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Sunshine State Report

The latest on college sports in Florida

Dick Vitale breaks down FSU basketball's season and future

Florida State Seminoles forward Jonathan Isaac (1) covers his head while on the bench during the second half of FSU's 25-point, second-round loss to Xavier in the NCAA Tournament.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Florida State Seminoles forward Jonathan Isaac (1) covers his head while on the bench during the second half of FSU's 25-point, second-round loss to Xavier in the NCAA Tournament.

Like many Florida State fans, ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale was "shocked and surprised" at how the third-seeded Seminoles were blown out last week by 11th-seeded Xavier.

"They just dominated," Vitale said of Xavier's 25-point win last week. "Their zone defense really seemed to baffle Florida State. "That was a nightmare. That was a nightmare game."

Especially given how FSU started the season. The ‘Noles started off 16-1. They went 5-1 in one brutal ACC stretch (Virginia, Virginia Tech, Duke, North Carolina, Notre Dame and Louisville).

"They looked like one of the premier teams in the nation," Vitale said.

But after that 5-1 spurt, FSU tailed off.

"It seemed after that, there was like a satisfaction - a feeling of, ‘Wow, what we achieved is great,'" Vitale said. "They weren't, to me, the same team. They were up, down, up, down."

That, eventually, led a team that had Final Four potential losing in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. What does it mean for coach Leonard Hamilton and FSU's future? …

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Sleeping in Jim McElwain's garage 'not as bad as it sounds'

This post is just an excuse to run this old photo of Florida Gators coach Jim McElwain, from his Eastern Washington days.

Courtesy: Eastern Washington

This post is just an excuse to run this old photo of Florida Gators coach Jim McElwain, from his Eastern Washington days.

When Florida Gators coach Jim McElwain mentioned that the coaching staff from his alma mater (Eastern Washington) was visiting for spring practice last week, he dropped this intriguing nugget on reporters:

"We put them in the garage," McElwain said. "You might want to ask them about that."

So I did.

"It's not as bad as it sounds," Eastern Washington head coach Aaron Best said from his office in Cheney, Wash. "Don't try to doll us up like we were some barbaric people and barely survived this 96-hour ordeal."

So here's what it was really like, according to Best.

Best and six of his staffers flew on United from Spokane (a short drive from campus) to Denver to Tampa, then piled in a station wagon to drive the two hours to Gainesville.

After they got to McElwain's house, they saw their lodging situation.

"It's not your prototypical garage," Best said.

There was no flickering light bulb swinging from the ceiling. No parked cars, either. They had running water, soap and a toilet.

"There's no bad oil filters," Best said. "There's no rakes. There's no shovels. It's basically a living quarters they've made out of the garage setting." …

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Checking in on former Florida Gators quarterback Treon Harris

It looks like Treon Harris will be a starting quarterback after all ... at Tennessee State.

AP photo

It looks like Treon Harris will be a starting quarterback after all ... at Tennessee State.

It looks like Treon Harris will be a starting quarterback after all ... at Tennessee State.

According to The Tennessean, Harris - the former Florida Gators starter - was in a battle for the starting job with O'Shay Ackerman-Carter. But Ackerman-Carter is transferring, making Harris the expected starter this fall, according to the report.

Harris started 15 games for the Gators in 2014-15 before announcing his intention to transfer before the start of last season.

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NCAA Tournament: What you should know about Wisconsin basketball

The Florida Gators' path back to the Sweet 16 was somewhat unlikely, as I wrote in today's Tampa Bay Times. Not so much for their opponent, Wisconsin. The Badgers are in the Sweet 16 for an NCAA-leading fourth year in a row.

"It's an amazing accomplishment," associate coach Lamont Paris told the Wisconsin State Journal.

Here's what you should know about the Badgers:

1. They have a great 1-2-3 punch. Three players earned all-Big Ten honors: Forward Ethan Happ (first team), guard Bronson Koenig (second team) and forward Nigel Hayes (third team). All three average between 13.5 and 14.5 points per game, and Happ was also on the Big Ten's all-defensive team. Speaking of Happ...

2. Happ will be a touch matchup for UF. Or anyone, for that matter. "He's got size," Villanova coach Jay Wright told reporters before Wisconsin's 65-62 second-round win. "He can score over you, and if you have size on him, he can score around you with his ball handling. He's a great ball handler. He's a really tough matchup." Happ leads the Badgers in rebounds (9.1 per game) and assists (2.8). …

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Florida Gators legend Tim Tebow heading to Columbia Fireflies

Former Florida Gators star Tim Tebow will continue his second act as a professional athlete with the Columbia (S.C.) Fireflies, the New York Mets' Class A affiliate.

He will, of course, wear No. 15.

Tebow, the former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, has made a couple trips to Columbia in the past. In 2007, Tebow rushed for 120 yards and five touchdowns and passed for 304 yards and two more scores in a 51-31 victory. Two years later, he rushed for a touchdown and threw for another against the Gamecocks in a 24-14 win. 

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NCAA Tournament: After searching in June, SEC basketball clicking in March

Florida Gators guard Chris Chiozza (11) and Florida Gators forward Devin Robinson (1) celebrates after their team defeated the Virginia Cavaliers in the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida on Saturday, March 18, 2017.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Florida Gators guard Chris Chiozza (11) and Florida Gators forward Devin Robinson (1) celebrates after their team defeated the Virginia Cavaliers in the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida on Saturday, March 18, 2017.

Nine months ago, the SEC was a football conference with a basketball problem.

Thanks to Alabama, the league had just won its eighth national title in a decade. The Crimson Tide and LSU looked like championship hopefuls in the fall.

And basketball? The conference had only three NCAA Tournament teams that March, including one that appeared in the play-in game. How to fix the problem was a key topic of discussion at the SEC's spring meetings in Destin. Former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese met with the league's coaches then to try to figure out some solutions. 

"We're a better conference than that," Gators coach Mike White said then. "We just have to get over the hump."

That might have happened this weekend.

The SEC put five teams in the Tournament. Four advanced past the first round and three (Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina) are in the Sweet 16.

Compare the SEC's 7-2 record to the ACC, which is 7-7. The SEC's victories also include UF over Virginia and South Carolina over Duke; UNC beat Arkansas. …

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NCAA Tournament: Could Florida and FSU both make the Sweet 16?

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

A few random March Madness thoughts, a day after Florida and Florida State both advanced to the NCAA Tournament's second round, and a day before they try to reach the Sweet 16:

1. Florida-Virginia will be ugly. Maybe really, really ugly. Virginia has the nation's top scoring defense, allowing only 55.6 points per game. The Gators are in the top 50 in that category (66.6). The advanced metrics are even stronger - both teams are in the top four in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency. Add in the fact that UF's top two scorers finished 2-of-15 shooting yesterday, and the Cavaliers scored only 11 points in the first 13 minutes yesterday, and this could be painful.

2. The Seminoles look like the ultimate boom-or-bust team. FSU could lose to Xavier tomorrow by double digits or make the Final Four. Neither outcome would surprise me, or our Martin Fennelly, or the AP's Mark Long:

Is there any other top-4 seed in the NCAA tourney that can look soooo good for stretches and soooo bad for stretches? Or just FSU? …

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Will nation see swooning or surging 'Noles tonight?

FSU coach Leonard Hamilton oversees his team's public practice Wednesday at the Amway Center, where the Seminoles open NCAA Tournament play tonight.

Stephen M. Dowell | Orlando Sentinel

FSU coach Leonard Hamilton oversees his team's public practice Wednesday at the Amway Center, where the Seminoles open NCAA Tournament play tonight.

The question posed to FSU coach Leonard Hamilton and his players seemed as inevitable as downtown Orlando gridlock.

How do you explain the differences between your January surge and late-season swoon?

The inquiry came at Hamilton and Co. twice Wednesday, both times with less conciseness and more tact. The 'Noles (25-8) went 5-1 against six consecutive nationally ranked foes from Dec. 31 to Jan. 21, but finished 7-6 down the stretch with four double-digit losses.

So what happened? "I think our mindset was hunting people (in the early stretch)," junior PG Xavier Rathan-Mayes said from the Amway Center, where the third-seeded 'Noles face No. 14 Florida Gulf Coast (26-7) in a West Region first-rounder tonight.

"We were trying to earn our respect as a program and as a group of guys. I think we did a really good job of going out there and performing at a high level each and every night."

But from there, human nature kicked in a little, Hamilton suggested. The likes of North Carolina, Notre Dame and Louisville were followed by Georgia Tech, Syracuse, Miami and Clemson.

FSU lost by 22 to the Yellow Jackets (managing only 15 first-half points) and by 10 against the Orange in the Carrier Dome.

"And we probably did have an emotional pause there for a minute, but a lot of it had to do with the quality of the teams we were playing," Hamilton said.

"We were playing in a league that everybody was prepared for you. So now you're getting everybody's best shot when you're sitting there ranked in the top 10 in the country."

Entering his program's first NCAA Tournament in five years, Hamilton insists that emotional-pause button has been disengaged.

"I think we're in a good place now," he said. "We'll put that in the past and let's see what we can do about the present."

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March Madness: Mike White looks back at Bryce Drew's Valpo miracle

ORLANDO - While the historic Valparaiso-Ole Miss buzzer beater won't have any influence on another 4-13 matchup - the Florida Gators' game today against East Tennessee State - UF coach Mike White does see one similarity.

"That one felt like it's felt this week honestly..." said White, a guard on the Rebels team that was on the wrong side of that Valpo loss. "It's been a tough week. Really tough week."

It's been tough because UF has lost three of its last four games entering today's first-round game at the Amway Center. But let's look back at White's view on one of the maddest games March Madness has ever seen.

Ole Miss (a 4 seed) led late when Valpo's Bryce Drew drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer for a 70-69 win. That 1998 game had everything - Drew playing for his father, a ridiculous shot, a Cinderella story. On the other side is White and a Rebels team that came within a miracle shot of earning its first ever NCAA Tournament win.

"But he hit that shot on us, and I remember sitting in that locker room it seems like for hours," White said. "For hours... …

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Could Florida Gators' next starting quarterback be Luke Del Rio, again?

ANDRES LEIVA | Times

We've assumed the Florida Gators' quarterback battle is down to two names - redshirt freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask.

But maybe we were premature. There's still Luke Del Rio.

He won't be competing this spring; he had surgery on his left shoulder in January and is set to have surgery on the other one (his throwing shoulder) today. But I asked UF offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier yesterday whether he expects Del Rio to be in the mix for the starting job this fall.

Nussmeier's response: "I do."

Granted, what else could Nussmeier say? "Mehh, we'll see?" That probably wouldn't go over very well with Del Rio...especially if the Gators needed him to play for whatever reason in the fall.

Regardless, Nussmeier had plenty of positive things to say about Del Rio.

"He played some really good football when he was healthy," Nussmeier said. "And obviously he got banged up - banged up worse than we thought at the time...

"We'll get him back, get him healthy. And I think once he gets healthy, he'll go back to being the player that he is."

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Why a Division I-AA coaching staff is sleeping in Jim McElwain's garage

UPDATE (March 21): Jim McElwain encouraged reporters to talk to Eastern Washington's staff about the visit. So I did. You can read the details here. 

GAINESVILLE - Don't worry about the coaches in black and red who were roaming around Tuesday's Florida Gators football practice.

They're just Eastern Washington staffers who happen to be crashing at UF coach Jim McElwain's house.

"They're sleeping in my garage," McElwain said.

Of course they are.

It's not unusual for coaching staffs to visit each other during the spring. They can network, talk Xs and Os and learn new techniques or drills. It's not surprising that Eastern Washington would want to stop by; the Eagles can probably learn a lot from an SEC staff.

And it's not surprising, either, that McElwain would want Eastern Washington to visit. He went to school there, and he was quite happy when his Gators scheduled a 2020 non-conference game against the Eagles.
More than that, McElwain is proud of his roots in the Big Sky Conference. …

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Emily Austen — hidden after offensive remarks — talks mistakes with Florida Gators

Former Rays sideline reporter Emily Austen disappeared from Fox Sports Sun after some controversial comments.

SunSports TV

Former Rays sideline reporter Emily Austen disappeared from Fox Sports Sun after some controversial comments.

GAINESVILLE - Remember Emily Austen, the former Rays sideline reporter who disappeared from Fox Sports Sun after some controversial comments?

She has resurfaced (temporarily) with a stop at the Florida Gators.

Austen tweeted Tuesday that she spoke to student-athletes at UF with a thank you to football coach Jim McElwain (and others):

 

 

It was Austen's first tweet since June.

"In 2016, I made a bad decision and my life took an unexpected turn," Austen tweeted. "Now I'm passionate about helping others avoid making a similar mistake."

That mistake was a 35-minute video with multiple controversial comments about minority groups, including Mexicans, Chinese people and "Jews in Boca."

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Florida Gators' Luke Del Rio undergoing shoulder surgery (again)

 Luke Del Rio will have surgery tomorrow on his right (throwing) shoulder.

ANDRES LEIVA | Times

Luke Del Rio will have surgery tomorrow on his right (throwing) shoulder.

GAINESVILLE - Florida Gators quarterback Luke Del Rio will have surgery tomorrow on his right (throwing) shoulder, coach Jim McElwain said Tuesday.

Del Rio, who began last season as the starter, already had surgery this offseason on his other shoulder. McElwain said the latest procedure is just to clean up Del Rio's injury. It's not supposed to affect Del Rio's status for the fall. 

"He'll be fine," McElwain said. "It's not major."

Del Rio started six games last year, finishing 114-of-201 passing for 1,358 yards, eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. The son of Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio missed two games with a knee injury, then missed the final five after injuring his shoulder at Arkansas. 

With Del Rio out, redshirt freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask are battling this spring for the starting job.

In other injury news, McElwain said Rick Wells had successful leg surgery. 

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March Madness: Revisiting UNO star Erik Thomas' Pasco prep career

Times archives

If the first game of March Madness begins with Erik Thomas dominating Mount St. Mary's tonight, no one in Pasco County should be surprised. Consider what the New Orleans star forward did at Wesley Chapel High. 

As a senior for the Wildcats, Thomaas averaged 33 points and 16 rebounds, posted 27 double-doubles in 29 games and earned all-state honors (and our award as North Suncoast player of the year). It runs in the family. His older sister, Sthefany, left Wesley Chapel High as Pasco County's all-time leading scorer.

Erik Thomas received Division I interest but was small (6-foot-5), which explains why he went to East Georgia State College and Baton Rouge Community College before ending up at New Orleans, where he was the Southland Conference's player of the year.

For some more background on a player who could make a big difference in the NCAA tournament in tonight's play-in game, here's a column from his high school days by John C. Cotey:

Erik Thomas is almost everything you want in a forward.

He is a ferocious rebounder, one of the best the North Suncoast has ever seen.

He is a physical inside player, who makes a living cleaning up after teammates and opponents. …

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March Madness: Florida Gators say 'the sky is not falling on us'

The Florida Gators are, admittedly, limping into March Madness.

"We're obviously not going into the NCAA tournament with a bunch of momentum," UF coach Mike White said Monday on the SEC's teleconference.

But the Gators insist they're not dead, either, despite being pegged as a potential upset candidate and drawing a dangerous 13 seed, East Tennessee State.

UF has lost three of its last four games - by 10 points at Kentucky and twice to Vanderbilt. White remains optimistic, partially because his Gators led by 12 at Vandy before collapsing late.

"The sky is not falling on us," White said. "If you find a way to beat Vandy by one point and you move on, we're not having the same conversation.

"We've lost a little mojo, a little momentum, of course. But I don't think we're a much different team than we were a couple weeks ago."

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