Christmas came early for Florida Gators basketball this year, but this present has been long awaited. Do you remember the one present your parents used to let you unwrap just a little bit early to keep you off of their backs? That’s kind of what the Gators got to do on Tuesday, but instead of socks, it was a $64.5 million renovation to the new Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
After fighting the urge to sneak a peek in for so long, Chris Chiozza said he felt like a kid on Christmas morning. “It really does,” he said. “I couldn’t unwrap this, but they cut the ropes for us today. It’s like we’ve got a new place to play, a whole new place.”
Mike White might have been the happiest one of the bunch. He waited along with his team for the day to come to see the arena. White decided that it would be best to keep all distractions out of sight for as long as possible while the Gators were finishing out their road schedule. It was well worth the wait.
“It just kind of happened,” White said on the decision to wait to see it. “We all get busy and we have, obviously, the utmost faith in our administration that we would be back in there and that it would be beautiful. Then all of a sudden, it’s right around the corner and I hadn’t seen it, so it was a late decision that, ‘Yeah, none of us have seen it. Let’s all go in at the same time for the first time’. Our guys are really jacked up. It’s a special place. It’s amazing. It shows the continued commitment from our administration for not only our basketball program but our entire athletic department. I know it’s not all about athletics in this building, but it’s the University of Florida. It speaks to who we are at the University of Florida.”
While waiting kept the Gators heads on straight for a while, it might not be so easy to remain focused in the first game back in a new home after 17 consecutive games on the road, but it should be worth it in the end. The O’Connell Center is finally up to date with other top programs around the country and will be something to be proud of for coaches, players, and fans.
“We need to be thinking about UALR right now and it’s hard to, quite honestly,” White said. “So we’ve really got to check our focus. Long-term, I don’t know how you bring a recruit in here that doesn’t love this place. I think it instills probably, even more, pride into our players about what this place is all about, the opportunities that they have here. I think our former players will come back and embrace this place. I can’t wait to see our fans’ reactions to it tomorrow night. I know they’re going to be fired up. It’s a new, beautiful home for all Gators.”
It is beautiful. New video boards in all four corners, a center-hung scoreboard, chair-backs on all seats, a new sound system, and much brighter LED lights are just a few of the new things found in Exactech Arena.
The lights seemed to make the biggest impression on the players and coaches. With dimmer lights in the stands and enhanced lighting on the court, it adds even more to the cleaner look the arena now has. While brighter lights might not actually make Florida a better shooting team, White will tell the players whatever it takes to make them believe it.
“Absolutely, we’ll tell our guys that, we’ll tell our guys the rims in here are a little bit softer, a little bit easier to dunk in here, for whatever reason, teams come in here and turn the ball over a little bit more,” he said. “We’ll embrace all the positives. With anything, you feel the energy right now. Hopefully, it carries over again into practice, assuming we can maintain some focus, but we’re ready to tip this thing tomorrow night, I know our guys are. I know we’ll play extremely hard, hopefully under control, we can keep our emotions in check.”