South: Gators Gobble Up No. 2 Seed

Florida's Matt Walsh leaves the court after losing to Louisiana State in the quarterfinal of the SEC tournament Friday, March 14, 2003, at the Superdome in New Orleans.
The NCAA selection committee is supposed to favor teams that finish strong when it starts doling out the higher seeds. Using that standard, Florida had reason to be concerned.

The Gators, ranked No. 1 earlier in the season, headed into Selection Sunday with three straight losses.

Granted, those defeats were to quality opponents — Kentucky and LSU made the 65-team field, Georgia would have if not for academic misdeeds. Still, Florida seemed likely to get a No. 3 or 4 seed when the brackets were unveiled.

Surprise, surprise. The Gators (24-7) were granted a second seed in the South Regional — and, more important, got the chance to play the first two rounds in their home state.

They'll open the tournament Friday in Tampa, Fla., with a relatively easy game against Southland Conference champion Sam Houston State (23-6). No need to book plane tickets: the St. Pete Times Forum is only about a two-hour bus ride from the Gainesville campus, right in the heart of Gator Country.

If Florida gets past Sam Houston State, as expected, it's on to a second-round matchup with the Michigan State-Colorado winner.

"I wasn't surprised at all," coach Billy Donovan said. "A lot has been made of having three losses. But you've got to give credit to fact we played Georgia and lost by one. We lose to the best team in the United States of America (Kentucky) by two. We lose to the hottest team in our league (LSU) by four."

Donovan and the NCAA preferred to focus on Florida's victories, which included Kansas, Maryland, Mississippi State and four other teams that made the NCAA field.

"We had very good wins against good teams," Donovan said. "You have to look at the whole entire year."

Jim Livengood, head of the NCAA selection committee, acknowledged that Florida wasn't hurt much by its last three games.

"You're trying to value the entire body of work," he said. "Florida had a terrific year."

But not such a terrific finish. The Gators haven't won since a 73-70 victory at Auburn on March 1. Since then, they lost at Georgia 82-81, fell at home to Kentucky 69-67 in the regular-season finale, then were upset by LSU 65-61 in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament.

It will be interesting to see how the youthful Gators respond to the glare of the tournament spotlight. The team relied heavily on freshmen Anthony Roberson, Matt Walsh and Christian Drejer.

"I know a lot has been made of our last three games," Donovan said. "But I'm really excited about our basketball team."

Top-seeded Texas (22-6) was a bit of a surprise, too.

The Longhorns finished second in the Big 12 and were ousted in the quarterfinals of their league tournament. Even so, they were placed No. 1 in the South over conference foe Kansas, the Big 12 regular-season champion. The Jayhawks were sent out West with a No. 2 seed.

The Longhorns have never been a No. 1, and they've never been seeded higher than fifth since the field expanded to 64 teams. They were a No. 6 seed last season, when they reached the round of 16.

"It's part of Texas history," guard T.J. Ford said. "It means a lot. If we don't do anything else, we're going to be in that book in ink."

Like Florida, the Longhorns received very favorable treatment from the selection committee.

They'll open Friday at Birmingham, Ala., against either North Carolina-Asheville (14-16) or Texas Southern (18-12). The two lowest seeds in the tournament will meet Tuesday at Dayton, Ohio, in a play-in game, and the winner will come back just three nights later against Texas.

If the Longhorns get past the first two rounds, they'll play the round of 16 at the Alamodome in San Antonio — just down the road from Austin.

"It shows the program's come a long way," coach Rick Barnes said. "I like being in a position of people talking about whether or not you're going to be a 1 or a 2 than whether or not you're going to make it."

One other team to keep an eye on in the South: defending national Maryland (19-9). The sixth-seeded Terrapins open the tournament Friday against North Carolina-Wilmington (24-6) at Nashville, Tenn.

"That's fine with me," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "You can't complain. You're not going to be a No. 1 seed every time."

The Terrapins were a top seed in 2002, playing the first two rounds at the nearby MCI Center in Washington on the way to their first national title.

This time, they open against a team that hasn't lost since Feb. 12. Maryland, on the other hand, is trying to shake off consecutive losses to Virginia and North Carolina — neither of which made the NCAA field.

"There are about 250, 300 teams that are sitting at home wishing they were in our position," forward Tahj Holden said. "I'll take a sixth seed over not being in the tournament."

by Paul Newberry