Less than 24 hours separates the Florida Gators from tipping off against the East Tennessee State Buccaneers in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The 13-seed Bucs have earned a spot in the tournament for the first time in seven seasons in the first year under head coach Steve Forbes. Florida brings nothing but respect in for its competitive mid-major opponent.
“They’ve got a high-major caliber team and I know they’ll prove that tomorrow, that they’re very worthy of being in the NCAA Tourney, of course,” said Florida head coach Mike White. “They’ve got an SEC staff, all these guys worked for Coach [Bruce] Pearl at Tennessee, and they’ve got SEC players. They’re very good. This is gonna be like a league game for us.”
Thursday’s game is a compelling matchup, with two teams that have a very similar style of play. Florida and ETSU both bring in strong defenses that both allow fewer than 70 points per game and take pride in turning defense into offense with turnovers.
The Bucs currently sit at 14th in the nation with 8.4 steals per game, while the Gators are 39th with 7.6. ETSU gets 15.6 opponent turnovers per game, compared to Florida’s 15.0.
The only thing that gives Florida a real advantage in that area is the turnover ratio. While ETSU is great at turning other teams over, it struggles with taking care of the ball on its own end of the court. The Bucs have just a +0.8 turnover ratio, as they turn the ball over 14.8 times per game.
Similarities can be seen on offense as well, as both teams score just fewer than 80 points per game and rely on guards for most offensive production.
Much like Florida, ETSU regularly goes between nine and ten players deep with an experienced roster. The Gators have not been going quite as deep lately while trying new things to make up for the absence of John Egbunu, but up until then, it was not rare for most players on the roster to see minutes.
With so much similarity, White and the Gators seem to feel a little more comfortable with this matchup than one with such a unique team like Vanderbilt.
“With East Tennessee State, I think you’ve got two teams that are similar in a lot of ways,” said White. “There’s probably nothing that intimidates them by us. I don’t think they’re gonna throw a ton of curve balls at us, at the same time. We know what we’re dealing with. They know what they’re dealing with. Speed, quickness, athleticism, two teams that play really hard, very good length, good depth, two experienced teams, so this one is as much about us as it is about the opponent.”
Junior guard Chris Chiozza added on, saying, “They’re athletic just like us. They like to play fast and get up and down the court. That’s how we like to play too, so that could be an advantage for us or a disadvantage. We’ve just gotta play our game and hopefully it’s an advantage for us.”
With ETSU’s tendency to turn the ball over, it has struggled against press defense this season. Florida reimplemented the press in the final minutes of the Vanderbilt game in the SEC Tournament to bring the game back within reach, and it worked well enough to send the game into overtime.
It might be something the Gators consider doing again this game, but whatever style of defense White goes with, it will be important for players to stay focused and not get lazy as the game goes on.
“It’s real important,” redshirt junior Devin Robinson said about playing a strong defensive game. “When we start off playing really intense defense, it messes with the offense’s head, so once you get them going, get the defense going and making it hard for them from the beginning, they tend to get frustrated throughout the game and make it harder for them to make shots later on in the game. I feel like if we start that a little earlier and play defense earlier, then it’ll work out later on.”
As the Gators finish up the final preparations for this game, they are locked in on the job at hand, which is getting back on track with a win over a tough ETSU team.
“We went back to the drawing board,” said Robinson. “We knew that right now we’re on a downward spiral, but we knew coming in here that we have to pick everything back up. We know and we understand that it’s win or go home, so we’ve got our backs against the wall and we can’t worry about what happened in the past and just move forward and just get another winning streak going right now.”