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March 19, 2006

Balanced Gators enjoying surprising success

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Florida coach Billy Donovan had no idea his team would have this much success this season.

Not with David Lee, Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh - a trio that accounted for 60 percent of Florida's offense last season - gone. Not with four sophomores in the starting lineup. Not with his star recruit academically ineligible.

''I could say I knew this and I really went out and did a great job and pieced this thing together. That would be a lie,'' Donovan said. ''I thought this would be a fun group to coach. I didn't know if it would equal as many wins as we've had this year. But I really felt like they would give myself and my staff everything that they had, and they'd play together and play unselfishly and play committed and play hard.

''That's what they've done, and it's translated into wins for us.''

A lot of wins, in fact.

The Gators (29-6) tied a school record for victories by beating Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the second round of the NCAA tournament Saturday in Jacksonville. They advanced to the round of 16 for the first time since 2000, the same year they made it to the national championship game.

Winners of seven in a row, Florida will play again Friday in Minneapolis. Not bad for a team unranked to start the season.

And certainly surprising, even for Donovan.

''I didn't know if we had enough experience to not get exposed,'' he said.

The thing Donovan quickly learned, though, was that his team, for the first time since 2000, was multidimensional on offense.

Lee Humphrey, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green can score from outside, Brewer can slash to the basket and few teams in the country have an inside tandem as tall and talented as Joakim Noah and Al Horford.

''This team has got balance,'' Donovan said. ''There's a lot of components to this team. And you know what, the last couple years our teams have been one-dimensional, and you can't go far being one-dimensional.''

Humphrey and Brewer were a combined 15-of-27 from 3-point range in tournament wins over South Alabama and Milwaukee. Green struggled from the field, but limited turnovers and rendered both opponents' press meaningless.

Noah had 33 points, 15 rebounds, 13 assists and nine blocks in the two games, creating havoc at both ends. Horford scored 27 points on 12-of-16 shooting and added 19 rebounds.

But not everyone was surprised by Florida's success.

''I felt like we could get to the Final Four,'' Brewer said. ''That's what we said at the beginning of the year, and everybody was looking at us like we were stupid. They were like, 'C'mon, you lost everybody.'

''You just know what you've got coming back and what kind of guys you've got.''

When Lee graduated and Roberson and Walsh left school early, few expected the Gators would be able to even make the tournament, let alone make a run. It became more unlikely when standout freshman recruit Derwin Kitchen was ruled ineligible, leaving Donovan with just 10 scholarship players.

But Donovan said his team's chemistry - sophomores Brewer, Green, Horford and Noah are roommates and best friends - made up for all the losses.

''It's the makeup of the guys you're dealing with, their attitudes, their disposition, their understanding,'' Donovan said. ''Sometimes teams work out that way.''

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