(1) Florida Gators head coach Billy Donovan and senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin met with the media on Thursday the day after teams arrived in Arlington, TX and started the lead up to the Final Four of the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Joining Donovan on the podium was (7) Connecticut Huskies head coach Kevin Ollie. All three discussed their seasons to this point, college basketball in general and Saturday’s semifinal game, which is set for 6:09 p.m. and scheduled to air live on TBS and TNT.
IT’S ALL ABOUT DEPTH, BABY
The Gators and Huskies will enter AT&T Stadium on Saturday with arguably the two deepest teams in the remaining field of four, but it is a different kind of depth that both coaches were asked about on Thursday.
Though the space behind the hoop is a bit open in every arena, fans create a bit of a background image that shooters are used to when judging the distance of the basket and how hard they need to shoot the ball. Playing in a huge stadium like the one in Arlington takes away the fan-made background and replaces it with open space that players have to adjust to.
Neither Donovan nor Ollie were concerned much with the scenario even though in Florida’s case it appeared to be a major issue just last season when UF went 6-for-25 from beyond the arc in two games at then-Cowboys Stadium.
“The NCAA’s given every school an opportunity to get multiple practice opportunities here from [Thursday] for an hour and a half. [Friday] there will be an open practice as well. Shoot-around times the day of the game. We had the opportunity last year to play here, so for some of our guys, it is a familiar place,” said Donovan. “But I think there’s enough time to get ready and play in this kind of venue, because it is a little bit different. But everybody here’s dealing with the same thing. We have all been given the opportunity to come out there and shoot and see what the building’s like.”
Ollie also said he appreciates the NCAA giving his team so many opportunities to practice leading into the game. “Back in 2011 down in Houston, we didn’t have a 90-minute practice. It was the open practice that we’re going to have [Friday] and then the shoot-around. So this really allows our players to see the ball going in. We always want to see that. Just seeing them get used to and relaxed and shooting in a venue like this is a great opportunity for us.”
KNOW WHAT YOU GOT BEFORE IT’S GONE
By this time of year, many players have already declared for the NBA Draft or are in the process of finishing out the spring semester of their senior season. Though the NBA is a draw and undoubtedly on many players’ minds, Wilbekin said Thursday that he has valued every moment he has been a member of the Gators program and will not overlook his collegiate accomplishments when he eventually moves on.
“For me, coming into college, I was just blessed to be able to have an opportunity to play at Florida. I didn’t have a lot of hype coming in as a freshman, so I was really just having the most fun in the situation that I was at,” he said. “That’s what I’ve continued to do for all my four years. I never really looked to the future as much as I’m just having fun in the moment right now and just enjoying playing with my teammates and the college experience. It’s a lot of fun with the fans and everything and having teammates that you care about. Whatever happens in the future, whatever happens, will happen. But I’m enjoying right now.”
Asked whether he believes the nation still appreciates players that have great college careers but do not necessarily go on to have much success as professionals, Donovan intimated that he does not think that is the case and explained why that mindset makes him so personally frustrated.
“I saw an article, was really sad, it was about kids that had stayed in college for four years and had unbelievable careers, deep runs in the tournament, Final Fours, and I don’t know all the players it mentioned, but they were not in the NBA. They were overseas. They viewed themselves as failures. I found that very sad,” he said.
“That’s kind of maybe a societal issue where we start to deem what success is for a lot of these kids, and if they don’t make it to the NBA, then their college career means nothing, is nothing. I feel bad that a lot of kids walk off a college campus if they have been there for four years and view themselves as being anything less than successful. Seriously, it bothers me when I hear stories like that.”
NCAA, YOU BETTER GET YOUR MONEY RIGHT
At the conclusion of Thursday’s press conference, Donovan and Ollie were both asked about the Northwestern football players fighting for the right to become a union and whether they believed that was the right step forward for college athletics and specifically basketball. Both coaches went off on a mini rant about how they believe college basketball players are not fairly compensated with each providing a couple suggestions on how to make things more fair for everyone.
» Donovan: “I think the players do deserve more things. There are certain things that I think are outdated and don’t make sense in a lot of ways. … There needs to be more done for the student athletes, in my opinion. They make an incredible investment. They obviously are generating a lot of dollars on college campuses, and I don’t know what the solution is. I do know that there needs to be a better way to take care of them in a way that maybe would not jeopardize or violate them being considered professionals. I think there’s ways that we can do that.
“The idea that a kid can’t get a free hamburger somewhere, it doesn’t make any sense to me. What’s the big deal? How is that hurting anybody? I get, ‘Well, then it leads to this and this and this.’ I get some of those thoughts, but there’s some common sense things I think that we can do to insure that from a normal student activity life they can have money in their pocket and be able to do things.”
» Ollie: “I remember when I was playing in college when we went to the tournament, we wasn’t playing in venues like this. Everything has changed and evolved and in some way, somehow, the student athlete, that dynamic has to evolve and change. Like I don’t know which way is going to lead, but some way, somehow we’re going to all make a sacrifice and get in a room and see how we can make a change for the student athlete. Not [being allowed to] fly the parents up to see a game – and they allow their kids to come to the University of Connecticut all the way from Los Angeles, California, which I came.
“Some things like that has to change. Hopefully we can do that. Hopefully we can keep the integrity of the NCAA and the student athletes, but everything in life is always evolving. I think we have to get to a point where it’s evolving. I’d love to see the student athletes, when they graduate, have some kind of medical benefits or something out there to give them a leeway until they’re able to get a secure job with health benefits.”
» Donovan on Rick Pitino initially advising him not to accept the UF job: “I think what he was concerned about at that point was the fact that there was a very, very heralded recruiting class coming in. They had signed six guys. Coach Pitino didn’t think it was a very good class being in the league. He thought the team was a long way off. I think his main concern was just Jeremy Foley, what was his awareness of expectation of where the program was at. I think once I sat down with Jeremy, and obviously a long term commitment, and he was very aware of where things were at that point in time and very supportive. I just felt like I wanted to be around somebody like that, that you could try to build something together. That’s what ultimately I think he said, ‘This probably is a good move for you if you feel that strongly about it,’ but in the beginning he was not that way.”
» Donovan on creating a difficult non-conference schedule for his team including road games at Wisconsin and UConn: “When you play in those situations, you learn about yourself. … That early in the season, we’re all trying to get to know our team better, to see how we respond against high level competition. You’re also trying to get somewhat prepared for your league play because you know you’re going to go into some difficult places to play. So for us those two early road games at UConn, at Wisconsin, I thought they were really helpful to our team moving forward and in terms of where we needed to improve and get better.”
» Donovan on whether Shabazz Napier reminds him a bit of himself while at Providence: “If I reminded myself of him or him of me, I would not be in coaching right now; I would be playing in the NBA right now. I think when I played, it was a different time because it was the inception of the three point line. I’m not so sure a lot of coaches around the country were as advanced in dealing with it as Coach Pitino was because of his NBA background. But Shabazz, to me, is as good as any point guard in this country. I got a lot of respect for his leadership. I got a lot of respect for his competitiveness. The confidence that he gives the rest of those guys, his willingness to take big shots and make big shots, his willingness to be unselfish and to play the right way. He is a heck of a player and a heck of a talent, as good as anybody in the country.”
» Wilbekin on if he is excited about having a second chance to lock down Napier: “Well, I always like guarding guys that are challenging to guard. But as far as getting another crack at playing them, it’s really not about that at all. I would be happy to play anybody in the Final Four because I’m just happy to be here with an opportunity to advance. So they’re a great team, they have obviously played great up until this point, so it’s going to be a tough game for both of us. Hopefully we’ll come out with a lot of high energy and ready to play.”
» Ollie on Florida sophomore guard Michael Frazier II and his dangerous stroke: “He’s an outstanding weapon. He creates so many spacing challenges for us on the defensive end where we have to guard him. They do a wonderful job, Coach Donovan does a wonderful job with his pick and roll schemes where he spaces the court out. … We’re going to have to make sure we communicate and talk at a level five, so we can make sure he gets covered. Then also in transition we have to get back and locate and identify where Michael Frazier is at – at all times.”
» Ollie on what he means when he says he wants his players to be at “level five” in their performance: “It’s just a championship mentality. It’s playing together, playing unselfish, playing as five and not just one. … The whole of our team is better than the sums of its parts. We know that. The only way that we can get here and perform at the best possible way is for everybody to be focused in on us, and that’s our ultimate goal each and every day is, us, how can we improve as a team.”
» Donovan on how he decides when to recruit one-and-done players: “My recruiting philosophy has not changed. We’re going to try to get guys that fit our philosophy, our style of play and how we would like to play. I really am not bothered with it one way or the other. We’re looking for people that would fit how we want to play. … The fit for us and what we’re looking for is what is important. But I haven’t changed in terms of, well, ‘I’m not going to recruit this guy because he may only be in college for a year or two.’ If it’s a fit for us, I look at it as a blessing, you’ve had him for a year. If it’s a guy like Patric Young who has elected to stay for four years, it’s a great thing for us as well.”