West Region finals: Florida vs. Louisville

Published on March 23 at 5:05 p.m. Eastern.

By Brian Edwards

In the 1987 NCAA Tournament, Providence head coach Rick Pitino and star senior guard Billy Donovan led the Friars to the Final Four in New Orleans. Twenty-five years later, Donovan and Pitino will lead their respective schools up against each other in the West Region finals in Phoenix for the right to go to this year’s national semifinals in The Big Easy.

Most betting shops opened fourth-seeded Louisville (29-9 straight up, 21-13-1 against the spread) as a one-point favorite but as of Friday afternoon, most spots had the Gators listed as 1 ½-point favorites with a total of 131 ½.

U of L has won seven in a row both SU and ATS, including Thursday’s 57-44 win over top-seeded Michigan St. as a 5 ½-point underdog. The Cardinals hooked up money-line supporters with a plus-200 payout (risk $100 to win $200).

Chane Behanan was the catalyst for Louisville with 15 points, nine rebounds and three steals. Russ Smith came off the bench and added 11 points in just 17 minutes of playing time.

Pitino’s team played sensational defense against the Spartans, who shot an abysmal 28.6 percent from the field. The Cards also forced MSU into 15 turnovers.

During Louisville’s seven-game winning streak, it has taken out the likes of Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Marquette en route to winning the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden. Then in the NCAA Tournament, the Cards have bounced Davidson (69-62) and New Mexico (59-56).

Gorgui Dieng is a dominant defender in the lane, something UF hasn’t seen during its current three-game winning streak. Dieng had nine rebounds, seven blocked shots and three steals against Michigan St., altering shots and playing a pivotal role in the Spartans’ woeful shooting night.

Florida (26-10 SU, 15-15-1 ATS) was sent to the West Region and given a No. 7 seed despite spending a good chunk of the season in the Top 10 of the national rankings. However, the draw has turned into a good thing for the Gators, who blasted 10th-seeded Virginia 71-45 in their opener.

Next, UF got to face a No. 15 seed because Norfolk St. stunned second-seeded Missouri two days before. Kenny Boynton scored a team-high 20 points to lead the Gators to an 84-50 shellacking of the MEAC champs.

On Thursday at US Airways Arena, the same venue where UF lost a Sweet 16 heartbreaker in the 1999 Tournament courtesy of a last-second putback by Gonzaga’s Casey Calvary, it captured a 68-58 win over third-seeded Marquette as a one-point underdog.

Bradley Beal needed just 10 shots from the field to produce a game-high 21 points. The freshman guard/forward also had six rebounds, four assists, two steals and a pair of blocked shots. As I noted in my take on sleepers before the Tournament started, Beal has the type of talent to ‘pull a Carmelo’ (‘Cuse circa 2003) and lead UF to a national title.

Erving Walker and Boynton added 11 points apiece against the Golden Eagles, who were hampered by the fact that Big East Player of the Year Jae Crowder got into foul trouble early in the first half.

If you told me that Florida would make just 21-of-78 shots from 3-point land at a mediocre 27-percent clip in its first three games of the Tournament, I would’ve told you it would no longer be in the field. Nevertheless, the Gators are back in the Elite Eight for the fifth time on Donovan’s watch.

That’s because they have been outstanding defensively. In fact, UF has given up the third-fewest amount of points in Tourney history during the shot-clock era for the span of the first three games.

Florida let a double-digit second-half lead get away in last year’s Elite Eight overtime loss to Butler in New Orleans. That will surely have Walker, the senior point guard who is UF’s all-time leader in assists and the school’s second-best 3-point marksman, and the rest of his teammates extremely hungry for success Saturday afternoon.

The win over Marquette improved Donovan’s career record in the NCAA Tournament to 28-9. That’s good for the third-best mark percentage-wise (.757) among active coaches, behind only Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and UNC’s Roy Williams.

The ‘over’ is 18-13 overall for UF, but the ‘under’ has cashed in each of its three NCAA Tournament games.

The ‘under’ has cashed in five consecutive Louisville games and 10 of its last 11. For the season, the ‘under’ is 21-14 overall for the Cards.

In six all-time head-to-head matchups between the mentor and the protege, Pitino’s teams have bested Donovan’s all six times. The most recent was a 74-70 U of L win over UF at the O-Dome in Gainesville in December of 2004.

Tip-off on CBS is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Eastern.

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