Florida coach Bill Donovan has made it a priority throughout the season to keep his team focused on the task at hand, and to leave last year’s national championship in the past.
After a late-season slump during which that focus appeared to wane at times, Donovan has his top-seeded Gators back to playing dominating basketball as they roll into their NCAA tournament opener against Jackson State in the Midwest Regional on Friday night.
Donovan’s team won the first national championship in school history last year, capturing the SEC tournament before winning five of its six NCAA tournament games by double-digit margins. This season, the Gators (29-5) matched a school record with 17 straight victories and easily captured the SEC East Division, but a rough patch followed the win streak.
Florida followed the 17-game run with a 1-3 stretch, falling by double digits in each of the losses. The Gators, though, got back on track by beating Kentucky in its regular season finale, and then stormed through the conference tournament to capture the top overall seed for the NCAAs.
The defending national champs defeated their three SEC tourney opponents by an average of 19.7 points per game.
“We win our last home game against Kentucky, we win three games in the SEC tournament and we’re back flying high again,” Donovan said. “Our guys see this, and they understand through those experiences that this is the frame that gets built up and you learn. We’ve learned that we’re not good enough to just show up and play. We have to go out and play, and we have to play to the best of our ability.
“Whether people’s expectations are that we’re going to win it all, or whether they’re that we’re playing terrible, it doesn’t matter.”
The expectations that Florida could become the first team to win back-to-back titles since Duke in 1991-92 came from the return of all five Gators starters, after star center Joakim Noah and forwards Corey Brewer and Al Horford debated entering the NBA draft after their sophomore seasons.
Along with the return of a starting lineup that won the title last year, Donovan was able to maintain a sense of drive and purpose in the Gators for this season.
“A chance to win another national championship,” starting point guard Taurean Green said about his team’s motivation. “I think once you have the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament, there’s going to be critics out there saying, ‘Florida is going to lose in the Sweet 16, Florida’s going to lose in the Elite Eight, Florida might lose in the first round.’ Everyone is going to have their opinions, so we’ll find something else to motivate us.”
Horford led Florida in scoring at 13.2 points per game, but each starter averaged at least 9.9 points. Horford and Noah each made more than 60 percent of their shots while combining to pull down more than 17 rebounds per game. Guard Lee Humphrey made 45.7 percent (90-for-197) of his 3-pointers.
Brewer was the most versatile of the bunch, averaging 12.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.9 steals. Green, who shot 40.7 percent from 3-point range, also leads the team in assists at 3.5 per game.
“I think they’ve all done really well this year. They want to win, and they want to do it together,” Donovan said. “They’re focused on going out and winning and they know that if they don’t play well, they’re not going to win, regardless of how they’re seeded.”
Florida averages 79.3 points and leads the nation in shooting at 52.7 percent, including 40.8 percent from beyond the arc. The 52.7 percent from the field is the highest by any team since the 1995-96 UCLA squad shot 52.8 percent.
Jackson State (21-13) is making its third NCAA tournament appearance and first since 2000. The Tigers finished second in the Southwestern Athletic Conference before defeating Mississippi Valley State 81-71 in the tournament final, as SWAC player of the year Trey Johnson scored 33 points.
Johnson, a 6-foot-5 guard, was second in the nation with 27.1 points per game. He shot only 41.5 percent from the field and 33.3 percent (77-for-231) from 3-point range, but Donovan knows that the senior has to be the Gators’ top priority defensively.
“Anytime you look at a scorer, you look at how many shots he’s getting up and how many attempts he gets at the basket, but the one thing about him is he’s really an efficient offensive player, and I think he’d be able to score in our league like he does right now,” Donovan said. “He’s probably as talented as any offensive player we’ve played this year.”
Johnson was the only Jackson State player to average in double figures, but freshman forward Grant Maxey (8.8 ppg), senior guard Juilus Young (8.6) and reserve Jeremy Caldwell (7.3) were significant contributors.
Jackson State and Florida will be meeting for the first time. The winner will play No. 8 seed Arizona or ninth-seeded Purdue on Sunday.