March Madness has officially begun and the No. 6 Florida Gators are in for a tough test in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Gators just missed a spot as a No. 5 seed, and likely would’ve gotten it with a stronger showing in the SEC Tournament. Instead, they sit at a slight disadvantage, not knowing which team they will face in the first round.
St. Bonaventure and UCLA will fight it out on Tuesday to decide who gets that final spot in Dallas and a matchup with Florida.
The Gators have some pretty recent history with the Bonnies, as the two teams met early last season while Exactech Arena was still being renovated.
St. Bonaventure returns a large part of a team that gave Florida a run for its money, including senior starters Matt Mobley, Jaylen Adams and Idris Taqqee. Mobley and Adams combined for 48 of the Bonnies’ 66 points while Taqqee led the team with nine boards.
The Gators came away with a 73-66 win, but it did not come easily. St. Bonaventure cut a 15-point Florida lead down to one point over the final 10 minutes of the game, and it took some clutch plays down the stretch to avoid a loss.
The Bonnies had won 13 games in a row before falling to Davidson in the Atlantic 10 Tournament Semifinal, so they could easily get hot in the tournament if they are able to defeat UCLA.
“Very similar team to a year ago in Bonnie, who’s got a terrific, really, really underrated backcourt—one of the best backcourts in the country,” said head coach Mike White. “They play incredibly hard. They’ve had a great year.”
The Gators aren’t quite as familiar with the Bruins, as their last matchup came back in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Florida defeated UCLA 79-68 in the Sweet 16 on its way to a Final Four appearance.
If the two teams are destined to meet in the tournament again, it will be under very different circumstances.
The Bruins could be very dangerous, with four players averaging double figures this season, and one averaging a double-double. But much like the Gators, UCLA has had its fair share of struggles in the consistency department.
When two streaky teams matchup, it’s hard to predict an outcome.
“They are really big and they are really long,” White said of the Bruins. “Big guards, length, athleticism, high level of talent. They are a little bit like us where they’ve had some games where they were pretty average and they had some games where they are really, really good. Either team is going to be a really tough test for us, of course. I don’t disagree with these national guys that come out and say, ‘I’m picking anybody over the Gators.’ I don’t blame them. We’ve been average and we’ve been really good. We’re going to have to be really good to beat one of these teams.”
White is actually going to try to use all of the media criticism as motivation for his team.
It seemed as though Seth Davis counted the Gators out before the potential matchup had even fully popped up on the screen during Sunday’s selection show. He said no matter which team wins the play-in game, that team will go on to beat Florida.
Davis has been critical of the Gators each of the last two years, but it didn’t seem to faze last year’s team from making an Elite Eight run.
“I was appreciative of Seth,” White said. “He helped us last year, so we’ll use it again. Who knows how much of a factor it will be with these guys. These guys are hard to tick off. My guys, I’m not sure I’ve found the button that produces a bunch of edge, but we’ll throw it at the wall, for sure.”
White said on Monday that he’s just not sure how much similarity there is to that team with this year’s team. These players don’t get too high or too low about anything, which can be a good thing in certain situations, but maybe not in this one.
Arkansas embarrassed Florida for another one and done appearance in the SEC Tournament last week, and he isn’t sure this team is mad enough about that.
“Last year’s team coming off a loss would be pissed off,” White said. “We didn’t coach effort in practice. I wouldn’t have to find unique ways to motivate our guys. Today’s practice a year ago coming off that Vandy loss in the tournament, I’d have to split some guys up because there would be so much competition in three or four drills. Today’s practice is going to be very, very different. It’s just two different teams … This team doesn’t get really upset. Just a different deal. I wish we would.”
White thinks that is part of the reason why the Gators can look like one of the best teams in the country one game and then a team undeserving of even being in the NCAA Tournament the next.
Florida has to find the edge that it’s been missing a majority of this season, or it could be in for a very short post-season run.
“Maybe we’ve got another positive chapter in us where our urgency will pick back up,” White said. “I think our guys understand right now if we lose, it’s over, and the legacy of this team will be what it is at this point.”