What I Learned From Orlando: Florida Gators and Louisville Cardinals
The SI.com writers who covered the first weekend of the NCAA tournament offer their takeaways on each of the teams from their sites that advanced to the Sweet 16:
Other sites: Buffalo (UConn and Dayton) | Milwaukee (Michigan and Wisconsin) | Raleigh (Virginia and Tennessee) | San Antonio (Iowa State and Baylor) | San Diego (Arizona and UCLA) | St. Louis (Kentucky and Stanford) | Spokane (Michigan State and San Diego State)
Seed: No. 1 in South
Things go more smoothly for the Gators with a healthy Will Yeguete, and that -- along with a fortuitous draw thanks to some upsets -- might make the difference if Florida can push through its fourth consecutive NCAA tournament second weekend and into its first third weekend since 2007. Yeguete, a 6-foot-7 forward from France, missed the 2012 tourney with a broken foot and was limited in last year’s tournament following knee surgery. Both times, the Gators were knocked out in the Elite 8, just as they were in 2011, Yeguete's freshman season. Yeguete is healthy this time, and he could help push Florida into the Final Four.
Unless someone is counting batted passes, screens set or timely defensive rotations, Yeguete’s contributions rarely make even the most advanced stat sheet. But Florida coaches do count those things, and they’ve noticed the difference with a healthy Yeguete. “It’s huge. He’s big,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “And again, he’s one of those guys that look down at the stat sheet and he's probably going to take anywhere from two to five shots per game, but he just does so many different things in the press. He’s such a great cover guy with our defense. He’s a great help defender. He’s the epitome of a guy that when you look down at the stat sheet it's hard to have a level of appreciation for him.”
Saturday’s win against Pittsburgh featured a classic – if scoring heavy – Yeguete statline. He took five shots and made four. He grabbed four rebounds. He played 23 minutes. That may not look like much, but the Gators also piled up 10 steals. Yeguete only snared one, but he had a hand – or a leg, or an arm – in several others. Should the Gators reach the Final Four, other players will grab the headlines, likely his fellow senior starters Scottie Wilbekin (the SEC player of the year), Patric Young (SEC defensive player of the year) and Casey Prather (second-leading scorer). But Yeguete will deserve a lot of the credit.
“He really impacts winning,” Donovan said. “He really impacts the game in a very, very positive way for us, and what he does is really, really rare. It's hard to find. It’s hard to find guys that really kind of hang their hat on being kind of a dirty‑work guy, and it's hard sometimes because certainly it doesn't really give them a lot of headlines. He's not a headline guy. But he really does a lot for our team.”
Seed: No. 4 in Midwest
Results: Beat No. 13 Manhattan 71-64; beat No. 5 St. Louis 66-51
The shimmy works.
Before the American Athletic Conference Tournament, Louisville guard Russ Smith turned his free throw routine into a piece of performance art. Taking a cue from noted shoulder-rocker Kevin Durant, Smith added a shimmy between his dribbles and his shot that makes Smith look as if he's just heard the first few bars of Groove is in the Heart. "I have to get loose at the line," Smith said after Saturday's win against Saint Louis. "I have to make it more enjoyable."
Smith seems to be enjoying himself more at the line. "I feel like I've been shooting a better percentage," he said. "I don't really know the numbers, but that's what I feel like." Smith's instincts are correct. Entering the American tourney, he was shooting 69.8 percent from the line. Since then, he has made 80 percent of his free throws. In two NCAA tournament games, Smith is 16 of 21 (76.1 percent). That may not sound like a huge improvement, but in a tight game – such as the round-of-64 nailbiter against Manhattan during which he made 11 of 15 from the line – every free throw matters.
Despite his success with it, Smith's teammates aren't likely to add a shimmy to their free throw routines. "I don't think I have the moves to do that," forward Stephan Van Treese said. But they'll happily watch Smith's shoulder shake if it keeps them dancing. "He's been hitting it," Van Treese said. "So keep doing it."
With Smith patching up one of the few holes in his All-America-worthy game, the defending national champion Cardinals look to be in good position to shimmy their way back to a third straight Final Four.
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