Monday, March 27, 2000

Gators may be young, but they sure have big bite




BY TIM SULLVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SYRACUSE, N.Y. — So much for maturity.

        So much for experience and wisdom and savvy and seniors.

        A new day is dawning in college basketball, and it is filled with the fresh young faces of Florida.

        Foolhardy freshmen. Silly sophomores. Final Four.

        “They don't pay attention,” Florida senior Kenyan Weaks said Sunday. “I think they have a tendency to daze off when coach is telling us something important. Coach would draw up a play and they'd do just the opposite. That's all about the growing-up process.”

        Suffice it to say the Gators are in the middle of a growth spurt this March. They followed their Friday night drubbing of top-ranked Duke with an emphatic 77-65 victory over a veteran Oklahoma State squad Sunday afternoon. They advance to Indianapolis strong in numbers and increasingly impressive in poise. They are young men in a powerful hurry.

Playing poised
        “It's so funny,” said Florida sophomore Teddy Dupay. “If you're young and you make a mistake, it's because you're a freshman. If you're a senior and you make the same mistake, it's no big deal. If you win, it's because you're experienced. If we win, it's: "How do you do it so young?'”

        What happened Sunday at the Carrier Dome is that the senior-laden Cowboys of Eddie Sutton conveyed anxiety, while Billy Donovan's callow kids appeared at peace. With four freshmen and three sophomores in its 10-man rotation, Florida set an aggressive pace. Yet it was Oklahoma State that appeared hurried. When the Cowboys succeeded in penetrating the Gators' full-court pressure, they frequently turned the ball over in the half-court in their haste to exploit a brief advantage in numbers.

        “Early, we looked like our team was in a daze,” Sutton said. “I told our guys, "They're going to score 100 points if you guys don't tighten up your belts.'”

        The Cowboys missed five or six shots that appeared unmissable. Doug Gottlieb, Oklahoma State's senior point guard, gave up four stickback layups to Florida freshman Justin Hamilton by failing to deny him position for offensive rebounds. The Cowboys would cut the Gators' lead from 17 points back to three with eight minutes to play, but Florida proved impervious to the pressure.

        “It's just a different style than we're used to seeing,” Gottlieb said. “They run waves at you and we have six or seven guys. ... It's just different when they're playing at that type of energy level and in a system that they believe in.”

        Donovan's system demands self-sacrifice and frequent substitution. The team that presses full-court and pushes the ball up the floor on offense needs unusual depth to fend off fatigue. Friday, Florida beat Duke because it had fresher legs at the finish. Sunday, both sides were exhausted at the end.

Fighting fatigue
        “With about eight minutes to go in the game, we were running on empty,” Donovan said. “We had nothing in us. I had to take the press off. ... I think both teams were certainly feeling the fatigue factor from playing very difficult games on Friday. But I cannot speak enough about the character of these kids and what they've been able to do at such a young age.”

        Anticipating that his team might be worn out, Donovan told his players to dedicate the game to someone who had helped them reach this plateau. Each player wrote a name on the adhesive tape around his ankle.

        Kid stuff, perhaps, but it worked.

        “I think when you're playing or doing something for someone you love, you have a tendency to dig down a little bit deeper,” Donovan said. “And with eight minutes left to go in a three-point game, they reached down inside and found a way to win.”

        Over the next seven minutes, Florida outscored Oklahoma State, 16-4. Florida freshman Donell Harvey scored as many baskets in a two-minute stretch as did Desmond Mason — Oklahoma State senior All-American — in the entire game.

        “Seniors, juniors, sophomores, freshmen — everybody's making plays in college basketball,” Teddy Dupay said. “What's different is how people look at it and describe what happens.”

        E-mail Tim Sullvan at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

       



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