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March 21, 2014

Notebook: Defensive minded teams to battle

ORLANDO, Fla. - Top-ranked Florida and the under-seeded Pitt Panthers will have a rock fight Saturday (12:15 p.m., CBS) -- biggest stones win.

The Gators and Panthers will battle for a spot in the Sweet 16 in an intense, grind-it-out match-up pitting two of the top defensive teams the country.

"This could be the most physical game you'll see in the NCAA Tournament this year," Albany coach Will Brown said Thursday.

Brown, whose team played -- and lost to -- both teams this season, added: "This is going to be a great game. A lot closer than people think."

But Florida is intimately aware of tomorrow's challenge.

"We'll be ready," senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. "I think we've got [Thursday's poor effort] out of our system, and we're ready to move forward and ready to play like we know we can."

Billy Donovan and Jamie Dixon -- longtime friends but never foes until Saturday -- both possess stout defensive teams (top 20 nationally) paired with efficient offenses (No. 15 and No. 16, respectively, in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offenses).

The game could boil down to a battle of the frontcourts -- strongest man wins.

"I mean, I'm just going to go out there and just play my game," said Pitt center Talib Zanna, who averages 13.1 points and 8.6 rebounds.

"I'm not looking up to playing against [Patric Young]. I know he's a physical guy, he plays dirty, so that's how we play, so it's going to be a good battle down there. And it's going to be fun."

Zanna later clarified his statement, saying, "I don't mean like a dirty player, I just mean he's physical, get after it, and he's a hustle player."

Regardless, Young welcomed the challenge.

"It's going to be a battle," said UF's senior center, who recorded his first double-double this season in the win over Albany.

"We're going to go out there and just try and wear their frontcourt out because they have a lot of depth, a lot of good talented guys -- especially [Zanna]."

Pitt smoked Colorado on Thursday, drubbing the Buffalos by 29-points in its most dominant (and complete) performance this season. Meanwhile, the Gators struggled for 35 minutes against overmatched Albany.

Will the two teams deviate towards their norm tomorrow?

We'll see.

The Panthers have competed well against ranked teams (three losses by a combined 10 points), but they simply haven't beaten many ranked foes (1-4).

Despite a 2-15 all-time record against the No. 1 team in the country, they remain confident.

"We're playing good basketball right now," forward Lamar Patterson said. "We'll know if we're playing our best basketball on Saturday. … Right now is the perfect time to be making strides toward the best you can possibly be, and I feel like that's what we're doing as a team."

Meanwhile, Florida has also "flushed" Thursday's poor performance away.

"There's 16 teams from yesterday that wish they were living to see another day," Gators assistant coach Matt McCall said. "We survived and we just have to stay focused on the moment."

Donovan is happy in Gainesville, very happy in fact, but Florida's coach acknowledged the next logical step on the coaching ladder still "intrigues" him.

"To me the NBA part of it for me is  it's all basketball," Donovan explained. "I got into coaching because of the basketball piece of it, and there is an intrigue as it relates to that. One of the things that I think I've learned, when you try to project where your future is, where you're going to be, and you don't know because I don't have a crystal ball, all I can say is I am happy here at Florida. I love being here." A return to Orlando has spurred memories of when Donovan spurned the Magic in 2007. Florida's coach agreed on a contract, only to walk away and return to Florida without ever coaching a game for the Magic.

"It was just something internally I felt like this was where I needed to be," Donovan said. "Who knows where I'd be right now. I don't know. Maybe TV, maybe sitting on a beach somewhere? I don't know. I'm excited that I'm still at Florida and still having a chance to coach, and I'm happy that making that decision there's been a lot of things that I've had a chance to experience."

Although Donovan wouldn't commit to staying at Florida forever, he was adamant he's quite content -- for now.

"When you say a lifer, that means to me I'm never, every going to go anywhere and be there," Donovan said. "Who knows? They may get sick of me at Florida and want me to move on. But I don't like coming out making bold predictions or statements. I would say right now I'm extremely happy with my life right now at the University of Florida."

"Coach [Donovan] talked to the team after the game and told a story about when he was a player a Providence and they were playing Georgetown. Going into the year, coach was leading the NCAA Tournament in scoring, getting like 30 a game, and Georgetown said, 'Hey we're going to take Billy Donovan out of the game.' They did and he only took two shots in the game but [Providence] won by 18. So you take it as a sign of a team having respect for you. And if they're going to take that much focus on you and taking you out of the game other things for other guys are going to open up." -- Matt McCall, on sophomore swingman Michael Frazier II being frustrated after yesterday's 1-of-4 performance against Albany.

Pitt holds a plus-6.3 rebounding margin, tops in the ACC. … The Panthers, who rarely faced an aggressive press in the ACC, also led the conference in assists per game (15.6) and Donovan called them, "An outstanding passing team." ... Donovan said freshman point guard Kasey Hill, who scored 10 points in his first-career NCAA Tournament game, is "fine" and has no lingering issues with his toe injury. ... Florida's four seniors are just one win away from setting the school-record for most wins by a single class.

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