I never thought I’d find myself rooting for Florida in a basketball game. Not in any game, much less a national championship. My dislike for the Gators began years back when the evil Steve Spurrier was in his prime, sneering and snarking his way to the top. Spurrier gave off all sorts of sleazy vibes and this at a school that has a history of playing loose with the NCAA rules in both football and basketball. Then Billy Donovan arrived – young, brash, aggressive and cocky with that slicked-back hair. He was the archetype of the crooked basketball coach, the guy who would do anything to win. And Donovan’s style was immediately successful, particularly with recruiting. He was landing high school All-Americans left and right – yet another reason to be suspicious of his methods. I wasn’t the only one who questioned the manner in which Donovan worked – other coaches like Roy Williams and Eddie Fogler openly criticized Donovan’s tactics.
But over time, things changed. After reaching the finals in 2000, Florida began to founder. Donovan was still landing plenty of studs, but he wasn’t developing them. They didn’t improve while at Florida and his teams were getting beat by squads with lesser talent. He had to notice. A guy with that much ego had to put two and two together to see that if he was losing to teams that didn’t have the talent he had, he must not be doing as good a job of coaching. That realization seems to have humbled him a bit. Or maybe he just grew up. Whatever happened, he’s not the cocky asshole he once was, at least not publicly, and his teams look better. This year’s Florida squad is one of the most well-rounded, well-built teams in recent memory. They get good play from every position. Good, smart play. They don’t woof and they don’t preen. For once, Florida seems to be more about substance than style.
So, without realizing it, I came to like this Florida team.
It helped last night that they were playing UCLA, another team I have had little love for. Unlike Florida though, I don’t have a great reason to dislike UCLA, at least not since Jim Harrick coached them. My dislike for UCLA is simply petty jealousy. I like the ACC and I like to think that the ACC has the best programs, but there’s no denying UCLA’s place in basketball history. They don’t need to be winning any more titles until some other programs catch up. And that’s gonna be a while.
As for last night’s game, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m sure you’ll read some articles today about how the game was boring or wasn’t as exciting as some recent title games, but that’s crap. Yeah, the outcome wasn’t in doubt for most of the game, but it was a very well-played game. UCLA had been shutting teams down, but Florida spread the floor and used the multi-talented Joakim Noah to help take pressure off the guards. The Gators used UCLA’s pressure against them, creating countless open looks and easy dunks. It wasn’t that UCLA didn’t play great defense – they did – but that Florida effectively countered it. On the other end of the floor, UCLA had a hard time scoring, but really that wasn’t too different from their previous games. The Bruins scored 57 against Florida. They scored 59 against LSU and just 50 against Memphis, so last night wasn’t unusual. If anything, considering that they got almost no easy buckets from their defense, they actually over-performed a bit on offense.
So, all in all, it was a good, hard-fought game and a great ending to a fantastic tournament.
I can’t wait until next year.