Gators Open Tourney vs. Unfamiliar Opponent

The Gators aren't shy to admit they knew nothing about UC Santa Barbara before the NCAA Tournament bracket came out on Sunday. That changed soon after. Florida will open the tournament on Thursday at 6:50 p.m. at the St. Pete Times Forum against the Gauchos, who won the Big West conference tournament as the No. 5 seed.

"As you look at the stats from their conference tournament, it's pretty amazing what Santa Barbara has done in terms of their shooting percentages from the field, from the three-point line, and then just how well defensively they played in the conference tournament," Florid head coach Billy Donovan said. "So they're a team playing at a very, very high level, and they've obviously got a phenomenal player and scorer in Orlando Johnson and another terrific scorer in (James) Nunnally.

"This is a very good team we're playing, and we're excited about the opportunity and excited about being in the tournament."

The focal point for the Gators will be Johnson. He led the Big West Conference in scoring, averaging 21.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. The junior shot 47.5% from the field, 40.1% from behind the three-point line and 80.8% from the free throw line. There isn't a place from inside the half court line he can't score from.

However, the feeling of unfamiliarity was mutual between the teams. The Gauchos hadn't seen much of Florida, outside of randomly catching them on television in conference games this year.

"We didn't really know too much about (Florida)," Johnson said. "We've seen them on TV a few times because they play in the SEC and they get a lot of televised games. We've played against these players before on the AAU circuit growing up. They're not that different, they just play on a bigger stage. I think once we get out there, our players will be able to do the talking."

The Gauchos understand the setting. They know it will be a hostile environment that might feel like a game being played in the O'Connell Center. The Gator-friendly city of Tampa isn't the easiest place for an opponent to take on Florida.

"We know it's a road game, pretty much a road game for us," Guachos player James Nunnally said. "We traveled all this way, and we're just going to go out there and play like we've been playing all of our lives."

The downfall of the matchup for the Gauchos comes in Florida small forward Chandler Parsons, a senior who presents matchup issues for every team the Gators have played this season.

"He's so versatile," UC Santa Barbara head coach Bob Williams said. "When you're a coach and you like versatile players like I do, he's one of those guys that you honestly could see him playing the two through the four, and he could be an All-League player at the two, three or the four. He shoots it, he passes it, he's got great instincts, he's a lot quicker than he looks. When you watch him really close, boy, his first step is tremendous. He gets by people. He has great instincts for the game, and he's really, really good at crashing from anywhere on the floor, he gets to the boards out of that three spot and is dynamic for them. He's definitely a key for them."

The travel schedule for UC Santa Barbara hasn't been easy. They took a cross-country flight to get to Tampa for Wednesday's practices and will now try to get accustomed to the new time zone.

"I think for Santa Barbara certainly traveling across the country, that's always a difficult travel," Donovan said. "I believe when the game starts tomorrow night and the ball is thrown up, I think all that stuff will be out the window. I think the fact that we're in the state of Florida will be thrown out the window because I think we're going to have to go out and play.

"Although we're in our own state, this is not an arena that we have played in. I think maybe last year we played Syracuse here. It's not a place that we're necessarily comfortable with or have played a lot of games here. It's a new building for both teams."

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