Florida traveled to Orlando on Wednesday, a day early to acclimate to the surroundings and better prepare themselves for the first round matchup. The Gators don’t have to travel far and should have somewhat of a home court advantage. Again, none of that matters to them right now.
“It's been a long year for us especially with all the travel, the unique situation, the unique hand that we were dealt,” Florida head coach Mike White led off his Wednesday presser with. “Our guys have handled it really well, of course.
“Proud of the fact that the Gators are back in the NCAA Tournament. It's really exciting, but at the same time, we're coming off two straight losses. So that's unique in and of itself.
“We've got to find a way to get off to a good start here against a really good East Tennessee State team who's had a terrific year, and we'll see where it goes from there.”
This is White’s first opportunity to coach in the NCAA Tournament and although it is a great feeling to be in the field, he will not dwell on that one iota, as he and his team focuses on ETSU.
“I hadn't thought about it, and I won't,” he said about happy thoughts of being in the field. “This is about East Tennessee State on a neutral floor. That's all it is to me. This is neat. Today's neat. The festivities are over with here this afternoon, and we've got 24 hours to lock in on a big opportunity for us.”
On a two game losing streak for the third time this season, the Gators haven’t lost three in a row all year. They have tunnel vision to try and make sure that doesn’t happen.
“This is two games in a row where, if we did this, golly, if we didn't do this, if we didn't allow this to happen, if we did this a little bit better, you're coming in with some momentum,” he said about the last two losses to Vanderbilt in Nashville. “And we hope to regain some momentum by having a little bit more focus, having a bit more disciplined, doing our jobs, being a bit more accountable.”
Florida is the four seed in the East Region, while ETSU is seeded thirteenth. When the brackets were announced on CBS, the guys on the set were all about this game being an upset special of which there are always several in the tournament.
White hopes the talk will serve as motivation for his team.
“I think it's definitely a part of the fun,” White said of the picks that come along with the tournament. “I think it's one of the things that makes this tournament so special and March Madness such an exciting event is that every game is huge. You win or you go home. People love to see upsets, of course, and upsets happen a bunch. There are a lot of really, really good mid-major teams, East Tennessee State being one.
“Our guys won't forget it because our guys, we watched (the show) as a unit, and we watched it on a big TV in our locker room, and the volume was turned up loud. So they saw it, and they heard it.
“That said, it can't be a big factor for us. If we're thinking too much about that, we're taking away from how we're defending (ETSU guard) T.J. Cromer and not allowing him to get 41, and keeping Bradford out of the paint and getting a touch versus Merriweather, who's an incredible defender. Blocking out those two high-major transfer bigs.”
“Our focus needs to be on East Tennessee State and the game plan much more so than we're going to prove everyone wrong and not get upset. In fact, we were favored in our last game and didn't take care of business.”
Of the Buccaneers, White sees a team that is very similar to his. Both are athletic and like to run.
”We've had matchups, especially the last one that lasted two games, that on paper, going into the game, we thought was a very difficult matchup for us, both offensively and defensively, for a couple reasons,” White said. “Honestly, with East Tennessee State, I think you've got two teams that are pretty similar in a lot of ways. There's probably nothing that intimidates them by us. I don't think that they're going to throw a ton of curveballs at us at the same time. I think 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. Your biggest fear going into this one, especially because of us and because of the not-too-distant past is just a couple mental lapses defensively -- and, boy, Cromer goes on a 6-0 run by himself, "I forgot to call switch." "I lost him in the corner." Can't have it.
“Transition defense is huge in this one. They're phenomenal in transition offense. They really feed off of it. They feed off of live-ball turnovers to get them into transition offense.
“Bradford is terrific at getting in the paint. We over-helped a few time against Vanderbilt that led to open threes. We can't over-help on Bradford, although he scores it in the paint. They've got guys that can fill it up from behind the arc. And lastly, we've got to defend the glass. We've got to do it collectively. Glass and Perea are high-level athletes with high-level motors… quick, strong, and relentless on the offensive glass.
Finally, the Gators are playing close to home. Just a couple of hours down the road in Orlando where they hope to have a pretty nice home court advantage with the crowd. But, his team wasn’t ready to take things any more lightly because of something like this in their favor.
White is pleased with the players’ response, but also knows his guys have played at plenty of away venues and played well this year.
“This isn't a home game, this is an NCAA Tournament game,” he said. “Both teams will be juiced up. It's more about the game plan and execution than anything else. That said, I'd rather be playing in Orlando than anywhere else.
“The hour and a half bus trip was beautiful. It was great to get in a little bit earlier last night and not have to fly across the country somewhere. And our guys have earned that. Now we've got to do something with that.”