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NCAA TOURNAMENT -- SWEET 16: Gators emerging as national title contender

Florida coach Billy Donovan and his Gators are a darkhorse pick to win the NCAA title.

Florida coach Billy Donovan and his Gators are a darkhorse pick to win the NCAA title.

PHOENIX — They hand out the biggest trophy — the NCAA Championship trophy — on the first Monday in April, not the first Monday in March.

No two teams could be happier about this than Marquette and Florida.

The third-seeded Golden Eagles and seventh-seeded Gators each came limping into the NCAA Tournament — Marquette losing two of three, including its first Big East tournament game, and Florida dropping four of five, including an ugly pair at Georgia and Vanderbilt, to close out the regular season.

Yet here they are, ready for a meeting in the West regional semifinals today — Buzz Williams’ team coming off two strong finishes against BYU and Murray State and Billy Donovan’s squad still high off blowouts over Virginia and Norfolk State by an average of 30 points.

Want To Watch?

Must-see TV: Schedule of Sweet 16 games

Today

7:15 p.m.

CBS — NCAA Tournament, Sweet 16, Syracuse vs. Wisconsin at Boston

7:47 p.m.

TBS — NCAA Tournament, Sweet 16, Michigan State vs. Louisville at Phoenix

9:45 p.m.

CBS — NCAA Tournament, Sweet 16, Ohio State vs. Cincinnati at Boston

10:17 p.m.

TBS — NCAA Tournament, Sweet 16, Marquette vs. Florida at Phoenix

“I think like anything else, when you win, a lot of times the things that you’re doing not very well get covered up,” Donovan said. “And when you lose, the things that you do well, no one really talks about.”

In hindsight, maybe Florida’s losses — setbacks that certainly bumped its tournament seeding down a few notches and also made the Gators a popular candidate for an early upset — weren’t so bad.

When the cold spell began, the Gators (25-10) were still adjusting to the loss of a key reserve, forward Will Yeguete. They were still trying to help freshman all-conference guard Bradley Beal get comfortable taking a primary role instead of deferring, which has worked — he’s averaging 14 points, 10 rebounds in the tournament.

As for the teams they lost to — well, one of them was at a pretty good Vanderbilt team on Senior Day and two were against Kentucky, the second only a three-point loss in the SEC tournament.

“I saw our team making strides and getting better,” Donovan said. “I think the biggest thing I tried to do was keep their confidence level high, that they were doing the right things and this is the thing we needed to confront and get better to push us over the hump a little bit.”

You could say it worked.

First, the Gators overcame Virginia’s pack-line defense, which was allowing less than 54 points a game, in a 26-point win over the Cavaliers. Next, Florida crushed out one of the tournament’s great (early) stories, going on a 25-0 run early en route to a 34-point win over 15th-seed Norfolk State, two days after the Spartans had eliminated Missouri.

Florida became the first team in tournament history to score 70 or more points and allow 50 or less in its first two games.

“I would say we definitely didn’t hit the panic button, but we knew it was time to buckle down and listen to coach and have some great practices before we got to the NCAA tournament,” Florida guard Erving Walker said. “And I think it’s definitely paid off for us.”

Marquette (27-7) took a similar path after an 84-71 loss to Louisville in the Big East tournament — a loss not-so-subtly described by Williams as one in which the team “peed down our leg.”

How to respond after that kind of game, the last before the start of the NCAAs?

“Just wake up and go to work,” Williams said. “We’re not perfect. I’m not perfect. Our players aren’t perfect. And so regardless of the outcome, whether it’s win or lose, we still have the same protocol and the same itinerary the following day, then the next day and the next day. Just continue to work and try to improve.”

Marquette is led by a pair of seniors — a rarity all by itself in this era of one-year players and other early departures.

Darius Johnson-Odom leads the team with 18.5 points a game, while Big East Player of the Year Jae Crowder averages 17.6 points and 8.4 rebounds.

“I’m not sure if it’s an advantage or not,” Williams said of having a team led by seniors. “I have no problem with guys that are one and done or two and done. I just haven’t done a good enough job of signing those guys. But at the same time, I’m very thankful for the leadership of Darius and Jae.”

Only a week before the Louisville loss, Marquette had played a similarly uninspired game in a 72-61 loss at Cincinnati. The fact that Cincy, Louisville and Marquette are all still playing this weekend might speak volumes about those losses. But Johnson-Odom said some lessons were learned there.

“I think everyone knows in our program, when we don’t play with energy, we’re not good at all,” he said. “And that’s the main focus. That’s something we can’t be talking about going down the stretch, is our energy and how hard we play.”

Indeed, if this game plays to form, it should be an up-and-down affair.

Florida leads the nation in 3-pointers with 9.8 per game and both teams average in the neighborhood of 76 points. Las Vegas set the over-under at 145.5 — 16 points higher than any of the other three regional semifinals set for Thursday.


Matchup capsules for Thursday's games in the NCAA Tournament

Four teams will move into the Elite Eight on Thursday night. Here's a look at the four regional semifinals to be played.

All four games match "power conference" schools against each other. All four Big East teams still alive play Thursday, while three of the remaining four Big Ten teams will be in action. The only "interloper" is the SEC's Florida. Three of the four games are Big East-Big Ten matchups:

EAST REGIONAL

Where: TD Garden, Boston

TV: CBS

Announcers: Verne Lundquist play-by-play, Bill Raftery analyst

No. 1 Syracuse vs. No. 4 Wisconsin

Time: 7:15 p.m. EDT.

The spread: Syracuse by 3.5

Records: Syracuse 33-2, Wisconsin 26-9

How they got here: Syracuse beat No. 16 UNC Asheville 72-65, beat No. 8 Kansas State 75-59. Wisconsin beat No. 13 Montana 73-49, beat No. 4 Vanderbilt 60-57.

The buzz: Wisconsin games can be painful to watch, so imagine what it must be like to play against the Badgers. The slower the pace, the better for the Badgers in this one. Wisconsin's 3-point shooting is going to be important; the Badgers hit 36.3 percent from beyond the arc, but Syracuse's zone limits opponents to 30.7 percent. The soft spot in the zone is at the foul line, so it's worth watching to see which player(s) Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan feels comfortable with there. Syracuse forces 16.4 turnovers per game, and the Orange thrives in transition. But Wisconsin commits the second-fewest turnovers per game (9.0) in the nation. Finally, watch the rebounding battle. Syracuse is outrebounded by 1.5 per game, and the zone leaves the Orange susceptible to offensive boards. Wisconsin isn't overly tall, but the Badgers are bulky and don't mind throwing their weight around.


No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 6 Cincinnati

Time: 9:45 p.m.

The spread: Ohio State by 7.5

Records: Cincinnati 26-10, Ohio State 29-7

How they got here: Cincinnati beat No. 11 Texas 65-59, beat No. 3 Florida State 62-56. Ohio State beat No. 15 Loyola (Md.) 78-59, beat No. 7 Gonzaga 73-66.

The buzz: This is just the 10th meeting in history between these in-state schools, with the last coming in the John Wooden Tradition tourney in 2006. Cincy has won two national titles in basketball, and beat the Buckeyes in the final both times (1961 and '62). Both teams can be physical, but Cincy has the edge in that category over the Buckeyes. The big-man matchup between Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Cincy's Yancy Gates should be extremely entertaining. A big key for the Bearcats is keeping Ohio State PG Aaron Craft under control. Craft is a, well, crafty point guard who is an excellent passer; he also is a pesky on-ball defender. Cincy needs some 3-pointers from Sean Kilpatrick and/or Cashmere Wright. Ohio State usually pounds foes on the boards, so that bears watching.


WEST REGIONAL

Where: US Airways Center, Phoenix

TV: TBS

Announcers: Kevin Harlan play-by-play, Len Elmore and Reggie Miller analysts

No. 1 Michigan State vs. No. 4 Louisville

Time: 7:47 p.m.

The spread: Michigan State by 5

Records: Louisville 28-9, Michigan State 29-7

How they got here: Michigan State beat No. 16 Long Island 89-67, beat No. 9 Saint Louis 65-61. Louisville beat No. 13 Davidson 69-62, beat No. 5 New Mexico 59-56

The buzz: No rest for the weary; Spartans coach Tom Izzo goes from matching wits with SLU coach Rick Majerus to matching wits with Louisville's Rick Pitino. Both teams will be comfortable with any pace, and both are fully capable of winning ugly. Michigan State hammers foes on the boards, and that has to worry Pitino. Louisville doesn't appear to have anyone who will be able to handle Michigan State F Draymond Green, the best all-around player left in the tourney. Louisville's backcourt, though, has a quickness advantage. The Cardinals need a consistent game from G Peyton Siva. If he is at his best, getting into the lane and hitting some outside shots, the Cardinals can pull the upset. The Cardinals could also use some 3-pointers from Chris Smith, who has 10 games with at least three 3-pointers this season.

--- Distributed by McClatchey-Tribune News Service