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The Gators say they are using tonight's game at Michigan State as a measuring stick.
By JOANNE KORTH
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 2000
Everyone is calling tonight's game between Florida and Michigan State a rematch of last season's NCAA championship game. That's the reason ESPN executives set it up.
But the Gators won't bite.
Determined not to live in the past, No. 8 Florida claims revenge will not be a factor in the made-for-television game against No. 2 Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich.
"One thing we try to do as a team is put last season in the past," junior center Udonis Haslem said of the 89-76 loss to MSU. "We definitely remember losing to Michigan State, but we can't let that affect what we do this year."
MSU doesn't buy it.
"I think they're definitely looking for revenge," senior guard Charlie Bell said. "They can say that, but in the back of their heads, they know we beat them for the national championship. I know if we were in their shoes, we would probably be saying the same things about it being a new year."
The Spartans won their second national championship with a victory against the NCAA-darling Gators on April 3 at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.
The game pitted MSU's savvy veterans against UF's talented, young depth.
Michigan State's senior trio of Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and A.J. Granger virtually willed the Spartans to victory. Peterson led MSU with 21 points. Granger tied a career high with 19. Cleaves, who had 18 points despite playing most of the second half on a badly turned ankle, was the Final Four's Most Valuable Player.
Within minutes, experts anointed the Gators one of three teams favored to win the title in 2001. But weeks later, leading scorer Mike Miller and leading rebounder Donnell Harvey declared for early entry to the NBA draft, altering Florida's outlook and the complexion of tonight's game.
So much has changed.
"This is a new year for us," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "We're getting a chance to play against one of best teams in the country and play on the road. Going into Michigan State and that environment is going to tell us a lot about ourselves as a basketball team."
MSU starts three seniors but relies heavily on sophomore forward Jason Richardson. And it brings freshmen Marcus Taylor and Zach Randolph off the bench. The Spartans are an explosive team with raw talent that will develop throughout the season.
Like UF last season.
"As their team gains experience, I see tremendous room for improvement because of their athletic ability," Donovan said. "Young guys get impatient. Ours did last year. But I'm sure those guys will be trying to put it all together."
Florida returns seven players from last season's 10-player rotation, including four who started the title game. And though many of those players are adjusting to new roles, the Gators like to call themselves a veteran team.
Like MSU last season.
"Last year Michigan State showed great character down the stretch and made great plays to put themselves in a position to win," said Haslem, whose career-high 27 points provided UF's only highlight. "Hopefully, if it comes down to that situation for us, our leaders can step up and do the same thing for our club.
"Right now I think we're a veteran ballclub. Our seniors and juniors have have been to the Sweet 16 and national championship. Not many teams can say that."
Florida's refusal to talk about this game as a rematch could have something to do with these statistics: Since 1989 there have been five national-championship rematches early the next season. The defending champions won all five. And UF is 2-9 all time against defending national champs.
But though Donovan is minimizing the rematch, he is maximizing the importance of the early-season game against one of the country's top-ranked teams. The Gators, he said, need to play as if the national championship is at stake all over again.
"They need to put their whole heart and soul into this game," Donovan said. "There is never a situation where I'm going to say, "This is not really that important, it's a non-conference game, we're just trying to gain experience.' This is a really important game."
Rematch or not.
TONIGHT'S GAME: Florida at Michigan St., 7.
TV/RADIO: ESPN; WDAE-AM 620