AUSTIN, TEXAS – It’s no surprise that Gophers coach Tubby Smith is plenty familiar with Florida coach Billy Donovan. After all, the two coached against each other for 10 years in the SEC, when Smith was with Kentucky.
But this Gators team that the Gophers will face in the round of 32 in the NCAA tournament isn’t like Donovan’s Gators teams of old.
A program that gained a reputation for high-flying, runaway basketball has morphed into one whose major emphasis is hard-nosed defense and offensive patience — sometimes to the point that it slows things nearly to a crawl.
It’s hard to criticize the adjustments, seeing as how they’ve made the Gators the only team in college basketball that has found its way to the top five of Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive and defensive rankings.
And it makes Florida’s new squad perhaps all the more dangerous.
“I think we all change and evolve as coaches,” Donovan said. “A lot of what you do is based on your personnel, who you’re dealing with, what the strengths and weaknesses are of your players.”
At the same time, Smith has stuck with many of his same fundamentals. Even the small things — such as the hockey line substitutions and his strict policy on sitting with two fouls — haven’t budged.
“I think we try to coach and try to teach and play a style similar,” Smith said. “He’s done an unbelievable job in coaching and growing that program.”
Told his players had expressed relief at getting out of the Big Ten and being able to play other teams, and asked if he agreed, Smith looked out at the media and shrugged.
“Whatever they say,” he said, eliciting a wave of chuckles from reporters. “They’re always right. They have never been wrong. I’m the only one wrong.
“I can see their point. We have kind of built this team to be that way, to be an up-tempo, running team and pressing team. Unfortunately, when you play against teams that have as good or better players, you can’t really force your will on them like you can on some teams that want to play the style you want to play.
“So if that helps them play better and motivates them to play better, yes, they’re right.”
Illinois brought a strong contingent of fans to Austin. The Illini probably will get plenty of support from Gophers fans, too, when they play No. 2 seed Miami in the second game Sunday.
“Tell them I said thanks,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga joked. “I got a brother who lives in Minnesota. Will that help?”
Turns out, Larranaga’s brother, Bob, has lived in the Twin Cities since 1972 and owns a home in Shakopee.