Northwestern St.-Florida Preview
By STEPHEN HAWKINS
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Kenny Boynton and Erik Murphy arrived at Florida not too long after the Gators had won consecutive national championships.
They are down to their last chance to get one for themselves.
Boynton and Murphy are part of the only Florida group to win consecutive outright Southeastern Conference regular-season titles, and the seniors helped cut down the nets after clinching the second in their final home game earlier this month. They have been to the NCAA tournament every season, this time as a No. 3 seed in the South Regional.
Except they haven't been able to get Florida back to the Final Four, coming so bitterly close the last two years.
"We want to leave that legacy of just being winners," Murphy said. "We've just got to win every game we can."
Florida (26-7) plays its NCAA opener against Southland Conference tournament champion Northwestern State (23-8), a fast-paced team that constantly shuffles five players at a time on and off the floor and is the NCAA's highest-scoring team (81 points per game).
Plus, the Demons were also a No. 14 seed in their last NCAA tournament appearance seven years ago. They opened that tourney with an upset victory over Iowa.
"Everybody is just reminiscing on the 2006 team," senior James Hulbin said. "We're just pretty much trying to set our pace for our own memories in the future, future players at our program too. We're playing with a lot of confidence, we just play our game."
Instead of national titles like 2006 and 2007, the Gators were coming off consecutive appearances in the National Invitational Tournament when Boynton and Murphy arrived as highly touted freshman.
Florida immediately got back to the NCAA tourney their first year, then overcame a 13-point deficit in the second half of its opener against BYU. Boynton scored 27 points, but the Gators lost in double overtime.
They made it to regional final games each of the past two seasons, and led late both times. Only to lose to Butler in 2011 and Louisville last March.
"We can't dwell on the past," Boynton said. "Right now, it's a new season. We learned from our mistakes from last year. We're ready to make a run in the tournament."
Against Northwestern State, the Gators better be ready to run.
Demons coach Mike McConathy's unconventional system involves the rotation of two groups of five players in and out of the game - similar to a hockey team switching lines during a game. Each group will play several minutes at a time.
Only guards Shamir Davis and Jalan West average 25 minutes a game for the Demons. There are five Florida players who get more than that, including Boynton as one of two at 32 minutes.
"A former coach that passed away told me I wouldn't play for myself," said McConathy, who first used the system as a junior college coach. "The reason I did this was because we had so many good players. I was having a lot of morale issues. So I figured that if I played 10, I could at least keep 10 happy."
West said the Demons try to pressure and wear down other teams. He said that style of play holds everybody on the roster accountable to each other.
"You're not going to be in the game the whole time, even if you're hot," West said. "You've got to trust your teammates to get in the game and do the same thing that you were doing."
The Demons got their automatic NCAA bid when they knocked off 27-win Stephen F. Austin in the Southland Conference tournament title game.
Florida coach Billy Donovan, whose team blew a 12-point halftime lead and lost to Mississippi in the SEC tournament finale, doesn't expect Northwestern State's style to affect how his team uses its players.
"For us, we're going to sub based on fatigue, foul trouble, those kinds of things," Donovan said. "I also do think matchups, if there is a matchup to their substitution that we need to change. But that wouldn't be anything different than what we would normally do in a given game."
The Gators are third nationally, allowing only 53.7 points a game while outscoring teams by 18 points a game. The 66 points by Ole Miss were the most allowed by Florida in 12 games. Only two opponents have scored more - Kansas State's 67 before Christmas and Arkansas' 80 on Feb. 5.
Boynton is already Florida's career leader in 3-pointers made (329) and needs only five more points to join Ronnie Williams as the only Gators ever with 2,000 career points.
What he really wants is six more wins - and a national title.
"And nothing less than that," he said.
Updated March 21, 2013