Bob Sparks - SaintPetersBlog

Bob Sparks

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

Chris Chiozza, Christian Laettner and the forgotten supporting actors

Christian Laettner, meet Chris Chiozza. Your contributions to March Madness lore may be 25 years apart, but the memories will go on for far longer.

Laettner, who was already well-known, made “The Shot,” in 1992 that kept Duke’s hopes alive for a repeat championship, which they won. Chiozza, a popular figure on the Florida campus, but relatively unknown elsewhere, sent the Gators to the Elite 8 on Friday with “The Shot 2.”

One should be careful before making comparisons between that legendary game between the Blue Devils and Kentucky, but Friday’s game can be compared favorably. It should be remembered that a quarter century ago, Duke was no more a dominant power than Florida is today.

At the time of Laettner’s heroics, the Blue Devils possessed one national title, accomplished the previous year. He gave them the chance to repeat, which they did. Florida has two titles and Chiozza’s running three-pointer kept the Gators hopes alive for winning a third.

Quick quiz: who is the last school to win back-to-back national titles? For those outside of Gainesville, the answer is the Florida Gators in 2006 and 2007. Those teams were the first to accomplish the feat since Laettner’s teams.

Friday’s game may not have matched the level of talent and execution of two teams playing at the very top of their games in 1992, but it was EVERY BIT as compelling. For example, Florida overcame a double-digit first half deficit to take the lead by halftime.

Not to be outdone, the Badgers also overcame a 10-point, second-half deficit to regain the lead. Twice.

“What a wonderful college basketball game to be a part of,” said Gators Coach Mike White. “I’m so proud of our guys; I can’t even put it into words.”

Such history-making shots understandably dwarf everything else that happened during the game or other contributors to the victory.

Who remembers Grant Hill as the one making the length-of-the-court pass to Laettner, or Laettner stomping on Kentucky’s Aminu Timberlake while the latter was on his back under the Duke basket?

From Friday night, who remembers that KeVaughn Allen set an all-time tournament scoring record for a Gator with 35 points? Who needs a reminder about “The Block” by Canyon Barry on Khalil Iverson with only 34 seconds remaining in overtime?

Allen’s offense was desperately needed. If Barry does not do what he did, the Badgers go up by four points and make Chiozza’s moment in history a highly unlikely event.

What about poor Zak Showalter of Wisconsin? After sending the game to overtime, he breaks into the “Discount Double-Check” gesture while pointing at its creator, Aaron Rodgers, sitting in the stands.

Or perhaps Showalter’s teammate Nigel Hayes? After struggling mightily at the free throw line all night, Hayes hit the two that seemingly won the game for the Badgers with four seconds left.

The headlines were already being written until Chiozza blew up the story.

Yes, this was unquestionably a legendary game, but not enough saw it. While it was still early evening in March 1992 when Laettner broke Kentucky hearts, it was almost 1 a.m. when Chiozza’s dagger had the same effect in cheese country.

If you were still awake, you saw something special. The best news is you get to see them play for a trip to the Final Four on Sunday against conference foe South Carolina.

Friday’s game will be tough to top.

 

Can Gators display the patience needed to take down Wisconsin?

As the Florida Gators prepare to take on the Wisconsin Badgers in Friday night’s Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden, an old saying applies to Florida players, coaches and fans: Patience is a virtue.

But that is what is required to play against the well-coached, disciplined Badger team.

On defense, eighth-seeded Wisconsin plays tough and aggressively, hoping to force undisciplined teams into taking quick shots. On offense, they are not afraid to run the shot clock down to the last five seconds before winding up with a shot from the paint or a three-pointer from sharpshooters like Bronson Koenig and D’Mitrik Trice.

Both of these areas present challenges for the fourth-seeded Gators. Both were problems for the tournament’s top team, evidenced by Wisconsin’s 65-62 upset of Villanova.

On paper, Florida matches up well. Offensive stats are nearly identical.

Florida has played strong defense this season and is capable of giving Wisconsin plenty of problems. After some early season shortcomings, the Gators have come together on the defensive end, including creating turnovers into baskets on the offensive end.

“It’s why we continue to improve, even this late in the year, on the defensive end,” said Gators’ Head Coach Mike White, the SEC Coach of the Year.

Three things to feel good about Friday’s game.

  1. Devin Robinson’s inspired play in the tournament. He can cause a lot of problems for the Badgers inside and outside.
  2. Wisconsin is similar to Virginia. Although the Badgers are a bit better offensively, they play a methodical style of basketball, which worked out great for Florida last week.
  3. Florida’s advantage in free throw shooting could help them win a close game.

Three things to be concerned about

  1. If Florida’s first few shots do not fall, can they avoid falling into Wisconsin’s hands by putting up quick shots?
  2. If Florida loses discipline late in the shot clock on defense and lets Koenig or Trice get free, look out.
  3. If Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes get Robinson and Kevarrius Hayes in foul trouble, they could dominate inside, especially without the injured John Egbunu.

Intangibles: In a word, experience. Wisconsin starts four seniors who have played in two Final Fours. Happ, a sophomore, is the only underclassman.

Kasey Hill is the only Gator who has played in a Final Four (2014), let alone the Sweet 16. It would be great to have senior Egbunu, but…

White has already shown he is among the best in his profession. So has Wisconsin’s Greg Gard.

It will be decided on the court starting Friday night around 10:00 p.m.

 

Despite horrible weekend, ACC still basketball’s best league

ACC fans, or supporters of schools outside of the SEC, often grumble about the “best conference by far” tag often given to the SEC by football pundits. Each time an SEC team loses a bowl game or a head-to-head matchup with one of the outsiders, the derision often follows.

Conversely, SEC basketball fans, or supporters of other power conferences outside of the ACC, are equally uncertain that conference is that much better than the others.

The ACC put eight teams into the NCAA Tournament field this year, including Florida State as a third seed in the West region. Of those eight, Duke and Louisville were seeded second, while Virginia and Notre Dame each earned five seeds.

North Carolina was one of the tournament’s four top seeds. Clearly, the selection committee was high on the ACC.

Despite this, only North Carolina was able to survive the first weekend. FSU was sent home in embarrassing fashion by 11th seeded Xavier, but the Seminoles and their fans were far from alone in their despair.

Duke’s upset at the hands of South Carolina of the SEC was clearly unexpected. The ACC’s other huge casualty was Michigan’s upset of Louisville.

The Florida Gators became the second SEC team to take down one of the ACC’s elite. After completely throttling Virginia, Florida expected to face the tournament’s top seed, Villanova, Friday in New York. That will now be Wisconsin after the Badgers bounced the Wildcats from the tournament.

With only North Carolina left to carry the ACC banner, the SEC, Big 10, Big 12 and Pac 12 all have three teams playing this weekend. The Big East has two and the West Coast has one.

Having said all of that, it is not accurate to say the ACC is anything but college basketball’s strongest conference. Despite going 7-8 in the first weekend of the tournament, the top-to-bottom strength of the league is there for all to see.

The eight teams making it into the NCAA tournament can be favorably matched against the top eight teams of any other league. There can be little argument there. Don’t forget that six ACC teams reached the Sweet 16 just a year ago and two (North Carolina and Syracuse) made it to the Final Four.

By comparison, look at SEC football. This year, they placed 12 teams in bowl games, including the College Football Playoffs.

Yes, they had a losing record of 6-7 during the post season, which includes Alabama’s loss to Clemson in the championship game. With all due respect to Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney, that does not mean there are 10 or 12 teams from any conference that line up better than the top 10 or 12 teams from the SEC. The league was 9-2 in the post season last year.

Despite the ACC bloodbath this past weekend, it would shock no one if the Tar Heels were the ones to cut down the nets in Glendale Ariz. on April 3.

Overpowering performance shows Gators belong in Sweet 16

If the Florida Gators play like they did on Saturday, they have a chance to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Florida smothered the beleaguered Virginia Cavaliers, 65-39 in a second round game at the Amway Center in Orlando.

This game was expected to be a defensive-oriented contest since neither team was known as offensive juggernauts. Florida has shown the ability to post big wins when they shoot around 50 percent. Three straight 30-point blowouts and a 22-point smashing of Kentucky are good examples.

Saturday’s game looked a lot like those four. The Gators hit 46 percent of their shots, including 38 percent of their three-point attempts. ,Devin Robinson, who had an outstanding two days in Orlando, and Justin Leon posted double-doubles.

The Cavaliers, even on the few occasions they were open, struggled mightily. They clanked 70 percent of their shots, 14 of their 15 three-point attempts.

Holding any major college team to 39 points isn’t easy, let alone the big stage of the Big Dance. It was a performance worthy of a Sweet 16 team – Florida’s next destination – or maybe even a Final Four participant.

“We’ve played really well at times this year,” said Florida Coach Mike White. “We’ve added a couple of wrinkles and got rid of a couple of wrinkles.”

Going into Saturday, the Gators thought that a victory over Virginia would give them a crack at the tournament’s top seed, defending champion Villanova. Instead, they will face eighth-seeded (the selection committee made a big mistake) Wisconsin in the East Region semi-finals in New York.

The Badgers are similar to Virginia in preferring a deliberate style of play, but the Wisconsin offense is better than Virginia’s. It promises to be hand-to-hand combat.

Whatever the style of play, White is just happy his team will still be practicing this week.

“We’re not done playing,” he said. “We’re excited about next weekend.”

FSU no match for Xavier’s excellence

Florida State’s outstanding season is over. It didn’t just end, it came crashing down with a thud on Saturday. The Xavier Musketeers, losers of 13 games this season, bludgeoned the Seminoles 91-66 in the NCAA Tournament second round at the Amway Center in Orlando.

Those who might not have seen the game might make the assumption that Florida State did not show up to play. That would be an unfair assumption to both Florida State and Xavier.

The Musketeers, who at one time lost six games in a row in February, got their act together late in the season and came into the tournament as winners of four of their last five. One of those victories against Butler, the South Region’s fourth seed. They beat a very good Maryland team in the first round.

Florida State, on the other hand, was never able to regain the magic after a 12-game winning streak ended. Five double-digit losses came as the result of poor shooting (especially free throws), poor defense, turnovers, and lack of preparation.

Only one of those factors, poor shooting, came into play in the FSU’s largest loss of the season. Xavier, superbly coached by Chris Mack, was that good.

The Seminoles committed only nine turnovers, a respectable amount against an aggressive defense. They made 14 of 19 free throws, a respectable 74 percent.

They pressured the Xavier ball handlers. FSU’s best player, Dwayne Bacon was aggressive, but also shared the ball.

So how on earth did FSU get swamped by 25 points? The Musketeers, who jumped on the Seminoles early and never let up, deserve all of the credit.

“They were just all over the place,” said Bacon. “We would nip at the lead, then they kept making big shots. They made big shots all night.”

Xavier passed the ball (20 assists on 30 made shots) and got inside, but also shot exceptionally well from the outside, making 11 of 17 three-point attempts. MTSU shot 57 percent from the game.

The Seminoles, quite simply, shot miserably. They only made 40 percent of their shots, and made only four of 21 three-point attempts.

Firing up so many bricks prevented the Seminoles from setting up their defense after made baskets. Xavier had no such difficulties.

For those who think the Seminoles, blew it, you are close, but not in the way you think. While several Musketeers played extremely well, guard Trevon Bluiett was simply sensational.

He scored 21 of his 29 points in the second half. Bluiett made three-pointers, layups, jumpers and 10 of 14 free throws. He also had six rebounds and three assists.

Bacon, in what may be his last game in a Seminole uniform, had 20 points while Xavier Rathan-Mayes added 16. Jonathan Isaac, who will almost certainly depart for the NBA, had eight.

In the end, Leonard Hamilton’s best team finished on a huge downer. It’s a safe prediction the “fire Leonard Hamilton” crowd is already organizing.

For the rest of Seminole fans, it was a fun year.

Devin Robinson, others step up to help Gators avoid upset

Listening to the “experts,” the Florida Gators sounded like underdogs to East Tennessee State heading into Thursday’s NCAA Tournament first round game at the Amway Center in Orlando. Despite being a 10-point favorite with odds makers, several pundits had the fourth-seeded Gators on “upset alert” against the 13th seed Buccaneers.

To be sure, the pressure is on the higher seed in games like these. Double-digit seeds have low expectations.

Since 1985, 13th seeds have beaten fourth seeds 26 times. With that in mind, plus the fact the Gators were on a three-game losing streak and were missing center John Egbunu, perhaps there was reason for Florida to among those considered vulnerable.

Sometimes this Gator team has a great deal of difficulty shooting the ball, or will turn it over too often. What they have shown is a respectable degree of mental toughness to be called upon when things are not going their way.

Along with missing the injured Egbunu, sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen struggled mightily, making only one of 11 shots from the floor and scoring just seven points.

Canyon Barry, the SEC’s 6th Man of the Year, made only one of four shots and also scored only seven points. The Gators also turned the ball over 15 times.

Yet, they found a way to win.

Junior forward Devin Robinson filled in the gaps by tying his career high with 24 points. Kasey Hill, not known as a strong outside shooter, scored 14 points on five of eight shooting. Kevarrius Hayes, filling in for Egbunu, scored seven points, but had a game-high six steals.

“That’s kind of who we are,” said Gators Coach Mike White. “KeVaughn’s not hanging his head right now. KeVaughn is happy we won. Devin would be the same way if KeVaughn were sitting here (in the interview room) right now.”

Robinson helped lead the offensively struggling Gators from a five-point lead midway through the second half into a double digit lead they would not relinquish. The defense played a huge role in building that lead by creating turnovers and holding the Buccaneers to 40 percent shooting.

Next up is the fifth-seeded Virginia Cavaliers, who rallied from a 15-point deficit to down North Carolina Wilmington in Thursday’s first game at the Amway Center. Perhaps the Vaughn that Florida is used to seeing will emerge.

If not, someone else will probably step up. With a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line, White and the Gator faithful certainly hope so.

 

CBS experts say Florida, Florida State ripe for first-round upsets in NCAA Tournament

When the NCAA Tournament pairings were announced on Sunday, the CBS crew of Greg Gumbel, Clark Kellogg and Seth Davis analyzed the 68 teams and picked an upset or two. Davis, as usual, was the most outspoken, calling out two teams of interest to Florida viewers.

Looking toward Thursday’s games in Orlando, Davis emphatically predicted that 14-seed Florida Gulf Coast will knock Florida State out of the West region. In one of the earlier games to be played at the Amway Center, he also feels that 13th-seeded East Tennessee State will crush the hopes of the Florida Gators in the East region.

Davis is not alone. CBS’s bracket wiz Jerry Palm and colleagues Matt Norlander and Dennis Dodd believe the Buccaneers will send the Gators back to Gainesville for good on Thursday afternoon.

In addition to Davis and Dodd, Florida Gulf Coast has fans among CBS experts Chip Patterson, Kyle Boone and Howard Megdahl. The Eagles made their mark with a captivating run to the Sweet 16 in 2013 as a 15 seed.

It is not that such an upset is impossible. Florida Gulf Coast can take comfort in the fact that a 14 seed has defeated a three seed five times over the last four years.

Gator fans can worry about the ability of the 13 seed to wreak havoc. From 2008 through 2013, a four seed lost to a 13 seed at least once each year. Last year, Hawaii knocked out California.

Florida’s other tournament team, Miami, earned much more respect. Of all the CBS experts, only Boone picked the ninth-seeded Michigan State Spartans over the eighth-seeded Hurricanes in the Midwest on Friday in Tulsa.

Despite having a higher seed, perhaps picking Miami is a daring choice. Playing Michigan State in March is always a dicey proposition. Further, Megdahl predicts Miami will dump top-seeded Kansas in the second round on Sunday.

The Gators are 10-point favorites over East Tennessee State, while the Seminoles are a 12-point choice over Florida Gulf Coast. Miami is a two-point pick over Michigan State.

The Florida vs. ETSU game is the second game of the day in Orlando starting at 3:10 p.m. while Florida State vs. FGCU is the final game of the day slated for 9:20.

 

Magic still struggling on the defensive end

The Orlando Magic has lost three games in a row and five out of six. The latest was a highly disappointing 120-115 setback on Monday night at the hands of the Sacramento Kings, a team that had lost their previous eight games.

Orlando has now lost 44 of their 68 games this season after being a competitive 15-18 in December. The calendar is now midway into March, and the last time the team won back-to-back games was around Christmas time.

The shortcomings of this team have been on display at various times throughout the season. Poor shooting has dogged them in several games, especially early in the season. After all, isn’t the objective to put the ball into the basket?

On the other end, the defense has been an even greater problem. After playing well enough early on to achieve the third-best defensive ranking, their defense has been described as “Swiss cheese” by some and a “sieve” by head coach Frank Vogel.

This team has lost three games by 30 points this season, topped by last week’s 40-point embarrassment against the Charlotte Hornets.

When they play bad defense AND struggle shooting the ball, those are the kinds of things that can happen with this team.

The last five games are a microcosm of the season. Despite Elfrid Payton stepping up big time with three triple-doubles during that span, the Magic lost four of those five games.

Payton’s first triple-double came in a home game against the New York Knicks. A fourth-quarter collapse led to a New York win.

The Magic were able to beat the Chicago Bulls in the next game. Chicago’s 12 made three-pointers were not enough to overcome another triple-double by Payton.

Charlotte shot 60 percent and made 10 three-pointers in the game from hell, while the Cleveland Cavaliers shot 50 percent and made 15 threes in a competitive loss at home.

On Monday, the Kings shot 54 percent and made 16 of 30 three-point attempts, thwarting another triple-double by Payton. Allowing a team to shoot that well means there are open threes as well as some layups and dunks.

“We’re giving up the three-point line now,” Vogel said following the loss to the Kings. “The last three games there are a high number of threes going up, and we’ve got to get that under control.”

While he praised the team’s improvement with their defense “in the paint,” he pointed out that “the transition defense really hurt us.”

That is what leads to layups, dunks and high shooting percentages.

If Vogel and the Magic are concerned about giving up three pointers, they have two days to work on it before heading to Oakland on Thursday night to play the three-point happy Golden State Warriors.

Orlando hosts Florida-flavored NCAA Tournament first round

For NCAA Tournament organizers, their desire to fill seats at the eight first and second round sites, Orlando should be gold for them. With the Florida Gators, Florida State Seminoles and Florida Gulf Coast Eagles coming to the Amway Center in Orlando on Thursday, fans of all three teams will not have far to travel.

Florida’s other NCAA Tournament is Miami. The eighth-seeded Hurricanes will open play on Friday in Tulsa against the ninth-seeded Michigan State Spartans.

The team traveling the furthest is the Xavier Musketeers from Cincinnati. Two familiar teams will be there as well.

The Virginia Cavaliers of the ACC and the Maryland Terrapins, formerly of the ACC, but now in the Big 10 will both be there. The other two teams are the East Tennessee State Buccaneers and North Carolina Wilmington Seahawks.

While Florida Gulf Coast was expected to be seeded 14th, Florida State was thought to be falling below the three seed they earned. That prompted a first-round matchup between the Seminoles and the Eagles.

Florida was also thought to be dipping below the fourth seed after losing their final three games. The committee kept them at four, leading to an interesting matchup with the Buccaneers.

Florida State and Maryland are on pace to meet on Saturday if the Seminoles get by FGCU and Maryland can handle Xavier. Florida and Virginia are bracketed together if the Gators defeat the Buccaneers and the Cavaliers can beat the Seahawks.

Orlando is hosting NCAA first round games for the first time since 2014. That year, the Gators started their Final Four run in Orlando with victories over Albany and Pittsburgh.

Florida State is making their first tournament appearance anywhere since 2012. Florida Gulf Coast had the magical run to the Sweet 16 in 2013 before the 15th seeded Eagles were finally ousted by the Gators.

Starting Thursday, the Amway Center will be the place to be.

Florida, Florida State falling in final day “Bracketology”

When the field of 68 NCAA tournament teams is announced on Sunday there is certain to be a surprise and a snub or two. What does the “Bracketology,” say about which bubble teams will make it and who will remain at home?

We know the names of the four Florida teams that will be called, but where will they go to open the tournament and what seed will they receive? If Joe Lunardi, the foremost expert in tournament projections is right, conference tournament performances have hurt some of them.

According to Lunardi, the swami of Bracketology, Florida will earn a fifth seed, but quite possibly a six. Florida State has fallen to a four, but the committee could take them down another spot.

Miami played well down the stretch to earn a No. 7 seed. Florida Gulf Coast, winners of the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament will likely enter the tournament as a 14 seed.

Two weeks ago the Gators had a legitimate shot at a three seed. Unfortunately, they finished the season on a three-game losing streak.

Florida can blame their plunge on Vanderbilt. They lost to the Commodores twice in the span of seven days, who wound up beating the Gators three times this season.

Despite having a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) ranking of 10th, the selection committee looks at different factors, including how well your team played over the final month. Losing three times to a team (Vandy) with 15 losses does not help your case.

Florida State had a luckluster February and never regained the magic that saw them in the top 10 before five double-digit road losses in the ACC. The Seminoles are still rated 13th in the RPI, but their finish keeps them from earning anything higher than a four seed.

Miami brings in an RPI rating of 42 and played well in the season’s second half. They are perfectly suited to the No. 7 seed Lunardi projects.

Florida Gulf Coast carries an RPI rating of 85, meaning they would be nowhere near the Big Dance without winning their conference title.

For those not aware of Lunardi, he has a sterling track record. Last year he picked 64 of the 68 teams in the field and either the spot-on seeding or within one spot of 60 teams. In 2015 he predicted 66 of the 68 teams with 61 of the 68 seedings being perfect or within one spot.

The bottom line is that fans of Florida’s four tournament teams can pretty much bank on their seed. It is tough to project where teams will open up, but Lunardi makes the case for Florida State playing their first and second games (if they win) at the Amway Center in Orlando. He has the Gators heading to Milwaukee, with the Hurricanes and Florida Gulf Coast off to Indianapolis.

All of the Bracketology becomes official Sunday afternoon at 5:30 p.m.

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