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Pete Gillen take heed: Gators' Final Four run proves benefits of spreading the wealth

I stand before you today, gentle readers, a wiser man. Much like the blind Greek soothsayer Tieresias - or perhaps more like Yoda - I have seen the future. More specifically, I have borne witness to what the Virginia men's basketball team could become.

Where did I see this vision? It originated in Syracuse, N.Y., where a young, talent-laden squad of Florida Gators knocked off two of this year's best college teams en route to the Final Four.

On the surface, comparing the basketball programs of Florida and Virginia doesn't seem to make much sense. The Gators have reached two Final Fours in the last decade (1994 and 1999) while the Cavs haven't returned to that plateau since 1985.

Virginia also competes in the dog-eat-dog world of the ACC, where parity has been mistaken for mediocrity, while Florida plays in a Southeastern Conference that boasts four truly strong teams, a bunch of pushovers and one really lucky group of Razorbacks coached by Nolan Richardson.

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  • So what, then, makes me such an advocate of Florida hoops? And how does it relate to Virginia?

    Because the Gators have depth, and use it as the Cavaliers should have this season.

    No Florida player averages more than 30 minutes per game. The Gators go at least 10 deep every game. Typically, that kind of depth tends to disappear when playing top-shelf competition, but in Friday's 87-78 defeat of No. 1 Duke, Gator coach Billy Donovan stuck with his 10-man rotation. The plan worked.

    The Blue Devils' thin roster, which essentially revolves around just six players, was stretched to anorexic levels once Carlos Boozer got in foul trouble. By the time Donovan went to his big lineup, Duke boosters had already begun to cancel their flights to Indianapolis.

    Obviously, Virginia and Florida don't have comparable talent on their squads. The Gators are a perennial power in the SEC and that level of excellence tends to attract top recruits.

    That doesn't mean the Cavs don't have the talent to use such depth effectively. Typically, Virginia coach Pete Gillen will play 10 Cavaliers per outing. But usually a couple of those players (Colin Ducharme, Keith Friel and Willie Dersch please step forward) see less than 10 minutes of action.

    I don't like to traffic in counterfactual sports writing, but what if Gillen had gone to some of his reserves during Virginia's 109-100 overtime loss to Duke in January? Or put in fresh bodies during the triple-OT marathon against Georgetown, if only for a few minutes to give the starters a breather?

    The Cavaliers' use of depth more closely resembles that of another SEC power, Tennessee, though the Vols' squandering is more of a crime considering their experienced roster. Although Tennessee coach Jerry Green has the bodies to go 10 or 11 deep, he relies heavily on his starters, especially star point guard Tony Harris.

    While this strategy resulted in a school-record win total, it proved problematic for the Volunteers' postseason hopes because they could not win without Harris. If he shot the lights out, the Vols often cruised. If he struggled, as he did shooting 1-for-10 against North Carolina Friday, Tennessee usually lost.

    Does any of this sound familiar to Virginia fans?

    The thing I like best about Florida's style is the lack of pressure it places on individual players. I also don't buy into the claim that the very talented players don't like playing under such a system. The recent pinnacle of depth Kentucky's 1996 championship team, went 10 deep with a roster that had seven players eventually go pro. Besides, Gator Mike Miller's game doesn't seem to have suffered even though he averages less than 29 minutes per contest.

    Working at a university still regarded nationally as a "football school," Donovan has quietly assembled one of the best teams in the country. There's no reason Gillen can't do the same here in Charlottesville.

    Unquestionably, without Gillen the Cavs would still be languishing in the ACC cellar. I have only one question for him: you worked hard to recruit those athletes, so why not play them all?


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