Florida looks to reconnect with its identity against Pittsburgh
ORLANDO — The Florida basketball players were a tad late arriving for their designated time Friday at the NCAA South Regional interview podium.
There was a television in the holding area.
Duke-Mercer was on.
"You have to be aware that every team is fighting for their life and the goal is just to survive," UF center Patric Young said a few minutes after Duke, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest, was vanquished in the biggest upset of the tournament to date. "Seeding doesn’t matter."
True that. For two very uncomfortable hours Thursday, the top-ranked and top-seeded Gators were reminded that the No. 1 in front of their name in the South bracket meant nothing. It certainly did not impress Albany, which gave UF fits before the Gators pulled away and scratched out a 12-point.
Later that night, Coach Billy Donovan and his staff spent some time reviewing with their players what easily was UF’s most listless collective performance of this incredible season. That it came in the first NCAA Tournament date was somewhat curious, but maybe a blessing as well.
"I think we’ll be ready for our next game," senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said.
What the Gators (33-2,), winners of 27 in a row, put on the Amway Center court last time out is not going to be good enough to beat ninth-seeded Pittsburgh (26-7) in Saturday’s 12:15 p.m. third-round game for a berth into the Sweet 16.
What irked Donovan about the Albany game was the hint of selfishness — a trait rarely exhibited by this group — that reared itself early on when the Gators were out of sorts and their two top scorers, Wilbekin and sophomore backcourt mate Michael Frazier, either weren’t making or getting shots because of some effective gimmick defenses the Great Danes rolled out.
Albany had "X’ed" those two guys as players to take out of the game. The plan was worked, too.
Fine, Donovan thought. Time to go to someone else.
"That’s a the ultimate sign of respect," Donovan said. "Those guys should have taken that as a challenge to get things going with some other guys."
Instead, the team with the frustrated faces, slumped shoulders bad body language neither looked nor played like the Gators. Ultimately, UF got Patric Young and Dorian Finney-Smith into the game down low, and backup point guard Kasey Hill picked up the pace by pushing the ball in transition and driving the lane.
Meanwhile, Wilbekin and Frazier together went 5-for-14 and scored 13 points. Frazier only had three points, tying for his second-fewest of the season.
Pittsburgh is a physical bunch that mixes it up on defense, chases rebounds and limits possessions by taking exemplary care of the ball. The Panthers figure to go after Wilbekin and Frazier, also. Eliminating, or at least limiting, Frazier’s rhythm and transition 3-pointers will be high on Coach Jamie Dixon’s priority list.
"You can’t stop everything, but you don’t want to allow him to get going, and he can make a lot," Dixon said. "If he makes a couple of them, it can break a game open. We’ll be aware of him."
The bigger concern for the Gators, though, should be an awareness of themselves and the identity they have forged and played to this season.
It was not there against Albany. UF realizes that now.
"At this point, it’s not about any other team," Frazier said. "It’s about us and how we play to our standard."
Those Donovan catch phrases about "staying in the moment" and "trusting the process" and "staying connected" and "getting locked in" are being repeated over and over again even now. Why not? They’ve been part of his message all season and it’s not going to change just because the Gators are in the NCAA Tournament.
"You can’t just shrug it off and say, ‘Yeah, yeah, we got it,’ because look around at the tournament and what’s going on with all the upsets," senior forward Will Yeguete said. "Besides, Coach D, he’s always right."
History: Florida is 2-4 all-time against Pittsburgh, but have not met since the Gators defeated the Panthers on the road in second-round play of the 1992 NIT. In that game, Pennsylvania native Craig Brown scored 17 points and went 4-for-4 from the free-throw line in the final minute. Stacey Poole also had 17 points and Brian Hogan threw in 14 off the bench to lead the Gators to a 77-74 at old Fitzgerald Field House. UF has never played Pittsburgh during Coach Billy Donovan’s 18 seasons, but Donovan is 22-12 vs. current Atlantic Coast Conference teams and 3-0 in the NCAA Tournament.
Pre-game storyline: Pretty simple. At stake is a berth in the Sweet 16 next weekend at Memphis. The alternative is the end of the season. The Gators, quite possibly, could not have played worse than they did in their opening game against 16th-seeded Albany. Meanwhile, No. 9-seed Pittsburgh quite possibly could not have played better than in its 44-78 blowout of eighth-seeded Colorado.
About the Gators: They were one of the most efficient offensive and defensive teams in the Southeastern Conference this season, but that version did not show up Thursday against Albany. The Great Danes ended up shooting just 39.2 percent, but they got some open 2-point looks and end-of-clock baskets that frustrated the Gators. UF, meanwhile, came into the game red-hot from 3-point range over the last three weeks (46 percent), but managed to sink just three of 12 from distance, with sophomore guard Michael Frazier II making just one. … Sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith (9.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg) provided a huge lift off the bench Thursday, making six of 10 shots for 16 points and three rebounds. Ditto reserve freshman point guard Kasey Hill (5.6 ppg, 3.0 apg), who had 10 points, made all four of his free throws and got two steals. … Senior center Patric Young (11.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg) is coming off his first double-double of the season (10 points, 10 rebounds) and the 11th of his career. … The SEC Player of the Year did not have a typical Scottie Wilbekin (12.9 ppg, 3.8 apg) game against Albany. The senior point guard went 4-for-9 from the floor, 1-for-4 from the arc, shot just two free throws, had zero steals in 35 minutes, and allowed Great Danes 5-foot-8 point guard DJ Evans go for 21 points. Look for Wilbekin to bounce back.
About the Panthers: They’ve won four of the previous five, with the lone loss a hard-fought 51-48 defeat to ACC champion Virginia in the semifinals of the conference Tournament. … The Panthers are a highly efficient offensive team with a perimeter crew that rarely turns the ball over. … Pittsburgh shoots 46.1 percent from the floor as a team and and surrenders 41.1. … The Panthers are a physical bunch with a style of play that can be likened to Tennessee, only with bigs that are better in transition. … Pitt is led by 6-5, 225-pound guard Lamar Patterson (17.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 4.3 apg). He’s a scorer, period. Will hard drive, shoot 3s (39.7 percent) and get to free throw line (173 times this season; 75.7 percent). If Wilbekin, UF’s best on-ball defender, is assigned to Patterson, he’ll have a 4-inch and 40-pound disadvantage. … Forward Talib Zanna (13.1 ppg, 8.6 rpg) goes 6-9, 230 inside and will draw double-teams from the UF defense. … 6-4 guard Cameron Wright (10.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg) is the Panthers’ third scorer averaging in double-figures, but the way the team passes makes every guy on the floor a threat to get something easy. … Guard James Robinson (7.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 4.1 apg) has 142 assists and just 34 turnovers for an insane 4-to-1 ratio. Robinson played for Donovan on his gold medal-winning USA Basketball teams the last two summers. … Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon has guided the Panthers in the 10 NCAA berths in his 11 seasons and is 11-9 in tourney play.
* 12 – Margin of victory by the Panthers in their New Year’s Eve game this season against Albany, a 58-46 win at home. That’s the same margin as the Gators’ defeat of the Great Danes.
* 24 – Margin UF enjoyed in bench scoring against Albany. The Gators reserves won that battle 26-2, thanks to Finney-Smith and Hill.
* 77.8 – UF’s free-throw percentage against Albany after going 14-for-18 from the stripe. That’s a good sign after 27-for-54 (just 50 percent) in three SEC Tournament games the week before.
* 117 – Combined games won by UF’s 2014 senior class over the last four seasons, which tied the ’09 class of Walter Hodge for most in school history.
* 448 – Career victories for Donovan, which is tied with Dale Brown (LSU) for second-most in SEC history. With his next win, Donovan will stand alone in second place behind only Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp, who won 876 games from 1930-72.
Watch for it: More juice from the Gators from the outset. In fact, if you don’t see a more intense and energetic UF team against Pittsburgh, you won’t see much more Florida basketball this season.