NEW ORLEANS - It was a mild issue some three plus-weeks ago, when Florida dismantled Alabama in the O'Dome to clinch at least a share of the SEC regular-season championship. Should the Gators cut don the nets after taking care of the Tide?
The answer was a firm "no," since the Gators had not clinched the title outright and probably, out of deference to Alabama coach Anthony Grant, the former top aide to UF head coach Billy Donovan and one of his closest friends.
Donovan told the players they'd still have three more chances to take out the net clippers - the SEC Tournament, reaching the Final Four and winning the national championship. The first opportunity slipped away with a loss to Kentucky in the final of the SEC Tournament, but the Gators have a great chance to do some significant net-cutting tomorrow since a victory over Butler in the Southeast Regional final would propel them to the Final Four next week in Houston.
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"Ever since the game was over yesterday I've been thinking about it, just knowing we have the opportunity to make that happen," senior forward Alex Tyus said. "I'm just really excited right now - can't wait until the game is played."
The only player on Florida's roster to experience any sort of net-cutting deal in college is senior center Vernon Macklin, who was part of Georgetown's Final Four run as a seldom-used freshman in 2007.
"It would be very special - that's one you remember," sophomore guard Kenny Boynton said. "Vernon's been in that position before and was telling us about it. The Final Four is a different experience you definitely want to get to once in your life. We're going to come out and leave it all on the court tomorrow." . . .
For the second time in a week, the Gators will have a chance to deliver a third knockout blow to an NCAA Tournament opposition. First it was UCLA, who the Gators toppled in the national championship game in 2006 and the national semifinal in 2007 before upending the Bruins in the Round of 32 last weekend in Tampa.
This time it's the Butler Bulldogs, who Florida has beaten twice in the NCAA Tournament under Donovan. The first came in the opening round in 2000 in Winston-Salem, N.C., a 69-68 overtime affair best remembered for Mike Miller's off-balance leaner at the buzzer for the win that catapulted the Gators all the way to the national title game. Not only did the Gators need Miller's desperation shot to escape, but Udonis Haslem, a shaky free throw shooter, had to nail two foul shots to send the game into overtime, and the Bulldogs' LaVell Jordan had to miss two free throws to set up Miller's heroics.
Current Butler coach Brad Stevens remembers listening to the agonizing setback on the radio.
"We just pulled over because it was getting a little too intense to drive and listen," Stevens said. "I don't know where we were, probably somewhere in northeastern Ohio, but I know we heard the end and were devastated by it."
Seven years later, the Gators pulled out a hard-fought 65-57 win in the Sweet 16 in St. Louis en route to the second of its national titles, behind 17 points from Taurean Green and 16 from Al Horford.
"Butler has proven they're as good as any program in the country," Donovan said of the eighth-seeded Bulldogs, who fell to Duke by one point in last year's national title game. "You don't get to a national championship game or the amount of Sweet 16s (four in the last nine years) that they've gotten to by just being a Cinderella story. That doesn't happen year after year." . . .
When Butler hit a tough patch at the end of January, losing three straight games to fall to 14-9 on the season and 6-5 in the Horizon League, a dramatic fall for the 2010 national runnerup, Stevens reached out to Donovan for advice. Stevens and Donovan have struck up a friendship through the Butler head man's participation in the annual coaching clinic in Gainesville headed by UF assistant coach Larry Shyatt each August.
"He's one of the best coaches in the business, and I've been fortunate to spend some time down there with them at the annual clinic that they run in the fall," Stevens said. "I just reached out to him maybe at the start of that losing streak. We lost a couple more games after that, but - and just talked about the ups and downs following a championship season. And we did not win the championship like they did a couple times, but certainly the target is relatively the same at that point.
"He just shared insights, shared thoughts. You're just two coaches on the phone talking for 30 or 45 minutes about -- and just sharing stories and sharing ideas, and you're just looking for anything at that moment in time to flip a switch. You want to stay fresh and you want to always continue to grow. That's something I really respect about Coach Donovan is he's won two national championships, he's been to a Final Four before that. He's at the pinnacle of this profession and he's always trying to grow and get better, and I've always been very impressed with him for that." . . .
Lastly, one constant for Florida this season has been its sticky defense. The Gators held BYU to just 35.7 percent shooting in the Sweet 16 victory Thursday night - only three times all season have the Cougars had a worse shooting game. In addition, All-American guard Jimmer Fredette connected on just 11 of 29 shots from the field - his 18 misses were the most he's had in a single game all season.