After a pair of exhibition games at the O'Connell Center in early November, the Gators will open the 2002-03 regular season on Nov. 19, as Louisiana Tech comes to Gainesville for the opening round of the Preseason NIT. It marks Florida's first appearance in the event since 1987 when the Gators ran the table and claimed the Preseason NIT title. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN, one of six appearances on the network during the 2002-03 season.
Should they defeat Louisiana Tech, the Gators would then host the second round of the event and take on either Eastern Illinois or Boise State on Nov. 21. The second round winners will then advance to the Preseason NIT Final Four at venerable Madison Square Garden in New York City with semifinal action taking place on Nov. 27 and the final and consolation games on Nov. 29. The semifinal and final rounds of the Preseason NIT will be broadcast on ESPN2.
Other notable teams competing in the Preseason NIT include Kansas, North Carolina, Stanford, Xavier and Penn State.
Senior guard Brett Nelson will get to play in front of his hometown fans on Dec. 3, as the Gators will take on the West Virginia University in a game to be played in Charleston, W. Va.
Due to the Preseason NIT, the annual Florida State game will not be played the evening before the two schools do battle in football, but will be played a week later, on Dec. 6 in Tallahassee. Two days later the Gators return to the O'Connell Center to take on another in-state rival, as they host South Florida on Dec. 8.
From there the Gators take the road for a pair of difficult tests. Florida travels to defending national champion Maryland on Dec. 14 at the brand new Comcast Center in a game to be televised nationally on CBS. It marks the fourth time under Donovan that the Gators have taken on the defending national champion.
On Dec. 21 Florida makes its annual appearance in the Orange Bowl Classic at the American Airlines Arena, but this time takes on the University of Miami, an NCAA Tournament qualifier a year ago. The two will meet for the first time since Dec. 30, 1990 when the Gators took at 62-60 decision at the O'Connell Center. Florida leads the overall series between the two schools 42-21 and took 12 of the last 13 decisions in the series before it was discontinued in 1990.
Following home games with Charleston Southern, Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M around the Christmas holiday, Florida opens the SEC schedule with against a pair of the top contenders for the conference crown. The Gators head to Starkville, Miss., for their SEC opener, taking on defending SEC Tournament champion Mississippi State on Jan. 7 on ESPN. The SEC home opener will take place on Jan. 11 when Georgia, a team the Gators shared the SEC East crown with a year ago, comes to the O'Connell Center for a match-up to be televised by Jefferson Pilot.
Other notable SEC games in the month of January include a trip to Columbia to play at South Carolina on Jan. 18 in its new Carolina Center, as well as an ESPN showdown with LSU in Baton Rouge on Jan. 28.
A pair of nationally televised match-ups highlight the early portion of February, as the Gators travel to Rupp Arena on Feb. 4 for ESPN clash with rival Kentucky and then return home on Feb. 8 to take on the highly-touted Alabama Crimson Tide on CBS.
The SEC season closes with a road trip to Athens to take on Georgia on ESPN on March 4, while the regular season home finale will bring Kentucky to the O'Connell Center on March 8 with CBS handling the broadcast.
The SEC Tournament returns to New Orleans for the first time 1996 from March 13-16. The Louisiana Superdome will serve as the site, the second consecutive year that the SEC Tournament has been held at the same site as the Final Four.
In all, the Gators appear on ESPN six times, CBS three times, Jefferson Pilot five times and SEC-TV three times.
The Gators return four seniors, including a pair of All-SEC selections in Matt Bonner and Brett Nelson, from last year's squad the went 22-9 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for a school record fourth consecutive year.
Quotes from Florida men's basketball coach Billy Donovan on the 2002-03 Gator basketball schedule, which was announced on Thursday.
Billy Donovan Opening remarks... "We feel like this year's schedule is very competitive with what we are trying to accomplish here. We are trying to get in a lot of competitive games that we can play on national TV, before the we play in the conference. Our first game this season is home in the Preseason (National Invitation Tournament) and on ESPN, and that will give us exposure. We are also playing Maryland after they've just won a national championship. We're playing Miami in a new series. We're playing at West Virginia to get Brett Nelson back home for a game. We feel like we have a great blend of teams from different conferences that will get us ready for our conference. If you look at the SEC in the RPI the last three or four years, the SEC has been ranked No. 1 because there are a lot of great teams in the conference."
On scheduling... "I'm finding it more common that games are being scheduled at neutral sites. That makes it tough to get a home and home series with a lot of teams. You always want to start a home and home series at your place and a lot of opponents don't want to do that. They want to start the series at their home. It's my goal to get a high-level opponent in here every year like we had with Michigan State last year, so our fans can enjoy even more. I think we have a nice blend of playing at home and on the road this season that will help to make us a better team."
On the large number of games in the early part of the season... "Finals here are a week before everybody else's in the country. We can't play during that week and we can't play the next week because everyone is then taking their finals. That creates a two-week gap where we can't play and that is why so many games are in the early part of the season. It will definitely test us physically when we are playing two games in the span of three days. I wish we had a little bit more time to play those games, but we don't and we'll have to deal with it."
On possibly playing Louisville (coached by Rick Pittino) and South Alabama (coached by longtime assistant John Pelphrey) in the future... "We are working for a series with Louisville, but that's down the road. I hope it happens, because it would be a great game. I'm trying to work out a deal with John Pelphrey for a two-for-one series with South Alabama. We would go there twice and they would come here once (laughter from the media). But I've got to go one year at a time right now. I don't know if Louisville would come onto the schedule next year."