By JOANNE KORTH
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 2000
Florida doesn't have to go nearly as far from home to play in the NCAA Tournament this time, but it will pack something it didn't take last season.
Eleventh-ranked Florida, a surprise to reach the Sweet 16 in the West Region last year, is the No. 5 seed in the East Region. The Gators (25-6) play Butler (23-7) in the first round Friday in Winston-Salem, N.C.
"People think we should advance and move on," UF coach Billy Donovan said. "Our guys cannot be afraid of failure. They have to deal with the pressure of expectations. That's part of being a good team and it's something they've never had to deal with before."
Donovan was a bit puzzled that his team was seeded fifth despite being a regular member of the Top 10 this season. Though the Southeastern Conference was considered one of the nation's toughest league, none of the six teams in the NCAA Tournament was seeded higher than fourth.
The Gators tied a school record with 23 regular-season wins but lost 85-70 at Kentucky in the finale. As a result, Florida shared the SEC title with Kentucky, LSU and Tennessee, which made it hard to separate schools in the NCAA seeding.
"I thought we probably should have been a No. 4 seed, but I've heard so many coaches whine and complain and say they were treated unfairly because of their seeding," Donovan said. "The way I look at it, the University of Florida has been to six NCAA Tournaments in 81 years. We're excited."
The East Region has many intriguing possibilities for the Gators, most notably a potential second-round game against No. 4 seed Illinois. The Fighting Illini are coached by Lon Kruger, who led the Gators to the 1994 Final Four but left two seasons later.
"I know there are a lot of people who want to see us play Illinois," Donovan said. "It would be a tremendous matchup. But Butler is my main focus right now. If we have a chance to play Illinois, so be it."
Looking ahead even further, Florida likely would face top-seeded Duke in the Sweet 16 in Syracuse, N.Y. For that reason, Donovan must keep his young team focused on Butler.
The Gators admitted to underestimating Auburn in a 78-70 loss in the second round of the SEC tournament. That loss likely cost the Gators a position or two in the NCAA seeding chart.
"Our team learned a tremendous amount from the Auburn game and it heard a lot from me," Donovan said. "It was a long film session (Sunday). It would be very disappointing to me if these guys look past anybody in this situation. Hopefully they will ... be humble and respectful and know if they look past anybody, they're going to get beat."
Butler, the Midwestern Collegiate Conference champion, is located in Indianapolis, site of the Final Four. It plays at a deliberate pace, which is in direct contrast to the Gators' up-tempo style. The Bulldogs are led by Lavall Jordan's 11.9 points per game and have won their past 10.
Donovan lost to Butler 102-92 in 1995, his last season at Marshall.
"I understand the type of team we're going to go against," Donovan said. "They're a very dangerous team with the way they guard people in the half-court and try to control the pace of the game. It's going to come down to style of play."