The waiting, as Gainesvillian Tom Petty once sang, is the hardest part.
As the No. 3 overall seed, Florida will be the last of 14 teams to begin play in the SEC Tournament on Friday night in St. Louis (9:30 p.m., SEC Network). Florida will face either sixth-seed Arkansas, 11th seed South Carolina or 14th seed Ole Miss at the Scottrade Center in the first league tourney held west of the Mississippi River.
Florida beat Arkansas 88-73 earlier this season in Gainesville. The Gators split their two-game series with South Carolina, losing 77-72 at home and winning 65-41 on the road. In its lone meeting with Ole Miss, the Gators lost 78-72 on Jan. 13 in Oxford, Miss.
“You’ve got some good potential opponents,” Florida coach Mike White said. “It’s different. It’s odd. Who do you prepare for? What drills do you do in practice, based on scouting? We try to consolidate as much as possible with all three teams with what all three do, offensive and defensively, and then you have a really quick scout there at the end of the week, of course.”
If the Gators advance, there’s a good chance they could end up facing 2 seed and SEC co-champion Tennessee on Saturday afternoon.
“A really quick turn if we’re fortunate to win Friday,” White said.
Florida (20-11, 11-7 SEC) has righted itself, winning three straight against Auburn, Alabama and Kentucky to lock up a second straight NCAA Tournament berth. Most NCAA Tournament projections have the Gators as a 5 seed, though it’s possible that seeding could rise with a strong showing in St. Louis.
The Gators have won four SEC Tournaments in school history, with the last coming in 2014 in Atlanta. Florida also won three straight titles from 2005-07.
“I’m just locked in — you guys know this — on the next practice, next game, and hoping we can get a little better up there,” White said. “It’s an opportunity to potentially win a championship, and to progress. Am I little more excited for the NCAA Tournament? Yeah. Not going to lie about that. But excited about playing Friday, and hopefully playing well.”
Florida is coming off one of its best efforts of the season in an 80-67 win over Kentucky on Saturday. White said junior guard KeVaughn Allen played one of the best defensive games of his career. Allen had a solid all-around floor game with 11 points, 7 rebounds, a career-high 7 assists and 3 steals.
“We had a few chances to really spread it open and didn’t do so,” White said. “But I thought going into the game I thought Kentucky had a lot of momentum and had become arguably, at least during league play, the most improved team. And for us to play that well speaks to our improvement and the development of our guys. Overall it will be a great memory for those seniors, most importantly.”
The double bye does give Florida more time to rest and prepare for the grind of the postseason. White gave UF’s players Sunday and Monday off, though some players came in to lift weights Monday.
“I want them to feel rejuvenated when they come back (Tuesday),” White said. “We’ll be creative with how much physicality we have throughout the week, but then when we get to Wednesday, we’ll do the normal two-day prep Wednesday and Thursday.”
FREE THROWS: Redshirt freshman forward Dontay Bassett remains in concussion protocol and was re-evaluated Monday. Bassett sat out the Kentucky game after suffering a concussion in UF’s Feb. 27 game against Alabama. … White said freshman swingman Deaundrae Ballard not playing against Kentucky was not by design. “He might play 15 minutes Friday night, might play more. He may not get in the game … I’m just trying to win a game,” White said. The 6-foot-5 Ballard is shooting just 38.2 percent from the floor this season and 16.1 percent from 3-point range. Ballard has missed his last eight 3-point attempts and hasn’t made a 3-pointer since Jan. 2 against Texas A&M. “He’s got to earn minutes,” White said. “Mike (Okauru) has got to earn minutes, but it would be nice to be a little bit deeper, especially going into tournament play. It would be nice for him to have a really good week and provide us some minutes on Saturday.” … Florida improved to 5-1 in its PK80 Tournament orange-and-black jerseys with its win over Kentucky. Asked if the Gators will wear the jerseys the entire postseason, White said: “We made a staff rule about three weeks ago, really when we started playing a little bit better, that no one’s allowed to say PK80 ever again in front of our team,” White said. Why? “We were horrific defensively. We were playing really, really fast and we were getting open looks, and that’s before people started grinding that thing out against us,” White said. “We looked a little bit different. All the reminders that our guys get, all the exterior noise about PK80 this, PK80 that, I didn’t think it was healthy for our guys to continue to hear that.” White’s youngest brother, Brian, was hired as the athletic director at Florida Atlantic on Monday, joining Mike and UCF athletic director Danny White as the third high-profile Division I coach/administrator in the state. White’s father, Duke AD Kevin White, has a beach house in Melbourne the family uses during holidays and summers. “ It’s crazy to have both little brothers right down the street,” White said. “I’m close to both of them. They’re really close. We have a great relationship. I think it’s neat for both of them, with the same title, as athletic directors, able to have such a close a personal and professional relationship, and be a couple hours away from each other.”