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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
NASHVILLE - After Florida survived its first-round game against Ohio Friday, coach Billy Donovan said his players could learn from the "near-death" experience, referring to their season almost coming to an end.
Villanova has a more literal definition of the phrase.
On Jan. 11, as the Wildcats flew home after an 83-78 overtime win over Providence, their charter plane encountered a problem with the switch that handles the plane's elevation. The 36 players, coaches, staff and fans aboard were told by the flight attendant to prepare for a crash landing.
"Your whole life flashes before your eyes," forward Curtis Sumpter said Saturday. "You wonder how people are going to remember you, what your family will feel. There's just so much happening in a little amount of time, it's just overwhelming."
Two months later, the players still have a hard time putting the experience into words.
"I can't really explain the feeling," junior guard Randy Foye said. "I think everybody who was on that plane when we saw that flight attendant stand up and give us instructions to brace ourselves for a heavy-impact landing and you looked around at everybody's eyes, everybody just knew and thought that they were going to die. So everybody just pretty much grabbed hands, held together and told each other they loved them and just prepared for anything that was going to take place that night."
The plane, whose passengers included two team chaplains, landed safely.
LOVE THOSE UNDERDOGS: With both teams coming off near-upset losses, Florida and Villanova were repeatedly asked why first-round games are so tough for top-seeded teams. The answer is simple, they said: America loves underdogs and upsets.
"That's what everybody lives for this time of year, to see Cinderellas, to see upsets," Donovan said. "It creates stories. It creates a great environment. What's the first question I always get asked? I'm up there watching film on Ohio University and all of a sudden the phone rings and it's one of my staff members or my wife - anybody get upset? That's the first question anybody asks. And when you say there's no upset, it's like, awwwwww People want to see that constantly. Outside of Florida fans Friday, no one was rooting for Florida. Outside of Louisville fans, no one was rooting for Louisville. Outside of Kansas fans, no one's rooting for Kansas."
Even players admitted they feel like all fans.
"Yeah, when I watching I'm pretty much rooting for the underdog all the time," Foye said. "That's what the NCAA Tournament is all about."
FRIENDS AND FOES: Today's game will briefly turn friends into adversaries. Junior guard Matt Walsh is a Philadelphia area native who has friends on the Wildcats. He played with several in his AAU days and occasionally plays pick-up games at Villanova when home on vacation. Wildcats coach Jay Wright, 44, is a friend of Donovan and his family, has attended coaching clinics at UF and once nearly bought the home of Donovan's parents in Rockville Centre, N.Y. Walsh said he looks forward to playing old friends, while Wright could live without it.
"I don't like playing against friends at all," Wright said. "I don't enjoy that. But as soon as the game starts, you put that out of your mind."