Christmas came a bit early for the Florida men's basketball team. On Tuesday, Mike White and his players walked through the doors into the Stephen O'Connell Center for the first time since the renovations were completed.
"I couldn't unwrap this but we walked in and they cut the ropes for us today; this is crazy," said guard Chris Chiozza. "It looks like a whole new place. It looks like a brand new place. I'm really excited to get in here and play tomorrow."
"It looks totally different," added guard Kasey Hill. "Kind of reminds me of Ole Miss a little bit, but I think it's a little bit nicer than Ole Miss."
"Just wow. This is amazing place," said UF head coach Mike White. "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.”
The Exactech Arena at the Stephen O'Connell Center held its first event last Friday, when it held the university's winter commencement. However, on Wednesday Florida will hold its first sporting event in the newly renovated arena. According to White, the changes fans and recruits will see on game day set the Gators apart.
"I don’t know how you bring a recruit in here that doesn’t love this place," said White. "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.”
Florida will set to tip off for the first time at O'Dome on Wednesday night against Little Rock. Although, White admits focusing on the Trojans after all excitement on Tuesday will be tough, he expects his team to refocus on what needs to be done on Wednesday night.
"We’ve got to channel it the right way because again this is a check, it’s a check to see where our focus is," said White. "Defensively we were locked in the other night as much as we’ve been all year. I hope that carries over. We’ve got to shoot the ball better, offensively, we’ve got to turn the ball over less offensively, but defensive rebounding continues to be the biggest deficiency defensively, but it was as positive as it was the other day, all year. Hopefully we see more of that, finishing stops with two-handed defensive rebounds from all five guys.”
But in the end, the excitement of finally playing at home in front of a Gator crowd is motivation enough for this group.
"It's very exciting," said Hill. "We're ready to play here. We're ready to play in front of the fans and try to get a win."