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Gators could add to run of glory in Sunshine State

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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 3, 2000

INDIANAPOLIS -- Has our sunny peninsula ever been hotter? Florida State University is a chest-thumping, smiling national football champ. Miami's Hurricanes won baseball's most recent College World Series.

Are we warm?

This time a year ago, college basketball's Final Four was played in our "football state" for the first time, also in my "baseball town," St. Petersburg.

Pass the provincial oxygen.

Tiger Woods lives among us.

It's been just three months since the Tampa Bay Bucs powered to the Super Bowl doorstep. Now, from our neighborhood of sizzle, it's the Florida Gators with an opportunity tonight to win it all in NCAA basketball by beating Magic State University.

Pride, it's a sweet thing.

One more home-cooking additive: If the Gators outdo Michigan State, they'll become only the sixth university in history to celebrate Division I national championships in both basketball and football.

If your trivia bone is itching, here's the scratch: so far, grid/hoop "We're No. 1" doubles have been achieved by Michigan, UCLA, Ohio State, Arkansas and, yes, the MSU Spartans.

With slight expansion of Dixie horizons, we see a Southeastern Conference team in the NCAA finals for a seventh year in the past eight. You know, a "football league." Even though, pre-Gators, the SEC's only schools to get this far in 61 years of Big Dances were Kentucky (seven national championships) and Arkansas (one).

I'm wired. Let's tip if off.

Some long-ago coaching icon like Knute Rockne, Adolph Rupp or George Custer first declared, "Defense wins championships." In 2000, it's still apropos logic as the Final Two flex and fly at RCA Dome.

Michigan State plays gritty D, starting out front with the squatty, ferocious Mateen Cleaves at point guard. Spartans are especially adept at defending the perimeter, which means heavy hawking of Florida three-point gunners Brett Nelson, Mike Miller, Teddy Dupay and Kenyan Weaks.

Florida's coach is called Billy D, which means Donovan but also Defense. "It's our heartbeat," said Major Parker, the most dependable and physical among Donovan's defenders. "To play our style, it takes 10 good men. We have 'em. Most opponents rely on six or seven guys. Most games, it's the difference."

Publicity juices more amply flow for Miller, Nelson, Dupay, Udonis Haslem and Florida's vital offensive guns, but when it comes to D, the studly 6-foot-4 Parker primes the Gator pump.

"I love the passions and combat of defense," said the junior from Fort Lauderdale. "You keep nagging, bodying up and stalking your opponent. When you succeed, you can see it in their eyes. They start puffing. Pulling at the bottom of their shorts. I get a high off that."

Major is Florida's chief enforcer. In hockey, they might call him a goon. Parker challenges. He can incite. "It's a great, fun way the Gators go about basketball," he said with a grin late Saturday, minutes after an NCAA semifinal bouncing of North Carolina. "We work so hard on practice courts, a game cannot be harder."

Donnell Harvey was sitting nearby. Nodding. At age 14, he loathed basketball. "Football was my dream," said the 6-8 freshman. "My older brother was the basketball junkie in our family. I avoided the game because there wasn't enough contact.

"Of course, a lot has changed in a short time," said the kid from Shellman, Ga. (pop. 1,211). "I grew tall, so basketball was forced on me. I got better. Good enough to be national high school player of the year. Now, one season later, we're playing for the NCAA championship. I've found good contact in the game."

Life is abundant.

In sports, the term pressure is overstated, overrated and overanalyzed. Parker was asked about it. "Pressure is something that busts water pipes," said the D demon, "but, no worry, it's not a resident of my house."

If there's pressure, the larger load is on Michigan State. Florida is overloaded with youth, with the deep employment of four freshmen and three sophomores. Tom Izzo coaches a senior-loaded lineup. For them, it's a last NCAA chance, having lost to Duke in 1999 semis at Tropicana Field.

"Call it anything you want," said Cleaves, the outspoken drum major of Izzo's band. "Sure, there is a sense of urgency. A sense of now or never. A sense of desire. To me, those are positive things. I'm counting on us being national champions."

All this is rare stuff for us Floridians. Just three times before had universities from our state attained the Final Four. Jacksonville (1970) and FSU (1972) lost national finals, both to UCLA. In 1994, the Gators were felled by Duke in the semis. Now comes a far better UF chance of becoming the first NCAA basketball champ from America's fourth-largest state.

A question flashes to mind: Can Steve Spurrier continue to succeed as football coach of the Gators, working at a "basketball school." Okay, I know his Duke past. I know his alma mater. I was just jesting.

Let's be candid.

With this fresh flurry of orange-and-blue hoops giddiness, we can say with no reservations that the massive importance of football is unscathed among the total UF consistency.

For a considerable Gators multitude, being in the Final Four is embraced as an enjoyable, fulfilling way to pass a few weeks at this time of year while awaiting the next kickoff of football autumn.

Tee it up in Indy.

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