By HUBERT MIZELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2000
INDIANAPOLIS -- Whiffing the air, which is pure basketball oxygen, the difference must be intoxicating for the Florida Gators, compared with 1994, the other time the football school made the Final Four.
Six years ago in Charlotte, the Gators were matched against Duke. Given no more chance to survive than an igloo in Ecuador. Mike Krzyzewski was loaded again, a renowned coach gunning for a third national championship in four seasons.
Also there was Arkansas, an SEC adversary then far superior to Florida. Eventually, the Hogs became No. 1, barbecuing the Dookies. But, seeing those semifinals coming, you thought about advising the Gators to snap a lot of photographs and collect many souvenirs, because it had a scent of a once-in-a-century fling for Gainesville guys.
Before this season, in 85 years of UF hoops, that was the only Final Four. But the Gators did leave Charlotte swimming in kudos because coach Lon Kruger's troupe played Duke unexpectedly tough, losing 70-65.
It's so different with UF 2000. Talent, depth and expectations have risen. Earth will not quake if these Billy Donovan Gators bounce North Carolina tonight, even if their basketball histories are as different as the music of Pavarotti and Puff Daddy.
If these Gators go even further, winning Monday night's championship, there'll be no shock comparisons to N.C. State 1983 or Villanova 1985 or Texas Western 1966. It would come sooner than anticipated, but Donovan's Gators reaching such heights has become anything but unexpected.
This season, the NCAA Tournament has been dominated by parity and unpredictability. Kenyon Martin busted a leg, top-ranked Cincinnati's hot chances went corpse-cold and the nuttiness was on.
At that painful moment, Indy opened wider than Dick Vitale's mouth with April opportunity for long shots, including unranked 13-game losers Wisconsin and North Carolina. Never had a team with so many failures made a Final Four.
Michigan State, Florida, new-era Tar Heels and upstart Badgers have 40 defeats among them, most for national semifinalists. MSU is the favorite, but the Spartans aren't so frightening as old-time heavies UCLA, Duke, Kentucky or the prime stuff from Dean Smith's days at UNC.
Still, with its oddball charm, this is a Final Four with pizazz, magnetism and intrigue. Excuse me, dear folks from Oklahoma, but Sunday's region results did good things for Indy's marquee.
Wisconsin and Michigan State had already earned the Final Four, but then getting blue-blood North Carolina as well as flamboyant Florida was a neon enhancer, compared with the predictability of mass across-America moaning if ongoing contenders had instead been Tulsa and Oklahoma State.
Just being honest, Okies.
Donovan said of his Indianapolis challenge, the resurgent Tar Heels: "They're jelling, they're meshing and they're rolling, looking like the Carolina team that was picked as high as No. 1 prior to the season."
Gators-Heels will be pretty much a 10-on-6 skirmish. "Florida does beautifully in incorporating its starters plus five more regulars on a constant, up-tempo basis," said UNC coach Bill Guthridge. "We'll be trying with six guys, seven tops."
Guthridge, in 31 seasons as Smith's assistant and now three as UNC boss, has faced a wealth of opponents. This is his 13th Final Four, including two as player then coaching aide at Kansas State. So, it was ear-striking Friday when the 62-year-old head Heel said of 6-foot-8 UF freshman Donnell Harvey, "He could be the best offensive rebounder I've ever coached against."
This is high altitude.
Carolina senior Ed Cota worries only slightly about fatigue, the ultimate Florida factor in an East Region weardown of Duke. "Our main guys are used to playing 38 minutes or more," said the point guard from Brooklyn, N.Y. "Our goal is to make Florida pay a price for all its constant pressing. Defense is our key. If we don't tire mentally, I believe Carolina will be okay physically.
"Defense has been the runaway reason our post-season has been so much more successful than our January and February. Our offense has been ample all the way. We finally began playing together defensively and going hard for two entire halves." Donovan, a 34-year-old wizard with a slick hairstyle that's part Pat Riley and part Eddie Munster, trumpeted a lesson in maturity from a first-round calamity avoided in a 59-58 win over Butler, a university that ironically is the host school for this Final Four.
"It feels kind of funny, practicing in Butler's home gym," Donovan said, "knowing their team feels it should've moved on in the tournament instead of the Gators.
"I'll guarantee that, among us, there's no underestimating of the Tar Heels. Our guys are well-schooled in North Carolina basketball, both historic and current. For us, this is an enormous examination."
If such orange-and-blue majesty happens to play out, with the Gators embracing an NCAA basketball trophy, it would be every bit the equal of Florida's national football championship in 1996. Of course, there may be voices from a football school that wish to debate.