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Tampa subregional

Gators counter with speed, skill

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 23, 2003

[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
Florida's Matt Bonner, left, may thrive from 3-point land, but he says that doesn't make him soft.
TAMPA -- They, too, know how to snarl.

They glower and they scowl. To push them is to flirt with fury. Their sense of ferocity, when left unfettered, is chilling.

Much like that time Opie crossed Aunt Bea.

Yep, that Florida front line is a nasty bunch.

All bony arms and legs, it is. Cozy to the core and comfy on top of that. The center is a playful teenager and the power forward a smug intellectual.

That ought to give Michigan State the shivers.

If you are seeking intrigue to today's matchup, this is where you begin. With a Michigan State team that will bully, whack, elbow, thump and wallop. Against a Florida team that will not.

The Gators are a ballet of movement. The Spartans are a mess of mean. The Gators are skillful, athletic, quick and unified. The Spartans don't care.

Perhaps this is too generalized. Maybe Florida is tougher than it looks. Maybe Michigan State is more than one-dimensional.

Or, maybe not.

"The perception is what it is," Florida center David Lee said. "I guess we'll see what happens."

The Gators, particularly Lee and forward Matt Bonner, know what you think. They have heard the talking heads on TV. They have been quizzed by reporters. The tune is always the same. Here they are, a pair of finesse players, roaming in area reserved for goons and mayhem.

They've been called unselfish and cerebral. Good passers and smart ballhandlers. And, by gosh, if they don't win the Big Dance they still might get Miss Congeniality.

Except Bonner and Lee know something you may not. They understand skills are not synonymous with weakness. And being able to step outside does not automatically mean you cannot play inside.

"Saying we're finesse players has a soft connotation to it. We don't like it," Bonner said. "There's a difference between being soft and being able to shoot the ball. Just because we can shoot doesn't make us soft.

"You have to play to your strengths. Our strength, for our front line, is speed and skill. It doesn't mean we still can't be aggressive."

This isn't exactly the way Florida was constructed. There was a time when Kwame Brown was to anchor the middle, but he opted for the NBA. So when Udonis Haslem's career ended last season, the Gators were without a centerpiece.

Lee, a natural forward, was asked to fill in. And also fill out.

At 220 pounds by the end of his freshman season, Lee had to eat five meals a day to get up to 240 pounds.

At 6-9, he has the height to play inside. And his passing and quickness are more impressive than most. But he will not be mistaken for an enforcer.

"I've played inside before, so I've banged around a lot," Lee said. "It's just the guys I'm banging into now are 260-270 pounds. They don't move as easily as the forwards I used to hit."

So this is why the Gators play a different style of game. Bonner is a threat from 3-point range, so he'll take defenders outside. Lee can play the high post and drive to the basket.

It may not be a typical inside game, but that does not mean it can't be an effective inside game.

Because the Gators will spread the floor, because their front line is athletic, because they work hard to box out, they have been an adequate rebounding team. Florida has either matched or topped opponents in rebounds in 23-of-32 games.

"Our guys realize (Michigan State) is a physical team and the dimensions may not be the same," coach Billy Donovan said. "We're not a big, strong, physical team. We don't have a guy who will manhandle you inside.

"But that doesn't mean we can't play a physical game. I don't know how you win 25 games without having some toughness to your team."

As he says this, Donovan is standing just outside the Florida locker room. Inside, Lee and Bonner are preparing for Saturday's late afternoon practice.

Bonner with his sore right foot and Lee with a black eye he received from a flying elbow against Sam Houston State in the first round.

The Bearkats were not exactly a skilled team, but they did work inside enough for a half-dozen dunks -- and five botched ones.

If the Gators are worried about Michigan State taking control in the paint, they do not show it. Even with Sam Houston State's success inside, Lee is coming off his best game at center.

He scored a career-high 23 and punctuated several of his baskets with a muscle flex underneath the hoop.

A little unusual, was it not?

"Yeah," Lee says, grinning. "What was I thinking?"

So should Michigan State be afraid of the muscles so cleverly hidden in that skinny body?

"No, no, no," Lee says. "They have no reason to be afraid of me. I've got to stop doing that flexing thing."

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