In 20 appearances, the Florida men’s basketball team has yet to win an NCAA Tournament game as a 10-seed, but Gators coach Mike White is no stranger to subverting expectations.
Now in his fourth season at UF, White has the Gators back in The Big Dance after a season of uncertainty surrounding the program — although the message heading into the team’s first-round matchup is once again centered around letting go of the season’s shortcomings and embracing the fresh start.
When Florida takes on No. 7-seed Nevada in Des Moines, Iowa, at 6:50 p.m. today, White hopes the team has fully embraced the opportunity at hand, especially considering some of the unlikely tournament runs in recent memory.
“I read to our guys some of the 10 seeds that had huge runs in the NCAA Tournament. And then I asked our guys, ‘hey guys, who was the team, the mid-major team that came in here and beat us at home (last season)’, and they said Loyola-Chicago. I said where did they go in the NCAA Tournament? And they said ‘Final Four’. I said do you remember their seed? And none of our guys could remember. It was worse than our seed, it was an 11,” White said. “None of that means anything if we’re not really, really locked it. It’s Nevada. It is what it is. They’ve had a better year than us, it’s why they’re seeded higher. We’ve got to play better than them for 40 minutes and we’ll see what happens.”
After Florida’s showing in the conference tournament, it would behoove White to remind the team of the importance of playing the full 40 minutes. Freshman point guard Andrew Nembhard’s go-ahead bucket with a second remaining gave the Gators a much-needed win over the SEC’s top seed, LSU, and likely sealed Florida’s seeding in the NCAA Tournament.
But that wasn’t the shot White has watched “nearly 30 times”.
Twenty four hours after Nembhard’s game-winner, Florida would fall to Auburn, albeit controversially, as the freshman appeared to be fouled in the waning seconds on a 3-point attempt that would have pulled UF even with the Tigers. White, asked about Florida’s finish in the SEC Tournament, took a moment to reflect before choosing his words cautiously.
“There’s a lot of stuff we could have done better. We had 19 turnovers. If we have 15 turnovers, we win the game by five points. If we have 10 turnovers, we win the game by 12 or 15 points. We’re all human,” White said. “Obviously, I’m trying to be careful with what I say. That’s all I got on that.”
White is also being careful when it comes to Florida’s rotations. With little margin for error, White has amped up the minutes for the team’s starters while managing ailing freshman guard Noah Locke effectively. All five starters played 32 minutes or more against Auburn, while Locke came off the bench to provide eight points in 18 minutes.
Considering it’s win or head home, White is pulling out all the stops against Nevada (29-4), the oldest team in the NCAA Tournament.
“I just think it puts us in the best position to be highly competitive, and I think it’s showing. We’re playing our best,” White said. “The level at which (Jalen Hudson) is playing, the consistency at which KeVaughn (Allen) is playing, Kevarrius (Hayes) is as consistent as anybody in our league. Keyontae has really grown. Andrew Nembhard we know what we’re getting. Not coming off his best game, but the two prior were fantastic. It’s hard to take one of these five out the way they’re playing.
“I know we’ve got five guys playing pretty darn well right now. We hope that continues.”
What: NCAA West Regional First Round
Who: Florida (19-15) vs. Nevada (29-4)
When: 6:50 p.m.
Where: Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, Iowa
Keyontae Johnson; F; 6-5; Fr.; 8.1 ppg; 6.2 rpg
Kevarrius Hayes; C; 6-9; Sr.; 8.1 ppg; 1.9 blk
Andrew Nembhard; G; 6-5; Fr.; 8.1 ppg; 5.3 apg
Jalen Hudson; G; 6-5; Sr.; 9.0 ppg; 2.9 rpg
KeVaughn Allen; G; 6-2; Sr.; 12.0 ppg; 2.8 rpg
Tre’Shawn Thurman; F; 6-8; Sr.; 8.3 ppg; 5.7 rpg
Trey Porter; F; 6-11; Sr.; 7.4 ppg; 4.8 rpg
Jordan Caroline; F; 6-7; Sr.; 17.3 ppg; 9.6 rpg
Caleb Martin; G; 6-7; Sr.; 19.2 ppg; 5.1 rpg
Cody Martin; G; 6-7; Sr.; 11.7 ppg; 5.1 apg
Notes: Florida makes its 20th NCAA Tournament appearance, holding a 43-17 record all-time in March Madness. This is the Gators’ third appearance under Mike White, going 4-2 under his guidance … This marks the third time Florida has been a 10-seed in the NCAA Tournament, but the Gators are looking for their first win in that slot. UF lost to Iowa State in 1995 and to BYU in double overtime in 2010 as a 10 seed … Florida and Nevada are among the 21 teams that have made each of the past three NCAA Tournaments. The Gators are one of only two SEC teams to do so … Entering the NCAA Tournament, UF leads the SEC in scoring defense (63.6; 21st nationally), ranks 2nd in 3-point field goal percentage defense (.320) and 3rd in turnover margin (+3.0).
— Graham Hall