These Gators “Find a Way” like ’94 Predecessors

There has been some chatter about the 2000 matchup between Florida and Butler. Of course that was a historic March Madness moment, Mike Miller driving the lane for the winning layup. I remember it as if it was yesterday. It was actually my last day as a resident of the state of Florida. I had a car full of clothes and possessions and was headed to Los Angeles to start my new life. I watched it with some buddies while drinking/eating at the Copper Monkey. The Gators won that game on Miller’s finger roll and then went on to hammer Illinois and then Duke (with some fool’s most hated UF player Brett Nelson leading the way that day). The Gators then knocked off Oklahoma State and North Carolina on the way to the title game. Florida didn’t win that title but the tourney was clearly Billy Donovan’s introduction to the world. UF is looking for its fourth final four since 2000 today.

As we prepare to battle Butler again, I’m not looking at that Billy team or any other. I’m thinking of one a few years before Billy arrived. All season, this Gators squad has reminded me of my sophomore year in Gainesville. Lon Kruger’s bunch adopted the motto “Find A Way”, which works for this team as well.

As the final minutes ticked away against BYU, I tweeted (@shawn_kopelakis) that the question of whether the regular season was worthwhile was up for debate. A common knock against college hoops is that the regular season means little because March is so important. But Florida learned how to win, especially the close games, during the season. And sure enough, the OT period was a mismatch against BYU. Florida’s poise throughout the regular season paid off in March.

In ’94, the Gators won a lot of close games too. Dan Cross was Mr. Big Shot for UF. Cross was a lot like Erving Walker. Ironically, Florida knocked off a big-name player in the Sweet 16, Donyell Marshall, and his UConn team in overtime (much like this team with Jimmer and BYU). Craig Brown delivered in the Elite Eight and Florida made its first Final Four.

 The similarities between those teams don’t stop with the knack for pulling out close victories. The ’94 Florida bunch lost in the SEC title game to Kentucky (just like ’11). The ’94 team was lead by its strong backcourt (Cross-Brown and Walker-Boynton). Both squads had big white boys that had good all-around games (Andrew Declerq and Chandler Parsons). And both had beef in the middle (Demetri Hill and Vernon Macklin). Both had wild cards at the other forward position (Brian “Meathead” Thompson and Alex Tyus).

That ’94 Florida team will always hold a special place in the hearts of many Gators fans. Before Kruger and his boys did it, no one thought Florida would ever be much of a basketball school. But that bunch’s magical run showed it could be done. And then Jeremy Foley hired Billy Donovan to fulfill the promise.

Today’s game against Butler will be tough. The Bulldogs are battle tested, well coached and confident. They have big-time talents in Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack (I tweeted during last year’s title game how much he reminded me of Taurean Green, watch today, you’ll see it). The Gators will have to hit on all cylinders, avoid turnovers and shoot a lot less from the 3-point line than they did Thursday. Butler isn’t deep and is very beatable if Howard’s in foul trouble so pound it inside. And then hopefully the Gators find a way to get to Houston.

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