After years of falling behind other programs with outdated facilities, the Florida Gators basketball team finally has a newly updated arena to call home. To this point, Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center could not look or feel any more like home to the Gators.
The new arena, along with a much-improved team from a season ago, has brought some confidence back to the Florida basketball program.
After a year of working to improve the culture of Florida basketball, it seems like the players have bought into what Mike White is building. Not only have the players bought in, fans seem to be regaining trust and interest in the program as well.
“I think fans have always been bought in here,” White said. “How are you not bought into the last 20 years around here, in terms of basketball? I was pleasantly pleased with last year, with Coach Donovan taking off, and a new brand, to a certain extent, although we tried to copy it as much as we could. I thought, with the Rowdies being the national student section of the year, winning that award, and with a lot of the outcomes that we had, I was pleasantly pleased with year one. So this is obviously a different level, and it’s a big factor for us and has given us an extra advantage at home.”
Tickets for Saturday’s home game against Tennessee officially sold out on Thursday. It is the second sellout in three home games for the basketball team so far this season (the home opener against Little Rock was also a sellout). Only one of Florida’s 16 home games sold out last season.
“I think the renovation really helps with our fan base, with excitement and pride, and deservingly so,” said White. “This has been a longtime coming, of course. I think it obviously has a lot to do with why we’re sold out tomorrow — the arena.”
Whether it is the intrigue of the new arena, the improved product the team has put on the court, or a mix of both, fans are flocking to see the Gators play. “We’re playing a lot better than we were last year,” said senior forward Justin Leon. “Everybody wants to see us be a good team, and with us playing the way we’ve been playing, it gives the fans something to want to see.”
While Florida is hot right now, with four consecutive wins and an undefeated record at home, Tennessee is no team to look over. The Gators are fully aware of that and are focused on avoiding another outing like the one they had in this game a year ago.
Last season, Tennessee embarrassed Florida 73-56 in Knoxville. The Volunteers led by as many as 30 points in the second half of that game. The Gators shot just 34.3 percent from the field and were outplayed from a physical standpoint.
“We just didn’t have the right mindset when we came in and played them,” said Leon. “That’s probably why the scoreboard was the way that it was. This year, they’re obviously a good team. All their losses were close losses to tough opponents. We know if we don’t come out there with the right mindset, they can come out here and beat us like they did last year.”
To make the environment for Saturday’s game even better, the Gators will be wearing all-black alternate uniforms. The home court advantage will be there in every aspect. The rest is left up to Florida to have the maturity to redeem itself from last season’s performance in this game.