Who schedules a wedding in March? Assholes, that’s who. For the second time in as many years, one of my wife’s friends has a wedding scheduled during the meat of the second weekend of the tournament. Two key differences this year: (1) Last year there were no TVs to watch while
drinking/avoiding people at the reception and (2) Florida is playing in an important game during the wedding this year. It’s a bit of a wash, especially since this year’s wedding is a short affair (10-15 minutes) and its on the deck of an oceanfront hotel with the reception being held in said hotel. I plan on being at the hotel bar with 10 minutes left in the first half, at the latest.
Here’s the real problem though. Florida is playing Butler. Butler might be a “mid-major” but they’re bullies. For real. I’m not calling them the Pat Riley era Knicks but there is a bit of an element of that team to their game. They are, by far, the most physical team in the country and they bump, hit and push the opposition so often that many plays that would often be called fouls aren’t called against Butler simply because the refs can’t call everything. It’s an effective defensive strategy and one Butler is exceedingly good at executing. Look at their last two opponents, Pittsburgh and Wisconsin. Each is considered amongst the most physical teams in America, yet both of them were physically pushed around by Butler throughout much of their games. Florida, on the other hand, is not thought of as an especially physical or tough team. Part of this true and part of this is due to the perception of Florida as a program. This perception, I contend, is largely wrong. Florida was, early in Billy Donovan’s career, known for pressing, playing 10-12 guys and shooting tons of threes. However, as time has passed and Florida has become both more successful and more established, the Gators have become a program that thrives on quality halfcourt offensive basketball, good big men (look at the number of bigs Donovan has put in the NBA, its impressive, to say the least) and solid team defense. One need look no further than Thursday night’s win over BYU for evidence of this. Kenny Boynton did an exceptional job guarding Jimmer Fredette but was also helped out by the fact that nearly every time Fredette had even an ounce of daylight, there was a second (and often third) Gator defender flying at him with a hand up. So, you see, these teams are far more similar than most would have you believe. Right down to their boy wonder head coaches. We’ve all marveled at the story, success and likability of Butler’s Brad Stevens over the last 2-3 years but it’s easy to forget that despite having won 2 National Championships and being the 3rd all time winningest coach in SEC history, Billy Donovan is still only in his early 40s. Somehow, he’s still one of the nation’s most underrated coaches and he’s built a premier program in a place that had no record of sustained basketball success in the 70 some odd years before his arrival from Marshall.
If you can’t already tell, I’m pretty psyched for this game. I expect it to be a back and forth, physical affair that comes down to the last possession or two. With that said, and in the interest of time, here are a few keys to the game:
• Shelvin Mack: Kenny Boynton will once again have his hands full with a physical, experienced and multi-talented guard. Mack carried Butler in their win over Pittsburgh last weekend and is fully capable of going off for 25-30 again today. Boynton is an underrated defender but is going to need the help of his long limbed teammates to keep Mack in check.
• Florida’s frontline: I said this would be key in the BYU game, and it was. Florida has one of the country’s deepest, most athletic frontlines. They’ll need to feed Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus the ball early to put pressure on Smith (coming off an ankle injury) & Howard (prone to foul trouble) in order to establish them against a smaller Butler frontline. Alex Tyus gave Florida his best game in two years against BYU. Freshman phenom Patric Young had his best game of the year in the win over UCLA. Florida will need 2-3 big games out of their 5 man frontcourt rotation to come away with a victory.
• The Point Guards: You can make the case that Florida’s most important player is Erving Walker. He’s tough, a natural leader and has taken (and made) more big shots for them this year than the rest of the team combined. He’s come a long way from the turnover prone, sometimes wildly out of control player he was last year. However, he still has days where he settles for his jumpshot too often and doesn’t control the pace like Donovan would like. He must take care of the ball, contend with Butler’s physical guards and be able to hit a few timely shots. On the other side, Steven Van Zandt is as much of a reason for Butler’s late season surge as anyone. His insertion into the starting lineup gave Butler another sorely needed shot creator and allowed Mack to move off the ball and concentrate his efforts on scoring. He’s going to see a number of Florida defenders today (Walker, Boynton, Scottie Wilbekin) and he’s going to have to be able to handle their pressure effectively while getting Butler into their halfcourt sets.
• Chandler Parsons: As he goes, Florida goes. When Florida was losing to the likes of Jacksonville University early this season and fell out of the top 25, Parsons was struggling in nearly every area of the game, especially scoring as he was averaging about 8 pts/game. When Florida hit it’s stride during SEC play (13-3 overall), it was Parsons, leading the team in rebounding & assists (2nd in scoring), who was the catalyst for this run. The SEC Player of the Year must come up big today and fill the stat sheet if Florida is to advance to the Final Four.
Finally, a fun fact: Brad Stevens and Billy Donovan are a combined 4-0 in regional final games. Obviously, somebody’s perfect record won’t survive this evening. Should be interesting to see which one of these talented coaches it is.