Gators on The Prowl
Thanks to superior depth and balance, Florida is in the hunt for its first SEC title in 11 years
Four of the 14 members of Florida's basketball team won state championships while in high school. That won't necessarily help the Gators during their quest for an NCAA championship later this month, but it sure comes in handy when the guys are talking smack in the locker room. So it was that moments after Florida's 88-59 pasting of Auburn on Sunday, Brent Wright, a 6'8" junior who won two titles at Miami High, sidled up to 5'10" sophomore Teddy Dupay, who never won a championship while he played for Mariner High in Fort Myers, Fla., and said sardonically, "Maybe this is going to be the year when you finally get a ring."
Wright maybe right. Sunday's win gave the No. 8-ranked Gators sole possession of first place in the SEC East with a league-best 11-3 record (22-5 overall). With a 10-man rotation that includes four freshmen and three sophomores, Florida is still learning as it goes, but it has the potential to be more formidable in the postseason than last season's Sweet 16 team. "Last year at this time we were playing to the best of our ability," coach Billy Donovan says. "This team is still growing."
Florida has one of the nation's most balanced squads, but it's unclear whether that's a boon or a bane. At week's end the Gators led the SEC in both assists and points per game (17.6 and 85.7, respectively), although they didn't have a player in the top 10 in either category. Dupay and 6'3" freshman Brett Nelson have shared point guard duties for most of the season, but rather than settling on one of them, Donovan has added 6'3" freshman Justin Hamilton to the mix in the last three weeks. Meanwhile, Mike Miller, a 6'8" sophomore, was Florida's leading scorer (14.0 points per game) and second-leading rebounder (6.3), but he hadn't emerged as a definitive go-to guy, nor apparently is he planning to do so. "I want the ball in a tough situation," he says, "but I'm sure other guys on the team do too."
Donovan seems content not to have a star. When Dupay and Nelson were both careless with the ball during the Gators' 79-68 loss to Purdue on Nov. 23, he benched them and let Miller bring up the ball for most of the second half. When Florida faced a 21-point deficit in the second half at the United Center against DePaul on Jan. 26, Donovan replaced his starters with four freshmen plus 10th man Major Parker, a 6'4" junior small forward. The subs sparked a comeback that fell two points shy of a win. On Feb. 5 Miller sat for most of the second half of an 85-66 win over Georgia because he didn't hustle after a loose ball. Says Donovan, "Our guys understand that if you don't bring it every day, Coach is not going to play you."
Coach's biggest statement may have come with 23 seconds remaining in a 90-73 defeat of Kentucky on Feb. 8, when he called time out just to instruct his players on how to act after the buzzer sounded. "This is one win in the SEC, not the national championship," Donovan said. "Don't celebrate at the end. Just shake their hands and walk off the floor."
The Gators did so, and did the same after they beat Auburn on Sunday. Now they hope Donovan's preparation pays off with a celebration in Indianapolis.
The Trouble with UConn
Getting to the Point
Last spring Khalid El-Amin, Connecticut's 5'10" point guard, declared that the Huskies would "shock the world," and they did, beating Duke for the NCAA tide. But without rugged shooting guard Ricky Moore and star forward Richard Hamilton, this hasn't been a best-in-show season for UConn, which had lost three of its last five games before Monday's 74-69 win over Rutgers and had tumbled from a high of No. 2 in the AP poll earlier this season to No. 24 this week. In Arabic, El-Amin means "the trustworthy one," and during the last two years of postseason play—in the Big East Tournament and the NCAAs—UConn is 15-1. But the Huskies' chances of repeating depend on how ably their vexatious convexity of a junior point guard lives up to his name.
El-Amin put his best and worst on display last week. On Feb. 21 he baked a glazed doughnut in a 79-64 loss to St. John's, shooting 0 for 7 from the floor. Then, last Saturday against West Virginia, he took an inbounds pass with UConn down by a point and 4.8 seconds to play, dribbled the length of the court, launched a running banker from an impossible angle and found the basket at the buzzer for a 72-71 win.