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UF says it has learned lesson

The No. 3 seed Gators are not - repeat, not - assuming an opening win vs. Western Kentucky.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2001


Florida coach Billy Donovan does not expect to lecture his team this week about the deceptive nature of NCAA Tournament seedings.

It already knows.

Florida, the No. 3 seed in the South Region, plays No. 14 Western Kentucky in the first round Friday at the Superdome in New Orleans. Game times are to be determined.

Pushed to the limit in first-round games the past two seasons, the Gators (23-6) will not take the Hilltoppers (24-6) for granted in their quest to return to the national championship game.

"There's no question, regardless of who you play in the first round, it's always a tough game," Donovan said. "With what our guys have been through the last two years, they are mature enough to understand we have a very difficult challenge ahead of us."

Florida was a No. 6 seed in 1999, but trailed No. 11 Penn by 11 at halftime before rallying for a 75-61 win. Last season, No. 5 seed UF needed Mike Miller's driving jump shot as time expired in overtime to beat No. 12 Butler, 69-68.

This year, the pesky Bulldogs are the No. 10 seed in the Midwest.

"As they were going through the brackets on the selection show, when Butler popped up our guys said, 'Oh, that team is in for a tough game,' " Donovan said. "When Georgia State popped up, same thing. Our guys understand seeding doesn't mean anything."

Western Kentucky, which earned an automatic bid as the Sun Belt's regular season and tournament champion, is no pushover. Chris Marcus, a 7 foot 1 junior center, averages 16.8 points, 11.9 rebounds and 3 blocks.

The Hilltoppers reached the 1971 Final Four and are making their 17th NCAA Tournament appearance, but their first since 1995.

If Florida advances, it would face the winner of the game between No. 6 Texas and No. 11 Temple on Sunday. Second-round winners advance to the South Region semifinals March 23 in Atlanta.

The rest of the bracket contains several intriguing possibilities for Florida, including the teams it played in the Final Four last season. The Gators beat No. 2 seed North Carolina 71-59 in the national semifinals and lost to No. 1 seed Michigan State 89-76 in the final.

Also in the South are No. 12 Gonzaga, which beat UF in the 1999 Sweet 16, and No. 12 Providence, which Donovan led to the Final Four as a senior in 1987.

"There is the possibility of playing Michigan State. There its the possibility of playing North Carolina," Donovan said. "There also is the possibility of going home before any of that happens with a loss to Western Kentucky."

The Gators, who shared the SEC regular-season championship with Kentucky, have won 12 of 14, but are coming off a 74-69 loss to Mississippi in the semifinals of the SEC tournament.

Down to an eight-player rotation, UF's lack of depth likely will continue in the NCAA Tournament. Donovan doubts senior forward Brent Wright will return from a stress fracture in his fight foot.

"We want to give Brent Wright every opportunity to play," he said. "But last week was not very positive. He's able to do some stuff. He can run straight ahead without pain, he can shoot. But certain cutting movements cause problems. If he is in the same condition (today) he was in last week, he's not playing."

By playing on Friday, not Thursday, and by staying close to home with games in New Orleans and possibly Atlanta, the banged-up Gators should be well-rested.

"We've been able to overcome lack of depth all season, so we have no excuses," Donovan said. "We should be prepared, fresh and ready to go to play Western Kentucky."

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