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Smarter Gators in NIT semifinal tonight

When the NCAA Tournament bids were announced two weeks ago and Florida wasn't among the 65 teams, it was like hitting rock bottom for the men's team.

In a matter of one week, they were humiliated in the first round of the SEC tournament by Alabama, left out of the Big Dance for the first time in 10 years, then locked out of their multimillion dollar practice facility by their coach.

Fast forward two weeks.

It's April and the Gators are among eight teams still playing. Florida (24-11) faces Massachusetts (24-10) at 7 tonight in Madison Square Garden in the NIT semifinals. Ohio State vs. Mississippi follows.

Along the way, the Gators discovered a blessing in disguise.

"(The NIT) was kind of almost embarrassing,'' freshman guard Jai Lucas said. "But now, I wouldn't trade this for anything in the world, if I knew we were going to be in the position we're in today. Just as a team, I think we've gotten so much more together, just everything we've been through"

According to the players, coach Billy Donovan's decisions to bar them from the practice facility, take away privileges such as massages after games and practices, and force them to wear and launder their own practice clothes have changed their mentality in a way nothing else could. They are playing better defense, holding three NIT opponents to under 60 points. And they insist they have become a cohesive unit.

"Coach Donovan has tried to tell us this whole year, but he just couldn't get through to us," sophomore forward Dan Werner said. "And that happens. Parents have kids and some kids you can talk to, other kids you've got to yell at. It was coach's last resort and he had to do it. … He just couldn't get through to us. I don't know why. But lately, what he's done has been great. He's gotten through to everyone."

Tonight's game has several subplots. UMass coach Travis Ford was a star player at Kentucky when Donovan was an assistant under Rick Pitino. Forward Jonathan Mitchell is playing in his hometown. Luke Bonner of UMass is the brother of former Gator Matt Bonner. And the game potentially represents Florida's future. It was three years ago when an unranked, unknown Gator team went to Madison Square Garden for a preseason NIT tournament. That team eventually became two-time NCAA national champions.

"That was really a game and a tournament that gave us, without question, some momentum and gave us some confidence going forward," Donovan said. "We started off the year unranked and it gave us a chance to play against some ranked teams."

And does he see some parallels for this team?

"I think this is good that we're playing and going through some of the things we are right now to help us grow," he said. "This experience, going and playing at MSG and the NIT, there's four teams left remaining and there's only going to be four teams left in the NCAA Tournament. So, for me, it's really been a blessing in a lot of ways."

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.

>>FAST FACTS

Tonight: NIT semifinals

Florida vs. UMass, 7,

Madison Square Garden, New York, ESPN2

Ohio State vs. Mississippi, 9:30, ESPN2

Smarter Gators in NIT semifinal tonight 03/31/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 31, 2008 10:19pm]
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