Gators plan to maintain staying power

March 16, 2011 

Personal fouls can be the most misleading and misunderstood stat in basketball.

They can reveal a player’s lack of commitment or show his discipline and toughness.

At the University of Florida, avoiding them without sacrificing defense has become an art form.

The Gators (27-6) will enter the St. Pete Times Forum on Thursday for their NCAA Tournament opener as the only Division I team in America that has not had a player foul out of a game this season.

Only three other teams have fouled out players in three games or fewer this year: Creighton (twice), Purdue and Boston College (three games each).

Florida is averaging 14.4 fouls per game, the second-lowest total in the country next to Ohio State (14.3), the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament.

There are coaches who will scream at a player to foul out of a game just to prove he is playing defense.

Fouling out can be a badge of courage if it doesn’t become a habit.

At Florida, it sends you back to the classroom.

The Gators need every advantage they can get at the charity stripe. They are shooting 66.7 percent from the free-throw line, which ranks 246th out of 345 Division I teams.

“There are certain things on the stat sheet that don’t show up. Loose balls, charges, extra pass, good decisions, being in the right position defensively,” Florida head coach Billy Donovan said.

The Gators are holding opponents to 42.5 percent field goal shooting, which ranks a modest 133d in the country. Their opponents are shooting 34.3 percent from beyond the arc, which is the fifth-highest mark in the Southeastern Conference. In the 15 seasons Donovan has been at Florida, no NCAA Division I team has gone a full season without a fouling out a player.

In winning the national title last year, Duke had 18 games where a player fouled out, and runner-up Butler had 16. They both averaged 18 fouls per game. When Florida won its national championship in 2007, it had six games where a player fouled out and averaged 15.7 fouls per game.

The Gators’ body of work on the glass has been solid, which should dispel any notion that the team is soft. Florida is first in the SEC and 12th nationally in offensive rebound percentage (38.4) and first in the conference in defensive rebound percentage.

The Gators haven’t won an NCAA tournament game since their back-to-back titles in 2006 and ’07, but this squad should break that streak. And they are doing it differently without a full-court press and a roster full of NBA talent.

Donovan won his first SEC Coach of The Year honor last week, which is perplexing because he took a program stuck in mediocrity and gave it national acclaim.

His .711 winning percentage at Florida dwarfs any of the previous coaches. Lon Kruger is second and won just 57 percent of his games from 1990 to 1996.

The Gators are the most maligned No. 2 seed in this year’s tournament. Whether or not you buy into that, it’s a tribute to what Donovan has been able to accomplish with this squad.

“I wasn’t necessarily surprised by it. I think we probably got rewarded for the whole body of work of what happened during the course of the season,” he said.

This Florida team has no projected NBA first-round selections, compared to the ’07 squad that had three players chosen among the first nine picks. Its backcourt is said to be too small and its wings not quick enough.

Florida went 92-19 and won 12 straight NCAA Tournament games during those two championship seasons, but things haven’t been easy since.

Point guard Jai Lucas left, Adam Allen has had an injury-plagued career, and it took current seniors Chandler Parsons (SEC Player of The Year) and Alex Tyrus a lot of time to learn a good work ethic.

“He (Chandler) never focused on the things that were preventing him from reaching his potential,” Donovan said. “He has made an incredible jump mentally, an incredible jump. Everybody wants to win. But I’ve often said, ‘Do you despise losing enough?’”

Maybe this is why Donovan deserves credit for turning in his best coaching job since his arrival at Gainesville.

The last three seasons in Gator Nation have consisted of two NIT appearances and a first-round overtime ouster in the NCAA Tournament last year by BYU when the Gators got burned by Jimmer Fredette.

Florida’s 70-54 loss to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament on Sunday left the Gators with a lot of questions. Their ability to avoid personal fouls certainly went awry in that game, when they were whistled for 22, 64 percent more than their average.

Kentucky was 24 for 29 from the charity stripe, while Florida, which averages 20.2 free throw attempts per game, took only eight and made three. The Wildcats average 21.6 attempts per game.

The Gators hope things get back to normal Thursday when they begin tournament play against UC Santa Barbara.

Alan Dell, Herald sportswriter, can be reached at 745-2112.

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