Gators discuss advancing to the Elite Eight

No. 7-seed Florida Gators head coach Billy Donovan and guards freshman Bradley Beal and junior Kenny Boynton spoke after Thursday’s Sweet 16 victory over the No. 3-seed Marquette Golden Eagles about the hard-fought victory and advancing to the Elite Eight round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. Florida will face No. 4-seed Louisville on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. live on CBS.

IT ALL STARTS WITH THE COACH

The Gators are experiencing a spectacular turnaround, no doubt, and while Beal and the team’s bench has been a large part of it, Donovan is certainly the catalyst for the change the team has undergone recently. Asked how he has gotten his team to adjust and do more this season, Donovan (like any good coach) gave his players all of the credit.

“We’ve got really good kids. When adversity hits during the course of the year, I’m not so sure they know exactly how to handle it,” he said. “I asked [Brad] one time, ‘What’s the most difficult part for you playing in college?’ He said, ‘Dealing with adversity and dealing with bad games because I didn’t have a lot of those in high school.’ Because he was always the best player on the floor. Even for Patric, too, the grind and having to come every single day. When you’re relied upon for the first time in your life by other players and a coaching staff and people, there’s a responsibility that comes with that. So when it doesn’t go well, a lot of times they don’t know how to handle it.

“Going through some of those adversities that they had to go through has forced them to kind of grow and mature. With Erik [Murphy], I told him at halftime, I think he was 0-5; I told him, ‘I want you to shoot it every time you’re open and if I see you not shooting the ball with confidence, I’m taking you out of the game. You have a responsibility to every guy in this room that when you shoot the ball, you got to expect it to go in. If it doesn’t, we’ll be fine.’ […] Just trying to push those guys into positions where they’re being forced to grow up. Everybody handles it differently.

“They are such good kids that they want to do well. Sometimes they just need some help to get through those difficult times.”

It doesn’t hurt that Donovan is an exceptional coach or – as Marquette head coach Buzz Williams put it – “He’s just class.” Williams continued, “He does it for the right reasons. I don’t think his ego gets in the way. You talk about a guy that has won two national championships and he’s only 46 years old. And he’s won over 400 games. And he’s won 28 games now in the NCAA Tournament. And he still talks to you and he still looks you in the eye and he says, ‘How ya doin’?’ I appreciate that.

“There’s a lot of guys in our business that don’t do that. Because sometimes they think they win because of who they are. I think he’s been raised in the business the right way, and I just have the utmost respect for him. I think he’ll be like some of the guys in our league – he’ll be in the hall of fame and still coach 10 more years. You know what I mean? I think he’ll be in the hall of fame before he’s 55 years old. There are very few of those guys, very few of those guys. I have great respect for who he is.”

BEAL’S EMERGENCE CONTINUES

Having learned to play more aggressively and no longer as concerned about getting in his teammates’ way, Beal has exploded over the last five games. He is averaging 17 points on 54 percent shooting (43 percent from downtown) with 8.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.4 blocks in the five games that have made up the 2012 postseason. His improved level of play is easily recognizable and obviously quite praiseworthy.

“Brad is really unique. He’s a great kid. Actually he’s a much better kid than he is a player, that will give you an idea what it is like coaching him,” Donovan said. “I had a hard time with him early in the year because I think when you come out of high school you automatically – as decorated as he was – there is this expectation not only for himself but people around him who know him and watched him play and think that he’s just going to step on this stage and just be this star.

“He struggled shooting the ball early in November and December and he didn’t handle it well. At times he could get a little moody and a little pouty. He just didn’t know how to handle it. I think he realized when he wasn’t shooting the ball well that there are other parts of his game he could step up and really impact the game with his driving, with his rebounding, with his assists. The one thing that’s great about him is he’s a total chemistry guy. I’ve been around a lot of really good players that they can make it all about themselves. He has great respect for the returning players. He doesn’t necessarily want to step on anybody’s toes. He’s very much aware of where his place is on the team. He never, ever is disrespectful to players.

“He’s got a great awareness as a young kid of what team chemistry is all about. I’d say he’s a great facilitator of team chemistry. He’s really very unique in that way. He’s got a great presence and a confidence in himself but it’s not an arrogance and an over-the-top where he actually views himself being better than someone else. Our guys, with him coming in, you can’t do anything else but love him because of the way he conducts himself.”

Beal agreed with the notion that Thursday as probably the best game of his UF career and explained how he has turned the corner recently. “Before the games, I’m aware of the stage. I get caught up in the moment or whatever. But once the ball is thrown in the air, I block everything out and just focus in on the game and what the team needs to do to win,” he said. I know it’s a big crowd and everything like that, but I just stay humble, stay grounded and focus on what the team needs to do. […] I had a lot of confidence in myself tonight as well as my teammates. I found ways to get open, just stayed aggressive and tried to make plays.”

On the other side of the court, Williams was very cognizant of Beal’s effectiveness and simply could not stop him during the contest. “I think he’s really good. Nothing against Erving Walker. Nothing against Kenny Boynton, Erik Murphy, Patric Young. In a lot of ways, I think Bradley Beal is their swing vote because he’s so multi-versatile, talented, can guard multiple guys,” he said. “He plays multiple positions whether they’re small, whether they’re big. He can beat you off the bounce, using their ball screens; he can catch and shoot. I think he is their leading rebounder, isn’t he? I think he’s really good. I mean he missed two shots. That’s a heck of a line. Really good.”

BACK TO THE ELITE EIGHT

Florida may have found its way back to the Elite Eight for the second-straight season and fourth time since 2006, but Donovan has had to make a lot of changes from the team that made their run one year ago. He admitted that it has been “really hard” to get to this point in the season.

“Our team is totally different than it was a year ago,” he said. “We were such a long, big, experienced team with [Vernon] Macklin and [Alex] Tyus and [Chandler] Parsons all being seniors. Then we had Erving Walker, a junior, and we had some good young guys come off the bench that played spot minutes in Patric and Scottie [Wilbekin]. We’re a lot younger and a lot different and play a lot different than we did a year ago. It’s a great compliment to those guys and how hoard they’ve worked, the schedule that we’ve played, them wanting to learn and grow and get better. I’m very proud of them and very happy that we’ve been able to move on this far in the tournament.”

Donovan is not the only one pleased to be back to the Elite Eight. Boynton also expressed his delight in his team’s accomplishment and believes that a tough regular season prepared the Gators for this opportunity. “It means a lot. It goes to show the losses early in the season made us stronger,” he said. “Before the NCAA Tournament, we had seen every defense and offense there could be. Those losses fueled us to this point in time. We’re happy to be here.”

NOTES AND QUOTES

» Donovan on making sure the team drives the paint during the game: “We don’t have, per se, an offensive-dominant post player. I think Patric has gotten better and he’s made good growth and he’s improved. But he’s not that offensive player you can just dump the ball inside to him. When he gets great position, he’s an effective scorer. You still have to put pressure on at the basket – one to get to the free throw line and two to get yourself some easy baskets. Because of the way we can shoot the ball and space the floor, we’ve got to try to put the ball on the floor and get into the paint and create some help, which opens up maybe getting fouled, finishing at the basket and/or if there is a collapse we can kick out and knock down some open shots. We’ve got to have a paint presence.”

» Donovan on his former head coach, Louisville’s Rick Pitino: “Outside of my parents he’s been the most influential person in my life. I’m very thankful for the opportunities that he’s provided me as a player, as a coach, the relationship that we’ve shared for more than 25 years. When you’re in this profession, now for me more than 25 years, you have situations where former assistants [and coaches play each other]. The game is really about the players that are playing in the game, that are going to be competing on Saturday because both teams have earned the right to play. The competition part of it will never ever get in the way, for me, with our relationship ever.”

» Donovan on Florida’s bench: “I thought we were going to need to use our bench, especially in this game. […] That was encouraging that we could rely on them. […] With the injury to Will Yeguete and their roles all being kind of in flux so to speak as we tried to figure it out, those guys have really settled in to understanding what they need to do.”

» Beal on Murphy finding a “mean streak”: “Murphy’s just being aggressive on both ends of the floor. Coach is always on his butt about rebounding in practice. It’s just carrying over to the game. He’s doing a tremendous job for us just grabbing the ball and being strong with it, rebounding on both ends pretty well for us.”

» Boynton on weathering the run by Marquette: “After the steal on Erving, we knew that they could be back in the game easily. I think we buckled down, started taking care of the ball and told each other, whoever is at the free throw line, just knock down the free throws.”

» Beal on being assertive when shots aren’t falling: “Whenever you’re missing shots from the outside, you should just keep attacking the basket. If you’re wide open, of course coach wants us to take them, but you just have to be more aggressive and keep attacking the basket – start inside and come back outside.”

» Beal on the Gators’ bench: “Our bench did a tremendous job. Mike [Rosario] came off the bench and provided a lot of help on both ends of the floor. He had a big layup for us in the first half. Scottie is always doing a great job playing great defense, and Casey is always tremendous as well on the boards. Those three guys out there really contributed a lot tonight.”

» Williams on Florida’s bench: “That’s one of the reasons why they’re so potent. Bradley Beal plays more minutes than any of them and that’s because he can swing to the four if they’re playing small. We played Rosario when he was at Rutgers. He was a McDonald’s All-American. So when you have a McDonald’s All-American coming off the bench that speaks to your depth.”

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FOUR BITS: Haslem wins bet, Tebow’s choice?

1 » Teammates with the Miami Heat, power forward Udonis Haslem and guard Dwyane Wade made a friendly wager on Thursday night’s Sweet 16 match-up between the No. 7-seed Florida Gators and No. 3-seed Marquette Golden Eagles. Florida defeated Marquette 68-58 in Phoenix, AZ to advance to the Elite Eight; therefore, Wade will have to put a Gators license plate on his car for a year. You can watch Haslem and Wade discuss their bet in the clip below courtesy of WSVN 7.

The trash talking continued Friday, according to the Sun-Sentinel’s Ira Winderman. Wade has already ordered the Gators license plate and will put it on the back of one of his cars; Haslem is trying to get him to put it on a new McClaren MP4-12C (price tag $230,000) that he received for his birthday. “Oh, he’s got to drive that,” Haslem told Winderman. “There’s no way, there’s no way he can’t drive a McClaren. It’s like a million-dollar car, too. I mean who’s putting that in a garage?” Haslem piled it on when the team met for practice on Friday. “U.D. made sure he made his mark,” forward LeBron James told the paper. “He came in with the Gator fight song this morning, played it on the bus, and he’s probably going to mess [with it] through the whole week.”

2 » Despite the fact that he was traded for to be a back-up quarterback and change-of-pace player, New York Jets signal caller Tim Tebow “sees a clear path to resuming his career as a starter” and supplanting Mark Sanchez, sources told the New York Daily News. That is perhaps the main reason why Tebow said going to New York over returning to Jacksonville (where most of his family and friends reside) was his preference. “They want me to come in and compete and get better as a quarterback and help the team any way possible,” Tebow said in a teleconference following his trade. “Whatever that role is, I will do my best. Every time I step on the field, I give my heart and soul.” The Daily News also notes that Tebow did not have the ability to pull the trigger on his destination, which is how both his and Denver Broncos vice president of football operations John Elway’s stories blend together.

The Broncos didn’t come to Tebow in the end and say: Okay Tim, where do you want to go? They had already solicited his opinion. […] Tebow was impressed the Jets hung in there when it looked like the deal was falling apart: It convinced him how much the Jets wanted him. […] Ultimately, Tebow felt the love coming from the Jets.

3 » Florida basketball was also well-represented Thursday night by Houston Rockets forward Chandler Parsons, who registered team-highs of 20 points and 11 rebounds to register the first double-double of his young career. Houston defeated Golden State 109-83 as Parsons saw 39 minutes of court time (eight more than the next Rockets player) and went 8-for-16 from the field (2-for-4 from downtown). He added four assists to his total and finished with a plus-minus of +21 in the game. Following the contest, Parsons spoke to NBA TV in an interview you can watch by clicking here.

4 » Former Gators defensive tackle Brad Culpepper recently told Orlando, FL radio that, while he was playing in the NFL, he was coached up on how to injure quarterbacks. “We practiced techniques to injure players,” he admitted. “We would dive on a mat and aim for the knee portion of a pad like it was the quarterback, and we would practice going at that and trying to bust the quarterback’s knee. You knock the quarterback out, you win the game. […] We practiced on interceptions – we didn’t care where the ball was – we were making a bee-line to wherever the quarterback was.” Read more or listen to the interview by clicking here.

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Elite Eight: Florida vs. Louisville – Early notes

Following consecutive victories in Sweet 16 action on Thursday evening, the No. 7-seed Florida Gators and No. 3-seed Louisville Cardinals set in stone their match-up in the West Region’s Elite Eight as part of the 2012 NCAA Tournament on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. live on CBS. Below is a post-game video along with some early notes on the game.

POST-GAME LOCKER ROOM CELEBRATION VIDEO
The video below is courtesy of UF’s GatorVision.tv.

EARLY NOTES

» Florida head coach Billy Donovan, who played under Louisville head coach Rick Pitino at Providence and was an assistant coach on his staff at Kentucky from 1989-1994, is 0-6 all-time against his mentor.

» Donovan and Pitino each have an ace up their respective sleeve for Saturday’s contest as the Gators and Cardinals traded staff members after last season. Former Florida assistant Richard Pitino is now an assistant with Louisville while former UL team manager Billy O’Meara is now UF’s assistant video coordinator after spending five years working under the elder Pitino.

» Gators freshman guard Bradley Beal has become more aggressive and is averaging 17 points per game on 54 percent shooting (43 percent from three) with 8.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.4 blocks in the 2012 postseason.

» Florida as a team is hitting 77 percent of its foul shots in the postseason and has taken at least 15 attempts from the line in four of the last five games.

» The Gators’ defense has improved immensely in the NCAA Tournament. Florida’s three opponents are averaging just 51 points (with no team scoring more than 58) while shooting 31 percent from the field and 21 percent from beyond the arc.

» UF’s three-point shooting, however, has been less than impressive in the tourney. The Gators are averaging just seven treys per game (down from 10 during the regular season) and are shooting just 27 percent from beyond the arc.

» The Cardinals knocked off No. 1-seed Michigan State for the opportunity to play in the Elite Eight. Louisville is on a seven-game winning streak dating back to March 7 which includes victories over six NCAA Tournament teams including MSU, Notre Dame, Davidson, Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Marquette.

» Louisville’s NCAA Tournament defense has also been impressive. The Cardinals have held their three opponents to an average of 54 points on 35 percent shooting from the floor and 22 percent from downtown.

ESPN DISCUSSES FLORIDA’S DEFENSE AND SWEET 16 WIN

Stick with OGGOA over the next two days leading up to the Florida-Louisville game.

Photo Credit: Rich Clarkson/Sports Illustrated

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(7) Florida Gators advance to second-straight Elite Eight with 68-58 victory over (3) Marquette

The No. 7-seed Florida Gators (26-10) will compete for a Final Four berth for the second-straight season after advancing to the Elite Eight on the heels of a 68-56 victory over the No. 3-seed Marquette Golden Eagles (27-8) in the Sweet 16 round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament at the US Airways Center in Phoenix, AZ.

Competing in the West Region, Florida will face No. 4-seed Louisville (which defeated No. 1-seed Michigan State 57-44 in the previous game) on Saturday at 4:30 p.m.

The Gators were led, as they have been all postseason, by freshman guard Bradley Beal, who posted a game-high 21 points on extremely efficient shooting. Beal was 8-of-10 from the field and 3-for-5 from beyond the arc; he also grabbed six rebounds (two offensive), dished four assists, swiped two steals and registered two blocks.

Senior point guard Erving Walker and junior G Kenny Boynton each struggled with their shooting but combined to go 10-for-11 from the charity stripe. Walker and Boynton both scored 11 points and combined for seven boards, seven dimes and a pair of steals.

Marquette jumped ahead by five early as Florida started 2-for-9 from the field and UF junior forward Erik Murphy missed his first four shots. The Gators and Golden Eagles then jockeyed back-and-forth with impressive scoring stretches until Boynton tied the contest at 15 after completing a four-point play.

UF went on their second run of the half, a 7-0 stretch, as MU forward Jae Crowder went to the bench with his second foul. Sophomore PG Scottie Wilbekin drained a three after sophomore G/F Casey Prather scored four-straight points including a highlight twisting finish on an alley-oop by Boynton.

After falling behind three while being outscored 10-3 by the Golden Eagles, the Gators ended the first half on a 9-0 run lasting 3:47 to take a six-point lead into the break.

Florida extended that advantage to a game-high 14 points early in the second half as Murphy ended his cold streak (he started 0-for-8 from the field and 0-for-5 from downtown) by draining a three with the shot clock winding down. Beal followed that up with his third trey of the game only to have Murphy find the bottom of the net again after he finished on a driving layup. The 8-0 run extended an impressive scoring stretch by the Gators to 21-4 including the nine-straight points they scored to end the first half.

Marquette was able to answer Florida as UF fell into a shooting drought lasting 4:07. The Gators went 0-for-6 from the field as the Golden Eagles scored six-straight points to cut their deficit to eight points. Florida’s tough shooting continued as the team went 2-for-11 with three turnovers since achieving their game-high lead, but the Gators began attacking the basket again and went back up 12, 56-44, with 4:54 left in the contest.

MU refused to relent, however, scoring seven-straight points (including five by G Todd Mayo) to cut UF’s lead to six points with 3:20 remaining. Walker and Crowder traded threes to keep the Gators’ lead at six, but Boynton hit five of six free throws down the stretch to clinch the victory for Florida.

Though Murphy had a tough shooting night with just seven points while going 3-of-13 from the field and 1-for-8 from three, he registered a season-high and game-high 10 rebounds (one short of his career-best). The Gators added 11 bench points (all scored in the first half) and six from sophomore center Patric Young, who did not get the ball much but cradled nine boards including a game-high five off the offensive glass.

Crowder led the Golden Eagles with 15 points and the team’s leading scorer, G Darius Johnson-Odom, posted just 14. Both players went just 5-of-15 from the field and Marquette as a team shot just 30.8 percent from the floor.

UF won the rebounding margin 39-34 and had 15 assists on 24 made baskets. The Gators also hit 86.7 percent of their free throws and registered six blocks on the evening.

Florida will advance to face Louisville at 4:30 p.m. on CBS in what will be the seventh career meeting between Donovan and his former head coach Rick Pitino. Donovan is 0-6 all-time against Pitino including 0-2 since he took over the Louisville program.

Photo Credit: Chris Carlson/Associated Press

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FOUR BITS: All-Americans, Tebowmania, Hillier

1 » Five Florida Gators baseball players were named to the 2012 NCBWA Pro-Line Athletic Preseason All-American Team on Wednesday. Juniors catcher Mike Zunino and pitcher/first baseman Brian Johnson earned first team recognition, while senior infielder/outfielder Preston Tucker and junior P Austin Maddox were named to the second team. Sophomore P Karsten Whitson, coming off of a stellar freshman season (8-1, 2.40 ERA), was given a third-team nod.

2 » A pair of Florida senior volleyball players – right-side/setter Kelly Murphy and outside hitter Kristy Jaeckel were named Wednesday to the 2011 AVCA All-American Team. Murphy, who according to UF “started every match and set of her career,” earned first-team recognition; her cohort Jaeckel was named to the second team. Murphy and Jaeckel led the Gators to the Elite Eight of the 2011 NCAA Tournament this year.

3 » If you were thinking Tebowmania was going to slow down any time soon, then you were obviously kidding yourself. According to the Denver Post, Bonfire Brewing in Eagle, CO will be releasing a brand new beer inspired by Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow called the Tebrew Sunday Sipper. The company explains that the beer will be made available to the masses once the signature 10 oz. glasses it ordered arrive. It is expected to sold locally only, so chances are that you’ll have to contact Bonfire directly if interested in sampling some of their brew.

In other Tebow-related news, Fathead on Tuesday released a “Tebowing” edition of their signature product, which quickly became the site’s No. 1 seller. The No. 2 Fathead sold Tuesday? The normal version of Tebow.

4 » Florida midfielder Janine Hillier, the lacrosse team’s fourth leading scorer one year ago, has decided to transfer to Stony Brook for her junior season. Hiller, a part of the Gators’ inaugural recruiting class, scored 34 goals along with six assists in 2011. She chose to transfer due to “personal reasons,” as cited by Inside Lacrosse, which notes that Stony Brook is “closer to Hillier’s hometown and her sister, Kim Hillier” is an assistant coach on the team.

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FOUR BITS: Elway apologizes to Tebow, Gators earn awards, volleyball falls, Macklin ready

1 » Nothing that Denver Broncos executive vice president John Elway has done to this point – whether it be verbal comments or body language – has shown that he fully supports quarterback Tim Tebow. Despite the fact that Tebow is winning games and doing so in a variety of ways, Elway recently answered “no” when asked by a radio station if he was “any closer to having your quarterback on this team” than he was a month earlier. With Tebow continuing to win and Elway receiving more and more criticism, he told FOX Sports this week that he “could have done a better job answering that question.” “It was a little too blunt,” he went on to say. “I should have said, ‘We’re not talking about the future. We’re talking about right now. Tim Tebow is definitely our guy.’”

Tebow recently avoided a question asking whether or not he felt the entire organization was behind him; that non-answer is likely what led Elway to personally apologize to his star, which FOX Sports notes he did recently. In fact, Elway has also told Tebow that he plans to work with him alongside QB coach Adam Gase in the offseason – not to “fix’ his throwing motion but rather to improve his accuracy. “I don’t believe you change a throwing motion. I do believe you can really help your accuracy by your feet,” Elway said. “That’s where, to me, Tim has so much upside. He’s improving. It’s just a matter of getting it burned into his reactions and mind.”

2 » The Florida Gators football team participated in its annual banquet on Saturday in which the team is presented a number of awards for everything from on-field performance to working hard in practice and how courageous a particular player may be throughout the season. Below are the 2011 award winners along with some award explanations, courtesy of the University of Florida.

Coaches’ Choice Awards
President’s Academic Award: Caleb Sturgis
Gene Elleson Community Service Award: Jesse Schmitt
Iron Gator Strength and Conditioning Award: William Green
Chris Patrick Courage Award: John Brantley
Most Valuable Offensive Scout Team Award: Tim Clark Defensive: Michael McNeely Special Teams: Hygens Succes and Solomon Schoonover

Players’ Choice Awards
Rex Farrior Most Team Spirited Offense: Jeff Demps Defense: Dominique Easley
Greg See Tenacity Award Offense: Matt Patchan Defense: Dominique Easley
MVP Offense: Chris Rainey Defense: Jon Bostic, Matt Elam ST: Caleb Sturgis
James W. Kynes Award (Best Mental/Physical Toughness): John Brantley
* Presented to the “player who best exemplifies the mental and physical toughness and ‘iron-man’ determination.’ The award is traditionally won by offensive linemen.
Ray Graves Award (Team MVP): Chris Rainey
* As voted on by the entire team.
Fergie Ferguson Leadership Award: Lerentte McCray, John Brantley
* Presented to the “player who displays outstanding leadership, character and courage.”
Captains: John Brantley, Chris Rainey, Jeff Demps, William Green, Jaye Howard

3 » Florida volleyball’s inspiring run in the 2011 NCAA Tournament came to an end Saturday evening as the No. 3 Illinois Illini defeated the Gators 3-1 in four sets (25-22, 23-25, 25-14, 25-20) in Elite Eight action at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center in Gainesville, FL. UF has been ranked higher heading into the tournament in recent memory, but Florida reached the regional final this year for the first time since 2005. Seniors setter/right-side Kelly Murphy and outside hitter Kristy Jaeckel once again led the way for their squad. Murphy’s triple-double (13 kills, 21 assists, 17 digs) was the 30th of her career. Murphy posted 19 kills and 11 digs for a double-double. Each will end their careers in the top 10 of a number of categories in the Gators’ record book. Transfer Colleen Ward, who joined the Illini, posted 23 kills and 11 digs in the contest for a double-double of her own. Florida finished the season 27-6 and was on a 10-match winning streak before falling to Illinois.

4 » As one Gators rookie waits to sign his deal, center Vernon Macklin has already agreed to terms with the Detroit Pistons, which selected him in the second round of the 2011 NBA Draft. Macklin, who stayed in shape during the lockout by maintaining his college conditioning and working out with NBA players like Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant, Los Angeles Lakers F Metta World Peace, Atlanta center Al Horford and Chicago C Joakim Noah, recently told The Detroit News that he was star struck when he saw Detroit C Ben Wallace practicing. “It’s kind of a weird feeling,” he said. “Him going to Virginia Union, a lot of my family members idolized him and learned from him.”

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Florida at No. 10 in USA Today preseason top 25

The preseason USA TODAY/ESPN Top 25 Coaches Poll was announced Thursday with the North Carolina Tar Heels being slotted as the overwhelming No. 1 team in the country after receiving 30 of 31 first-place votes. North Carolina, which returns all five starters from 2010, is one spot ahead of the Kentucky Wildcats, which were not voted lower than No. 6 in any ballot submitted.

Four Southeastern Conference teams made the poll including Kentucky (No. 2), Vanderbilt (No. 7), the Florida Gators (No. 10) and Alabama (No. 17).

The 2010-11 Gators were ranked No. 11 heading into last season, which saw them win the SEC and end the year with a record of 29-8 (13-3 SEC) that included an appearance in the Elite Eight round of the 2011 NCAA Tournament.

WeekGator BaitRecordAP Top 25USA TodayNCAA RPI
Preseason--No. 7 (1,153)No. 7 (568)-
2W 68-45 vs. William & Mary1-0No. 8 (1,127)No. 7 (560)-
3L 69-67 vs. Miami
W(OT) 61-56 vs. ULM
2-1No. 18 (467)No. 16 (303)-
4L(OT) 65-66 vs. Georgetown
W 56-47 vs. UAB
L 64-75 vs. North Carolina
3-3NR (40)No. 24 (60)-

USA TODAY/ESPN COACHES POLL
Preseason 1-5: North Carolina (30), Kentucky (1), Ohio State, Connecticut, Syracuse
6-10: Duke, Vanderbilt, Louisville, Memphis, Florida
11-15: Pittsburgh, Baylor, Kansas, Wisconsin, Xavier
16-20: Arizona, Alabama, Michigan, Texas A&M, UCLA
21-25: Marquette, Cincinnati, Gonzaga, California, Missouri

*Numbers in parenthesis represent first-place votes.

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Milton-Jones: “What’s the point in playing if you’re not playing for a championship?”

By Nicole Boyett – OGGOA Student Correspondent

The WNBA may not be a professional sport followed by many Florida Gators fans, but it is time for them to start taking notice if they haven’t already as the only woman representing the Orange & Blue in the league, DeLisha Milton-Jones, has been nominated as one of the WNBA’s Top 15 Players of All Time.

During her time at Florida, Milton-Jones led the Gators to four NCAA Tournament appearances (including the 1997 Elite Eight) while earning Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and Associated Press All-American honors her senior year. She followed up her stellar collegiate career by playing in the ABL for two years before being was drafted with the No. 4 overall pick in the 1999 WNBA Draft by the Los Angeles Sparks. Now in her 13th WNBA season, Milton-Jones is one of the most accomplished players to step on the hardwood.

She has won two Olympic gold medals for Team USA (2000, 2008), back-to-back WNBA titles with Los Angeles (2001, 2002) and a pair of Euroleague Championships (2003, 2006) while also having been named a WNBA All-Star twice (2000, 2007).

At of the end of the 2010 season, she was 11th in the WNBA in total points, 10th in total rebounds, ninth in field goals made, 14th in free throws made, sixth in total steals, 13th in total blocks, 11th in minutes per game, and seventh in total minutes played. Despite her impressive career and overwhelming talent on the court, Milton-Jones continues to be overlooked as one of the greatest female basketball players to ever lace up her shoes. The hope is that her talent is recognized on July 23 when the WNBA announces the league’s all-time Top 15 players at the 15th annual All-Star Game in San Antonio, TX.

Milton-Jones sat down with OGGOA’s Nicole Boyett for an exclusive interview just a handful of games into her 13th WNBA season. Averaging 12.8 points and 5.0 rebounds per game, she continues to lead the Sparks and hopes to be recognized for the impact she has made on women’s basketball in the United States.

NICOLE BOYETT: What does it mean to you to be the only Gator in the WNBA and to have had such a long and successful career?
DELISHA MILTON-JONES: “I am proud that I’m the lone standing Gator in the league, but I’m also sad because I feel like there should definitely be more of us in the league. When [former Florida star] Murriel Page* decided to leave after her achilles injury, that was pretty much it for us, and I think that her and I both did a great job of representing the Gators all these years.”
*Page was selected No. 3 overall in the 1998 WNBA Draft by the Washington Mystics. She is now an assistant coach under Amanda Butler at UF.

NB: As a Gator, you won SEC Player of the Year, were an All-American and went to the NCAA Tournament every year. With all of your accomplishments at Florida, do you get the opportunity to come back and talk to the team or head coach Amanda Butler?
DMJ: “It is difficult to support the team the way I would like to because, in the off-season during their season, is when I leave for Europe. After the WNBA season, I usually have a week, maybe less, to prepare myself for the next eight months in Europe, so there’s really no downtime for me. For the past 11 years, I’ve been playing in Europe as well as the WNBA year-round, so it is very difficult to get back. I wasn’t even able to come back when I was inducted into the WNBA Hall of Fame because it was during an important time in the season in Europe and the team wouldn’t allow me to come back, so I had to miss it. My mother had to go in my place. I’m hoping that – when it’s all said and done and I decide to retire – that they allow me to come back and be able to participate in the ceremony in a different way.”

NB: You’ve won two gold medals with Team USA, two WNBA Championships and two Euroleague titles. How do those compare to each other and how does winning a gold medal compare to winning a championship?
DMJ: “A championship is a championship, but they all feel good. I think the difference is that the gold medals probably have more value to me because it’s on the largest stage possible and I won. I consider myself to be so blessed, lucky, and privileged to have been a participant in several Olympics. That’s just a dream come true and it lets you know that you are in a category that many people would give their arm for just to be able to participate in. To be able to walk into the opening ceremonies and participate in the game is something that was so special that if I hadn’t gotten the gold medal, it wouldn’t matter because the memories will last a lifetime. Any time I think of that feeling, it just sends chills down my spine.”

Read the rest of our exclusive interview with Milton-Jones…after the break!
Continue Reading » Milton-Jones: “What’s the point in playing if you’re not playing for a championship?”

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