DALLAS — For Florida players and coaches, there were no more wide-eyed looks going through the concourses at the American Airlines Center.
The sixth-seeded Gators entered NCAA Tournament play Thursday night against 11th St. Bonaventure with a roster with at least some tournament experience.
Five players — led by starting senior point guard Chris Chiozza and starting junior guard KeVaughn Allen — played a significant role in last year’s Elite Eight run. Allen scored 35 points in UF’s Sweet 16 win over Wisconsin last year, while Chiozza hit the game-winning, running 3-pointer against the Badgers in overtime.
Junior center Kevarrius Hayes, redshirt sophomore forward Keith Stone and sophomore center Gorjok Gak also played significant minutes for the Gators during their Elite Eight run last season.
“It could be an advantage, just the atmosphere we have here every game, when you get in the tournament, people that haven’t been here before, it might rattle them a little bit,” Chiozza said. “We have pieces that have been here, and I think with the guys that were here last year, I think we’re trying to do as best a job as we can, getting everybody ready to prepare themselves mentally.”
Florida coach Mike White and his staff also learned the pressure of going through tournament games for the first time last season. White went 3-1 in tournament games last year in his first NCAA Tournament appearance.
“We’re such a different team,” White said. “We’re playing such a different team. I just think it’s more about this year’s Gators and this year’s Bonnies. This experience, if you really look into it, there’s probably some positives, but there might be some negatives as well.”
One negative, White said, can be potential overconfidence based on what happened last year.
“If we allow this to creep in, that we can just play well, and we’re going to move on because that’s what happened last year, that can be the negative side of it,” White said.
Two more players on UF’s roster have experienced the NCAA Tournament atmosphere, even though neither played. Redshirt freshman forward Dontay Bassett traveled with the Gators to Orlando last year while continuing to rehab a stress fracture in his foot. Grad transfer guard Egor Koulechov was a freshman at Arizona State in 2014 when the Sun Devils lost 87-85 in the opening round of the tournament on a last-second shot.
Koulechov didn’t appear in the game, watching the final shot unfold from the bench, but it had a profound impact on him.
“The margin for error is so small,” Koulechov said. “That was a heartbreaker my freshman year against Texas. The guy just picked the ball up, just laid it up.
“It’s been a journey since then. Obviously went to Rice, now finishing here at Florida and it’s been great. This is the time and this is why I came to Florida, this team, those guys. We’ve worked really hard all year to where we are right now, and now we’ve just got to take advantage of that.”
Because of the late tipoff between Florida and St. Bonaventure in the NCAA Tournament in Dallas, results of the game aren’t in today’s editon. Click to Gatorsports.com for complete coverage.