Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Gators need answers quickly

By Eddie Pells
The Associated Press

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Billy Donovan arrived at Florida at a time when eking out a few more wins was a more pressing goal than turning the Gators into a national power.

Against the odds, he succeeded. So, not surprisingly, he hasn't flinched at his current predicament - coaching the only team bringing a three-game losing streak into the NCAA tournament.

"I think we're in a good position right now," Donovan insisted.

Of course, injecting life into a program over a period of years and reinstalling confidence into a jilted team in a span of days are two different issues.

That makes this one of Donovan's most interesting coaching challenges.

On Feb. 1, the Gators were on a program-record, 14-game winning streak. Two days later, they were ranked first in The Associated Press poll for the first time ever.

Now they have lost three straight, and along with those games, they have lost their outside-shooting touch, their ability to win close games, and their health. Florida's best player, Matt Bonner, hasn't practiced in more than two weeks because of a nagging foot injury.

"We're playing all right right now," Bonner said. "I wouldn't say we're playing great, I wouldn't say we're playing awful. We just need to forget about what's happened and focus on our first-round game."

Florida opens the tournament Friday in Tampa against Sam Houston State. The Gators received what many people viewed as a gift of a No. 2 seed, although their 24-7 record wasn't out of line with the marks of the other No. 2s. Members of the selection committee rewarded the Gators for their "entire body of work," as chairman Jim Livengood put it.

Had they looked more closely at the last 10 games (6-4), as they often do, Florida wouldn't be in nearly as good standing.

In that span, senior guard Brett Nelson has been demoted to a backup and is shooting 28 percent. His replacement, Anthony Roberson, hasn't responded well to the starting job, shooting 34 percent since he got the promotion. Roberson and forward Matt Walsh look like they've hit the so-called freshman wall.

Meanwhile, freshman Christian Drejer is still acclimating after missing the first two months of the season with an injury. Justin Hamilton is a great defensive player, but has never been a great shooter. In all, Florida has shot 31 percent from 3-point range in the last three games, nearly 10 percent worse than the season overall.

"We've got to stop judging people on making baskets and start judging people on everything else they do - defense, passing, rebounding," Bonner said. "If we take good shots, that will take care of itself."

The last three losses have all been by four points or fewer, leading to questions about whether the Gators have the savvy to pull out close games. They won five games in the final seconds early in the season, but that magic has escaped them lately.

"We're a possession away, and we need to find a way to make plays down the stretch," Donovan said.

If they can, they could be dangerous.

During their 14-game winning streak, Roberson proved he can be one of the best shooters in the country, Bonner one of the most versatile, and Walsh one of the most unexpectedly dangerous.

But how to regain the momentum after three weeks without a victory?

"Last year, I remember being in games like this and thinking, 'How are we going to lose this one?"' center David Lee said, recalling a 3-4 slide that resulted in a first-round loss. "This year, it's not the same way. I still think we're going to get to the end, and someone's going to find ways to win."

Special NCAA hoops section; Bracket contest

It's more than a Bearcats game
No. 24 Arkansas thinking big
UC out to prove naysayers wrong
Varsity Village gets $10M from Fifth Third

Xavier now the hunted

No. 1 ranking increases ante for UK to win it all
Norse win on putback

March Madness could be delayed by war
Pressure and expectations smother winning coaches
Ohio State suspends Williams
BYU's no-Sunday stance could cause NCAA shuffle
Little Mo leads underdog Bulldogs vs. Sooners
Blue Devils to stick with perimeter lineup
Gators need answers quickly
Bobby Knight's son applies for Wright State job
Spirit of Valvano lifts Whittenburg
Tigers learn of bid while on 12-hour bus ride
Asheville gets a whiff of the bigtime

NIT: Iowa 62, Valparaiso 60
UCLA fires Lavin