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Butler Bulldogs band together to try to topple Florida Gators in NCAA Tournament

NEW ORLEANS — The text messages from former Butler players started arriving in Ronald Nored's cell phone early Friday morning. The Butler junior guard and several teammates have heard from many former players in the past 24 hours.

When No. 2 seed Florida (29-7) and No. 8 Butler (26-9) meet today in the NCAA Southeast Region final, it will be a stark reminder of years gone by — and tough losses against Florida.

The Gators and Bulldogs have been down this road — their paths crossing for the third time since 2000 at the most critical juncture of the season, the NCAA Tournament. The previous meetings between the two were memorable and part of Gator Final Four runs.

So it's no surprise that Bulldogs from all over are fired up and trying to rally the current players for today's meeting.

"I think everyone in the program is pretty aware of what's taken place with the guys before us," Nored said Friday. "I've gotten some texts from some of the guys who were on the 2000 team and then some of the guys on the '07 team just about what they went through against Florida.

"And we've seen some film. We're aware, and we want to just do what we can for those guys, and hopefully, they appreciate our effort (today)."

It was the 2000 NCAA first-round game in which Mike Miller's shot rolled in as time expired to give the Gators a 69-68 overtime victory that began a run that ended in Billy Donovan's first Final Four and a trip to the national championship game — a pivotal point in the Gators' building process.

And in 2007, Florida defeated Butler 65-57 in the region semifinals on its way to its second straight NCAA championship.

Butler senior guard Shawn Vanzant is a Tampa native (a graduate of Wharton High) whose close friends, Brandon Crone and Brian Liggins, are former Bulldogs. And as a Florida native, Vanzant knows firsthand the history between the teams.

"Brian Liggins has been giving me advice and basically keeping me levelheaded about this game," Vanzant said. "He's given me some advice about playing Florida and being here on this stage. That 2007 Florida team was amazing, and so is this one. So he told me to just prepare the best way you can and get ready for the game."

Florida has won 13 of its past 15 games. Butler has won 12 in a row, including its three tournament games by a combined 11 points.

"They played for the national championship last year, and they only lost one guy," Florida senior forward Chandler Parsons said. "So they've got a lot of guys that have been in this situation before, and they understand what it takes to win."

In the NCAA Tournament, Florida is allowing 63 points per game while Butler is giving up just 60. The Bulldogs have solid guard play in Nored, Chase Stigall and Shelvin Mack. Florida counters with Kenny Boynton, Erving Walker and Scottie Wilbekin.

With Butler center Andrew Smith nursing a sprained left ankle sustained Thursday against Wisconsin, the Gators hope to establish an inside presence early with senior Alex Tyus and contain Butler senior forward Matt Howard.

Most of all, Donovan said, the Gators have to be able to handle the Bulldogs' toughness.

"What Butler does best is they are the most physical team in the country," Donovan said. "People may look at them being from a non-BCS program and teams maybe being taller, maybe built bigger or stronger. It means absolutely nothing.

"They've got a tough, hard-nosed group of physical guys, and they take on physical confrontation. And they do a great job of initiating physical confrontation. And that's the way they play. And that has allowed them to do what they do."

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com. Follow her coverage at gators.tampabay.com.

Butler Bulldogs band together to try to topple Florida Gators in NCAA Tournament 03/25/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 25, 2011 11:12pm]
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