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April 9, 2013

Smith: Last loss still hard to swallow



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    This may sound strange considering how good the Michigan basketball team looked Monday night, giving Louisville everything it wanted in a one of the best NCAA championship games of the last 20 years, but Florida still does not deserve a pass for what happened against the Wolverines in the South Region final.

    Old news now? Maybe. I'm sure you're much more concerned with how Florida's pass offense continued to struggle in the spring game than with anything relating to basketball at this point, but I wanted to let the Gators' ignominious 79-59 departure from the NCAA Tournament simmer for a while and wait for the Final Four to play out before casting judgment.

    As incredibly talented as Michigan is -The Wolverines showed again on Monday night they have multiple future NBA stars on their roster while Florida probably had none in its playing rotation - something still doesn't sit right about the way the Gators played their final game.

    First thing first: any criticism of the overall job Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan has done is out of bounds, patently absurd and borderline insane. Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley would not trade Donovan for anyone.

    Donovan IS Florida basketball. Before he arrived, the Gators had played in five NCAA Tournaments, reached two Sweet 16s, played in one Final Four, won one SEC regular season title and captured zero SEC tournament titles. He has taken them to 13 NCAA tournaments in the last 15 years, won two national championships, reached three Final Fours, won two SEC tournaments, won more SEC regular season titles than I can remember and is currently on a streak of three Elite Eight appearances.

    He is a fantastic recruiter, an excellent teacher and a proven motivator, possessing every quality you would want in a championship-level coach.

    Now that the preamble is out of the way, let's move to the second topic: what the heck was going on in Florida's pitiful showing against Michigan last Sunday in the South Regional final?

    The problem is not that Florida made history by becoming the first team to lose three consecutive regional finals since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. You have to do a lot of incredible things to put yourself in position for that failure.

    Only four teams in that span had lost two regional finals in a row -North Carolina State in 1985-86, North Carolina in 1987-88, Memphis in 2006-07 and Louisville in 2008-09. Of that foursome, only one, Memphis, got back to a regional final the following year, and the Tigers advanced all the way to the championship game. NC State lost to Florida in the first round in 1987. North Carolina lost to eventual national champion Michigan in the Sweet 16 in 1989. Louisville lost to California in the first round in 2010.

    The problem was Florida's effort level, game plan and attention to detail. The Gators went through the motions against Michigan, coming out flat, getting flattened further by a 13-0 run and rarely matching the Wolverines' intensity the rest of the way.

    That's inexplicable for a core group that had gone through the heartbreak of consecutive regional final losses when it led by double digits midway through the second half.

    Michigan probably would have won no matter how hard or well the Gators had played. It was the simple difference of having a penetrator who could break down anyone off the dribble in Trey Burke while Florida had no one who could break down anyone.

    But that doesn't excuse what we saw. One of the worst clichés in sports is that one team "wanted it more," but it sure looked that way. Playing in North Dallas, the Gators went south from the opening tip. Excellent all year defensively, they were lead-footed, letting Michigan sharpshooter Nik Stauskas drain one wide open 3-pointer after another on his way to a 6-for-6 day on treys.

    It would be one thing if Stauskas had an out-of-body experience like seldom-used teammate Spike Albrecht enjoyed in the first half against Louisville, but hitting open 3s is Stauskas' game. He had connected on better than 40 percent of his treys entering the regional final, and 60 percent of his shots had come from behind the arc.

    The problems on offense were more understandable - the Gators struggled at that end frequently in the second half of the year and were awful against Florida Gulf Coast in the Sweet 16 - but the lack of aggressiveness from seniors Kenny Boynton and Erik Murphy was striking.

    Boynton attempted three shots in the first 17:30. By the time he scored his first basket on a layup, Florida trailed 41-21. His misleadingly decent 4-of-8 finish from the floor cannot obscure the fact he failed to hit more than half of his shots in the last 19 games of his career, ending not with a bang, but with a series of clangs.

    Murphy, Florida' most consistent offensive player until the Gators reached North Texas, put up meek shots that had no chance to go in. Inexplicably, he went 0-for-11, providing a stark contrast to the aggressive Mitch McGary of Michigan.

    When Florida played Michigan in the second round of the 1988 NCAA Tournament, the Gators fell behind by an equally large margin right away and lost badly, too, to another extremely talented team.

    Those Gators had a legitimate reason for their no-show, though. Team leader Vernon Maxell had tested positive for drugs and knew he would be suspended for the rest of the tournament, so he had no interest in advancing.

    These Gators had every reason to fight harder than they ever had in their lives, trying to reach the Final Four after having that destiny ripped from their grasp the previous two years.

    Instead, they came up empty --physically and emotionally. The signature moment occurred early in the second half after Florida had cut its deficit to 50-38 by the first media timeout.

    McGary scored on a layup, and Will Yeguete, who otherwise was the best player on the floor for the Gators (13 points on 5-of-5 shooting, seven rebounds) tossed a lazy in-bounds pass without even looking up. Albrecht, whom you probably don't even remember playing in that game, caught it cleanly and converted another layup to make the score 54-38.

    The Gators went dead in the head.

    The beat will go on for Donovan, who will continue to take Florida to greater heights than anyone imagined when he arrived in 1996-97.

    But mark March 31, 2013 down as one of his worst coaching moments. His team wasn't ready to play.


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