DALLAS — The sea of red will file into American Airlines Center throughout Saturday afternoon — red shirts, red pom-poms, even red cowboy hats.
By tipoff Saturday night, sixth-seed Florida will be in for a Texas-sized challenge when it faces third-seeded Texas Tech. Not only will the Gators need to contend with a talented Texas Tech backourt led by senior All-American guard Keenan Evans, but will need to do so with close to 20,000 frenzied Red Raider fans jeering their every move.
Last year, as a four seed, Florida rode the momentum of a partisan crowd in Orlando to a 65-39 win over five seed Virginia in the Round of 32. This time around, UF finds itself as the pseudo road team.
“There’s no advantage to it for us, obviously,” Florida coach Mike White said. “But we’ve got to deal with it and we’ve done it before. I don’t think any team in the country is more battle-tested than we are over the last two years, considering what we’ve had to go through last year with the renovations to Exactech Arena. We’ve played a ton of games away from home.”
This season, Florida went 5-4 in true road games and 4-3 in neutral court contests. Notable big wins for the Gators away from the O’Connell Center this season included knocking off Kentucky 66-64 at Rupp Arena on Jan. 20 and beating Gonzaga 111-105 in double overtime on Nov. 24 in Portland.
“We’ve played better in our away games,” Florida junior center Kevarrius Hayes said. “We’ve come together knowing it’s all of us on the court, the coaches and everybody else on the staff.”
Added Florida junior guard Jalen Hudson: “The fans really can’t do anything for them on the court. We’ll have to bring our own energy. I still feel really good about it.”
White said he’s more concerned about a Texas Tech defense that ranks fourth in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. On Thursday night, Florida struggled early against St. Bonaventure’s changing zone defense before figuring things out in the second half. Florida moved the ball better and was more aggressive driving to the basket in the second half. Of its 27 baskets against the Bonnies, 19 came off assists.
Texas Tech will pose more of a defensive challenge for the Gators due to its size and length, both on the perimeter and inside.
“Team speed, length, athleticism,” White said. “We’ve played a lot of teams this year where you watch on film and you say, guys, in talking to your team, this guy is really athletic. They’ve got like five of those guys and they’ve got veteran guards. They play really hard.”
Evans, meanwhile, showed no lingering effects of the sprained toe he suffered late in the season, finishing with 25 points and 5 assists in Texas Tech’s 70-60 win over 14-seed Stephen F. Austin on Thursday night. When the Raiders needed big baskets down the stretch, they turned to Evans, who scored 8 of Texas Tech’s final 15 points.
“The journey has meant everything to me,” Evans said. “Like I say in every interview, just being in every interview, just being at the bottom of Tech basketball and being at one of its highest points and being part of a team that can pretty much make history is unbelievable.”
Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said Evans has made himself into one of the best players in college basketball.
“He’s done it with a lot of work,” Beard said. “He’s in the gym every day. He’s in the film room a lot. He’s a guy that’s changed his body in the weight room. He’s everything good about college basketball when you think about a four-year player staying and grinding.”
Florida senior point guard Chris Chiozza said he’s looking forward to the challenge of helping guard Evans after dealing with the talented St. Bonaventure backcourt tandem of Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley on Thursday night.
“Any time you go up against a great player, it helps elevate your game,” Chiozza said.
But the Raiders are about more than Evans. On Thursday night, Texas Tech freshman Zhaire Smith wowed the crowd with a reverse, 360-degree dunk that helped get the fans into the game after some early struggles. Senior forward Zach Smith had 9 points and 3 blocks off the bench for Texas Tech against Stephen F. Austin and is rounding into form after missing half of the season with a foot injury.
“Their freshman class is big-time,” White said. “They’ve got a good mix of those guys, along with Keenan and some older guys, some good seniors. Athletically, they’ve got some good pieces, some big physical games.
“Their team speed is as good as we’ve seen all year, which helps them in transition offense and defense. The way they change ends of the floor is top notch … and man do they lock you up. Chris has got these guys really defending and playing really, really hard.”
Who: No. 23 Florida Gators (21-12) vs. No. 14 Texas Tech Red Raiders (25-9)
When: 8:40 p.m.
Where: American Airlines Center, Dallas, Texas
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS
G;KeVaughn Allen;6-2;Jr.;11.1 ppg; 2.3 rpg
G;Chris Chiozza;6-0; Sr.;11.1 ppg;6.2 apg
G;Jalen Hudson;6-6; RJr.;15.3 ppg;3.9 rpg
G;Egor Koulechov;6-5; GSr.;13.8 ppg;6.5 rpg
C;Kevarrius Hayes;6-9; Jr.;4.8 ppg;5.0 rpg
TEXAS TECH PROBABLE STARTERS
G;Jarrett Culver;6-2;Jr.;11.5 ppg; 4.8 rpg
G;Keenan Evans;6-3; Sr.;17.7 ppg;3.2 apg
G;Zhaire Smith;6-5; Fr..;11.1 ppg;4.8 rpg
G;Justin Gray;6-6; Sr.;5.0 ppg;3.5 rpg
C;Norense Odiase;6-9; RJr.;4.0 ppg;4.7 rpg
Note: Florida is 43-16 all-time in NCAA Tournament games and 29-6 in NCAA Tournament games since the 2005-06 season. … The Gators have a string reaching at least the Elite Eight in their last five NCAA Tournament appearances. … Florida coach Mike White improved to 4-1 in NCAA Tournament with UF’s 77-62 win over St. Bonaventure on Thursday night. … Texas Tech holds opponents to 40.2 percent shooting from the floor and 6.8 3-pointers per game. … Florida is averaging 9.2 3-pointers per game and made 10 3-pointers in its win over St. Bonaventure on Thursday night, going 10 of 32 (31.3 percent) from 3-point range.