Flagler basketball gets thrust into national spotlight when Saints take on Div. I National Champion Florida Gators
By Devon Jeffreys | firstname.lastname@example.org
When their bus pulls into Gainesville on Oct. 31, the Flagler Saints men’s basketball team will be in for a treat.
The Saints will get their shot at the two-time defending national champion Florida Gators at the O’Connell Center in Gainesville on Nov. 1.
Although the game is a big deal for the school and the program, it is an exhibition game and Saints head coach Bo Clark is not interested in who wins or loses.
“I’m hoping that it will be a great experience for our kids,” Clark said. “I want it to be a fun thing. I want it to be a thing that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives that they had a chance to play, not only the Florida Gators, but the two-time national champion. We’re playing the two-time national champions, in their first game, which is really kind of neat.”
The opportunity to play against Florida came about when, a few years back, the NCAA instituted a new rule that allowed Div. I schools to exhibition against Div. II and NAIA schools.
“I went to lunch with Billy Donovan about two years ago at a state tournament,” Clark said. “And I’ve really been kind of beating it into his head that ‘it would be great for our kids, it would be great for our school, it would be great for our program if we could play you guys in an exhibition game.’ And he said ‘Yeah, that would be great.’ ”
Since that lunch, Clark and assistant coach Jimmy Link continued to contact Donovan and the University of Florida basketball staff about the game and a contract was signed in May of this year.
Though Donovan was unavailable for comment, Associate Head Coach Larry Shyatt said when the NCAA rule changed, Florida started to play Div. II schools as a service to the smaller schools in the state.
Clark said the Saints enter the game with the highest respect for the Gators and what they have done, not to mention thankful that they even get to play against the defending national champs. But the Saints players have made no secret of their expectations for the game.
“I want to win,” sophomore guard Jon Matthews said. “I think we can win. Everyone is doubting us because it’s the Gators, but they lost six of their people that play.”
Florida has not lost a home game since Feb. 22, 2006, during the first national title season, when they lost to Tennessee 76-72. The Gators have also hosted teams that Flagler is familiar with in exhibitions over the last two seasons. In Nov. 2005, they hosted Embry-Riddle and drubbed the Eagles by a score of 86-48. Last season, Florida hosted Rollie Massimino’s Northwood team. Though Northwood put up a fight, Florida won 70-41.
But the Gators are certainly a different team than the one that “cut down the nets” last March. The Gators lose a whopping 68 points per game in scoring to graduation and the NBA. Their top six scorers are gone. Without Corey Brewer, Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Taurean Green, Lee Humphrey and Chris Richard, the Gators have just four upperclassmen on their roster. Junior Walter Hodge is the only current Gator that was on both National Championship teams. Hodge averaged 5.7 points per game and 17.7 minutes per game.
The biggest loss for the Saints coming into this season will be a big one as well. The Saints will have to replace starting forward Sam Jozenville who averaged 19.5 points per game last season to lead the team.
“He’s really going to be tough to replace,” Clark said. “He was just a go-to guy and kind of a silent leader. It’s hard to replace 19 points and we got kind of spoiled having Sam.”
Also gone are Lee Wise and Kyle Cregan, both seniors last year. Tyler Dellinger left the team in the spring and Daniel Marsh was dismissed, according to Clark, after violating team rules.
But the Saints return most of the core of last year’s team. Bryan Borstelmann, the Saints’ only senior, is back after averaging 11.4 ppg and 7.7 rebounds per game last season. Also returning is Coach Clark’s son J.P. Clark.
J.P. was finally able to overcome injuries that had hampered him his first two seasons at Flagler and played in every game last season averaging 11.1 ppg.
“He’s been about as healthy as I’ve seen him in the last five years,” Coach Clark said.
Center Ben De La Cruz established himself as a force in the paint last season as a freshman and Clark expects him to continue to grow with experience.
“I’m hoping to get more scoring this year out of Ben and J.P.,” Clark said.
Borstelmann, J.P. and De La Cruz have been named the team’s co-captains and Coach Clark said his young team is looking for leadership from all three of them.
Going into Gainesville, Clark knows his Saints are underdogs and has no expectations for the team’s performance.
“I haven’t really said I hope we can keep it within 20. I hope we can keep it within 30. I hope we can be down 12 at the half,” Clark said.
“To be honest, I’m not putting any expectations on our players. I want them to have fun. There is no pressure on our players. All the pressure is going to be self-inflicted. This is just a fun exhibition game that we’ll get to wear our new uniforms and play against an unbelievable basketball team, probably the greatest team these guys will play in their life and I want them to enjoy it.”
Yet it seems the players are putting some expectations on themselves. They do not want to be a doormat for the Gators on the way into the regular season.
“Against Florida, we know that we’re going in there as a big underdog,” J.P. said. “We’re going to go in there and play them tough. We’re going to treat it as a normal game even though it’s a big game.”
Being a heavy underdog motivates the Saints.
“Everybody around town is talking garbage saying that we’re going to get beat by 90,” sophomore center Ben De La Cruz said. “We know deep down we can make it a competitive game. They have a brand new team and most of them are basically guys that we played from back home. We’re just going out there trying to make it competitive and make a game out of it, prove everybody wrong.”
The opportunity to play Florida will catapult the Saints onto a national stage.
“It’s a big deal,” De La Cruz said. “We’ve never played anyone like that. We’ve probably played, at the most, five [Div.] I’s and none of them have been on the same level as Florida right now. I think the biggest school we had played in school history was the Citadel and that was five or six years ago.”
With a possible move to the Sunshine State Conference on the horizon, the increased exposure could be a boost to Flagler’s possible inclusion.
“It gives Flagler a little recognition,” J.P. said. “You know, we’re trying to move up to the Sunshine State. When they see Flagler playing Florida, I think some people will recognize that Flagler is an up-and-coming program.”
De La Cruz said he was happy when he heard the news that the Saints would take on the Gators this year.
“A lot of guys will get a chance to play on that stage in front of like 12,000 people,” he said. “That’s a dream.”