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Gators-Tar Heels: fast vs. past

Upstart Florida seeks up-tempo game against storied UNC's more traditional approach.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2000

INDIANAPOLIS -- One program has been to the Final Four 15 times, the other twice. One team will look to play a deliberate half-court game, the other to push the pace. One coach is 62 years old, the other 34.

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Opposites do attract.

North Carolina and Florida will play in the men's college basketball national semifinals today at the RCA Dome, a game in which the opponents have nothing in common but their stark contrasts. Old-school Tar Heels versus new-wave Gators.

"There are no favorites in the NCAA Tournament anymore," UF sophomore Mike Miller said. "They're a great basketball team and they always will be. North Carolina is North Carolina. But we're on the rise a little bit and we're looking forward to playing them."

Few programs are as storied as North Carolina. The Tar Heels have three NCAA titles; the Gators have never played for one. UNC has made a record 26 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances; UF just made its first back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances.

But, get this: Florida is favored.

North Carolina spent most of the season failing to live up to expectations. A preseason Top 5 team, the Tar Heels went 7-9 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and lost in the first round of the ACC tournament. They were cast as the No. 8 seed in the South Region, given little chance to advance.

"We had an up and down season," senior point guard Ed Cota said. "We can't blame anybody for writing us off or our fans for criticizing us because we deserved it. But we handled it well. The coaches had patience with us and we just believed."

That Florida is in the Final Four seems less a surprise, given the lofty preseason expectations placed on the Gators' young talent. The No. 5 seed in the East Region, the Gators plowed through North Carolina's other storied program, top-seeded Duke, in the Sweet 16.

But the differences between North Carolina and Florida go beyond tradition. Their styles of play are direct reflections of their contrasting coaches.

Bill Guthridge, in his third season, is an extension of UNC legend Dean Smith, with whom Guthridge was an assistant at 10 Final Fours. His demeanor is understated; his philosophy rooted in the half court. Donovan, who studied as a player and assistant under Rick Pitino, is a relative renegade, hired to shake up an underachieving Florida program with his up-tempo system.

"Coach Donovan is going to bring his unique style anywhere he goes," Miller said. "He's on the right path and people are seeing that this style of play has a real effect. It's hard to prepare for."

The Gators will try to impose their will and their pace on North Carolina, pushing the tempo with full-court pressure and a 10-player rotation. Their goal is to fatigue UNC by the final 10 minutes, even if the press gives up a few easy baskets early in the game.

"I'm relying a lot on Ed Cota and I have a lot of confidence that he will make the right decisions," Guthridge said. "I know that Florida wants to play a 94-foot game. We like to play that, too, under certain situations. We're going to play it, but there will be times when one of our strengths is to get the ball inside to Brendan Haywood or Kris Lang or Julius Peppers."

The Tar Heels, who rely largely on six players, will try to keep things in the half court. Haywood, Lang and Peppers constitute the biggest frontcourt Florida has seen all season.

"I have not seen a team all year where they post feed by just throwing the ball up as high as they can, and no one can get to it because Haywood is so long and so big," Donovan said. "What we've got to do is eliminate those lob passes that lead to dunks."

Each will try overcome the other team's strengths by emphasizing its completely different strengths.

"It's our style of playing that's going to have to win out," Miller said. "And they're probably saying the same thing, that their style of play has to win out. They're going to slow it down and pound it inside. We're going to speed it up.

"We'll see."

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