- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006

No one expected George Mason to be in this weekend’s Final Four in Indianapolis.

At the start of the season, the same could have been said of Florida.

The Gators (31-6) enter tomorrow’s semifinal riding a nine-game winning streak. Florida has not lost in more than a month.

Yet it isn’t inconceivable to compare the teams’ outlooks at the start of the season. Mason (27-7) was nowhere near the national discussion, and Florida had to recover from David Lee’s graduation and the early departures of Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh.

“It’s people like George Mason that give so many people hope. I hope our team is the same way,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “We started off unranked and no one talked about us. Some polls we weren’t ranked in the top 50, and one had us fifth in the SEC East.”

Florida, though, was the last team to suffer its first loss this season. The Gators lost to Tennessee on Jan.21, hours after both Pittsburgh and Duke surrendered their unbeaten status.

It was the start of a month-long swoon, one reminiscent of past late-season struggles in Gainesville. Florida went 5-6 through the end of February, ending the month with a three-game slide to sit at 8-6 in SEC play.

However, the Gators regrouped, winning their last two regular season games before plowing through the SEC tournament. With a renewed commitment to work the ball inside to forwards Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer, Florida earned the No.3 seed in the Minneapolis regional.

In most recent years, that’s about where the Gators’ story would end. The program hadn’t reached the second weekend of the tournament since a Final Four berth in 2000, absorbing a series of mostly double-digit losses.

The continual early exits raised questions whether Donovan, a master recruiter, could again lead the Gators to the Final Four. Donovan himself shrugged off those complaints this week.

“I never look at it that way,” Donovan said. “I don’t ever feel your team is defined by one game, win or lose. I never look at that, I look at what they accomplished. We’ve been to three straight finals in the SEC tournament. We’ve got a lot of things accomplished in our program. I understand that’s the culture of college basketball.”

Of course, it’s probably easier for Donovan to think that way because the Gators have as good a chance as anyone in this weekend’s wide-open Final Four at RCA Dome. Florida pummeled South Alabama and Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the first two rounds in Jacksonville, Fla., shaking off its history of early exits.

Then came a tight victory over Georgetown in a low-scoring regional semifinal. Two days later, the Gators easily handled top-seeded Villanova to earn a trip to the Final Four.

Still, Donovan doesn’t believe the Gators’ run is a personal vindication.

“Outside of winning a national championship, I played in the Final Four, got drafted, had a cup of coffee in the NBA, assistant coach in the Final Four, head coach in the Final Four,” Donovan said. “It’s not about anything about me personally.”

It helps that this week, just about everything has been about George Mason. Donovan gushed about the Patriots’ smart style of play and said he has enjoyed watching them play.

That might not be the case tomorrow, and the Florida coach realizes what George Mason has accomplished probably will overshadow anything another team will do in this tournament.

“What Mason has done is a milestone for college basketball,” Donovan said. “When you talk about major or mid-major, there’s no more of that. Those days are over with. You get in and you’re playing against good teams, good coaches, good personnel that plays well together.”

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