16," Shannon said. "We came to battle. If we give 150 percent, we'll accept that. But we're not going in there happy just to be there."
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