Tonight, the Gators will be one of two teams with the opportunity to avenge a title game loss in their second round battle with Michigan St., a rematch of the 2000 final. While the other rematch game between Utah and Kentucky seems to be destined for the same predictable outcome, the UF/MSU rematch holds much more intrigue.
The Gators came into the tournament on the heels of a three-game slide that put doubts into the minds of bracketologists everywhere as to whether the Gators were properly seeded as a #2. A comfortable win over Sam Houston St. may have alleviated some of the fears of Gator fans and convinced them that the sky wasn’t, in fact, falling. And don’t brush off a big win over Sam Houston St. as irrelevant; just ask Kansas and Wake Forest about comfortable first round wins.
However, the Gators still have several questions to answer yet. Can they beat a rugged and physical defensive team with their finesse game? Can they get enough easy baskets to offset a bad night shooting threes? The key to all of this may lie in the hands of one man: David Lee.
If the Gators have one reason to believe they will make a serious run in this tournament, they need look no further than Mr. Lee. Lee’s terrific 23-point performance against Sam Houston St. will need to become more of a common occurrence if the Gators are to make a Final Four run this year. Lee has slowly developed into a solid force down low and will need to continue that development and become to this team what Udonis Haslem was to past Florida teams to give the Gators true offensive balance.
The Spartans have an impressive big man rotation that will allow them to throw several big bodies Lee’s way, but none of whom are on Lee’s talent level. The Gators can expect to be outrebounded by State, but if they are to win this game, then Lee must control the paint and force State to double team to free the shooters for open looks. State is an outstanding defensive team that holds opponents to only 33% shooting from the three, so there will be a premium on open looks on the perimeter for Florida. If Lee becomes a dominant inside force, the Gator shooters could have a big day.
Maybe the most intriguing storyline in this game will be Anthony Roberson facing the team he spurned for the Gators for the first time. One hopes that Roberson won’t get caught up in the hype surrounding the situation, as a young player like Roberson could likely do, and just plays his normal game. The Spartan players will have some extra motivation facing Roberson and it will be up to the Gators’ senior leaders to calm the freshman if necessary.
Speaking of senior leaders, this is supposed to be their time. Bonner needs to shake off the 3-11 in the first round and bring his “A” game against Michigan St. tonight. Justin Hamilton’s defensive presence will be needed in full force against the Spartans’ Chris Hill, who is their only player capable of taking over a game offensively. Oh yeah, and if Brett Nelson wants to begin justifying his 23 minutes per game, tonight would be a good time to start.
Perhaps making the Gators’ job a bit easier is the fact that the game is being played in Tampa, which in essence, means that the Spartans will be in a road environment. The crowd will certainly be a factor, but Michigan St. is a very tough team that comes in having won six of their last seven, including an impressive win over a good Colorado team. And any team that can go into Rupp Arena and pull out a win over the Cats will certainly be a tough out.