Gators remain fixated on improvement amid NCAA Tournament battle with Virginia Tech

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
Florida guards Ques Glover (0) and Noah Locke get in some practice time in Indianapolis ahead of Friday's NCAA Tournament first-round game vs. Virginia Tech.

Florida guard Tre Mann’s comments Wednesday may have raised a few eyebrows from those uninitiated in the team’s typical preparation. 

UF, about 46 hours from their first-round tip against Virginia Tech, had yet to sit down to prepare for the Hokies, though coach Mike White wasn’t worried. 

By the time the Gators take the court, they’ll have reviewed the opposition ad nauseum. 

“They’ll be inundated. They’ll be sick of watching the Hokies,” White said. “We’ll have their attention, and I don’t know that doing it over three, four or five days is the right thing.

Rather than front-load his team — one that he believes has persevered through significant difficulties in getting to this point, the juncture where each game could very well be one's last — White is keeping the plan in place heading into the NCAA Tournament for good reason. 

In the midst of three losses in their last four games, the Gators have been dubbed as overly emotional by their head coach, which he believes is at the team’s detriment and is a catalyst in the team’s turnover and defensive issues. 

More:Florida Gators player to watch at NCAA tournament: Tre Mann

More: Florida Gators player to watch at NCAA tournament: Colin Castleton

By not changing the routine in the postseason, White’s attempting to keep his players even-keeled in Indianapolis — a year-round philosophy for Florida’s head coach rather than one individual to this group of Gators, even if it seems more necessary as of late. 

“We always go two days out, we never go three days out. I don’t want our guys feeling like this one’s just so much more important,” White said. “Again, I want to channel our emotions. I want us to stay in routine. It’s the way we’ve handled it every year with the SEC Tournament and with the NCAA tournaments.” 

Gators relatively inexperienced in postseason

Though only two players from this team — junior guard Noah Locke and junior forward Colin Castleton — have prior postseason experience, and much of the roster just experienced its first conference tournament. After last season’s postseason was a wash due to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, excitement and anticipation were almost unavoidable for many of the players despite White’s attempts to de-escalate any eagerness. 

Prior to the SEC Tournament in Nashville last week, Locke said the bar does get raised in March, while Mann echoed his sentiments, adding he can’t help but be excited after missing out on the tournament as a freshman. 

Omar Payne, left, and Tre Mann at practice in Indianapolis before facing the Virginia Tech Hokies in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday.

It’s hard to fault someone with realizing the gravity of the moment — as long as the emotions of the tournament don’t come forth on the court and hinder the team’s play. 

“If we’re going to try to compete for championships, we need to approach every day the same way. Therefore, we’re going to have the same exact two-day prep that we do for a non-conference game, a conference game. We’re going to stay in the moment one possession at a time. Our offensive goal each time down is to get an A shot with offensive rebounders crashing and floor balance. And defensively, we want to force a tough two without fouls. We want to get better Friday. We want to enjoy it. And we want to play selflessly, play for each other and have a great attitude while we’re doing it.” 

Homework on Hokies is critical

With all of that said, Florida’s coaching staff has already done their homework as they prepare to relay the information to the personnel responsible with its execution. 

They’re aware of the threat posed in the frontcourt by Virginia Tech's 6-foot-9 forward Keve Aluma, who also has the ability to stretch the floor and pull the defense out of the paint, evidenced by his 35.1-percentage from 3-point territory. 

“That’s why he’s such a tough match-up. Right? He can do it all. He can isolate you in the corner, on the wings, at the elbows. He can pick-pop at the top of the key. He’s a high-low passer. He’s a dribble-handoff guy. He’s a dribble-handoff keeper guy. He’s a (Charles) Barkley guy where he can back you down from the wing into the post and make his own plays. He’s a terrific passer,” White said of Aluma. “We’ve gotta be really, really locked in. We’ve gotta play extremely hard. We’ve got to do it by committee. We’ve got to send a couple of guys at him at times. With that said they space you with other guys that can shoot it.”

Who are the Hokies?:Gators are taking on Virginia Tech in the NCAA Tournament. Here are 5 things to know about the Hokies.

More:How to watch Florida Gators men's basketball vs. Virginia Tech in NCAA Tournament first round on TV, live stream

The Hokies are shooting at just above 35 percent as a team when it comes to shots from long-range, good for 85th in Division I basketball heading into the tournament. 

And on the other end of the floor, White sees a team that’s excelling on the defensive end, allowing opponents on average just 65.5 points per game through 21 games this season, which ranks No. 55 in DI hoops. 

It’s an intriguing match-up, but not one the Gators believe they should overly harp on if they want to play on past Friday. 

White would rather them compete with gratitude than with an overt focus on VT, and they don’t have to look outside the program to do it; they just have to look at Keyontae Johnson. 

“Here’s a guy who deserves to be out here as much as anyone and would be one of the better players in the tournament, of course. And he can’t do it. He’s not allowed to do it,” White said. “Hopefully we can play with a bunch of gratitude and just be thankful that we have an opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament on Friday. Much harder to do with him being absent. I know he’s very, very helpful to the staff. I know early on he was extremely helpful just walking in the gym with guys being able to be around him. I hope that we can kind of rekindle that.” 

First round

What: NCAA Tournament, South Region

Who: Florida (14-9) vs. No. 24 Virginia Tech (15-6)

When: 12:15 p.m. Friday.

Where: Hinkle Fieldhouse, Indianapolis

TV: CBS

PROBABLE STARTERS

Florida

No. 4 Anthony Duruji  F 6-7 220 R-Junior 5.9 pts/4.3 reb

No. 12 Colin Castleton  F  6-11 231 Junior 12.0 pts/5.9 reb

No. 22 Tyree Appleby G 6-1 170 R-Junior 11.4 pts/3.0 reb

No. 10 Noah Locke  G 6-3 203 Junior 10.4 pts/2.3 reb

No. 1 Tre Mann G 6-5 190 Sophomore 16.0 pts/5.7 reb/3.4 ast

Virginia Tech

No. 22 Keve Aluma F 6-9 235 R-Junior 15.6 pts / 8.0 reb

No. 25 Justyn Mutts F 6-7 230 R-Junior 9.6 pts/6.5 reb

No. 3 Wabissa Bede G 6-1 195 Graduate 4.1 pts/2.4 reb/3.2 ast

No. 4 Nahiem Alleyne G 6-4 195 Sophomore 10.3 pts/2.7 reb

No. 23 Tyrece Radford G 6-2 200 R-Sophomore 11.9 pts/6.1 reb

Note: Hokie starting guard Jalen Cone will be unavailable against the Gators due to an ankle injury. ... UF is 5-3 in the NCAA Tournament under coach Mike White. ... Dorian Finney-Smith in 2012, Jalen Hudson in '16 and Kerry Blackshear Jr. in '19 were UF players who transferred from Virginia Tech.