DALLAS — This time a year ago, the Florida basketball team was in a similar spot.
The Gators were coming off a deflating loss early in the SEC Tournament, lacking momentum and being called out on the NCAA Tournament selection show as likely upset victims.
Of course, that team handled its business against East Tennessee State, dominated Virginia and stunned Wisconsin on an overtime buzzer-beater to surge into the Elite Eight.
But coach Mike White is not drawing any correlations this week as his No. 6-seeded Gators (20-12) prepare to open NCAA tourney play Thursday night against No. 11 St. Bonaventure (26-7).
”I would hope so, but I’m not banking on it. This team’s just so different,” White said Monday back in Gainesville, candid as usual. “Last year’s team coming off a loss would be pissed off and I wouldn’t have to — we didn’t coach effort in practice — I wouldn’t have to find unique, creative ways to motivate our guys. Practice a year ago coming off that Vandy loss in the [SEC] tournament, I’d have to split some guys up because there would be so much competition in three or four drills. [Wednesday’s] practice is going to be very, very different. It’s just two different teams. …
“This team doesn’t get really upset. Just a different deal. I wish we would. We’re going to end up starting some drills over [Wednesday] because we don’t have a lot of edge. We’re going to end up starting some drills over because we’re not communicating at a high level. … That’s consistently who this team’s been. I think that’s why you’ve got games where we look like a top-10 team and you’ve got games where we look like an NIT team.”
The Gators have been a top-10 team — a top-5 team, for that matter. And they spent some time late in the season as a genuine bubble team, with White telling his players frankly that it was up to them whether they ended up in the NCAA Tournament or the NIT.
Florida responded, closing the regular season with impressive wins over fellow NCAA tourney teams Auburn, Alabama and Kentucky.
Then the Gators came out flat in the SEC quarterfinals, losing 80-72 to Arkansas.
And true to form, White had a hard time getting a read on the psyche of his guys after that setback.
“[It was a] bunch of ‘my bads’. A bunch of ‘You’re right, coach, I didn’t guard at the level that I’m capable of guarding at.’ Just got a bunch of that,” White said. “Again, these guys aren’t really animated. Really, really nice guys. Too nice of a group, really. I’d like to see this group one day tear up a locker room after we lose, but that’s not happening.”
Now, the Gators have no margin for error, no room for another loss in which the wrong version of this team takes the court — the one that loses its focus on defense, gets dominated on the boards and goes stagnant on offense for chillingly cold stretches.
As the NCAA Tournament bracket was unveiled Sunday night on TBS, analyst Seth Davis immediately picked the Gators as a likely upset victim to either St. Bonaventure or fellow No. 11 seed UCLA (those teams played a First Four game Tuesday night).
White said he’d use it as motivation, but he also understood where Davis or anyone would be coming from with that thinking.
He also knows that on the right nights, this Florida team is indeed capable of replicating what the team did last year on this stage.
Time will tell.
“The hope is that it will kick back in because we had it there for the first time all year. We strung together four or five games, again the last three being wins, and for the most part about 80 percent of the time in practice where we were competing and we were pretty consistent,” White said. “And then to defend the way we did the other night [against Arkansas], it was very discouraging. But maybe we’ve got another positive chapter in us where our urgency will pick back up.
“Our guys, despite being addicted to video games, I think our guys understand right now if we lose it’s over and the legacy of this team will be what it is at this point.”