ORLANDO, Fla. — Senior point guard Kasey Hill is the only Florida player with any NCAA tournament experience, but he wasn’t much in the reflective mood Wednesday.
Hill was a freshman on the 2013-14 Gators team that reached the Final Four under former coach Billy Donovan. The program has been waiting for its return to the Big Dance ever since, and it will finally get that opportunity Thursday as a No. 4 seed taking on No. 13 East Tennessee State.
“I’ve been trying to get in every year, and I’m happy we’re here now,” Hill said.
Hill did offer one memory from his first NCAA tournament game three years ago.
“I remember we were losing. We were the No. 1 overall seed, and we were losing going into halftime,” he said. “Coach D was pretty mad at us, but we got it together at halftime and we came out and we won the game.”
These Gators (24-8) are looking to respond as well after losing three of their last four games, including a quick exit in the SEC tournament last week. East Tennessee State (27-7), meanwhile, is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010.
For the rest of Hill’s teammates, meanwhile, this is their first opportunity on this stage.
“It’s just exciting. Your goal growing up as a kid when you’re playing basketball and watching the tournament is to be there one day,” said senior guard Canyon Barry, who played the last three seasons at College of Charleston. “Really happy that we could send the seniors out and get Florida back to the tournament. I know they’ve had a couple seasons where they haven’t made it, but like (Hill) said, now it just comes down to winning games.”
Speaking of Hill, he’ll be involved in one of the tougher matchups of the afternoon trying to contain East Tennessee State senior guard T.J. Cromer, who averages a team-best 19.1 points per game.
Cromer poured in 41 points two games ago in the Southern Conference semifinals against Samford, hitting 9-of-12 3-pointers in the process. Hill made the SEC All-Defensive Team and has been the Gators’ go-to defender this season.
“Cromer can score, but we’re a good defensive team. We’ll be locked in and ready to go,” Hill said.
Florida gets to open the NCAA Tournament close to home and should have a strong contingent of Gators fans in attendance, but coach Mike White doesn’t want his team to get too comfortable. He knows as well as anyone that anything can happen in March.
“We can’t be comfortable. This isn’t a home game. This is an NCAA tournament game,” he said. “Both teams will be juiced up. It’s more about the game plan and execution than anything else. That said, I’d rather be playing in Orlando than anywhere else. The hour and a half bus trip was beautiful. It was great to get in a little bit earlier last night and not have to fly across the country somewhere. And our guys have earned that. Now we’ve got to do something with that.”
What time is the Florida-East Tennessee State game?
Tip-off is set for 3:10 p.m. ET Thursday at the Amway Center.
What TV channel is showing the Florida-East Tennessee State game?
The game will be televised on truTV and can be streamed online here.
Who is calling the game?
Ian Eagle is on the play-by-play call, Steve Lavin is the analyst and Evan Washburn is the in-game reporter.
Looking at ETSU
East Tennessee State coach Steve Forbes is in his second season with the program after coming over as an assistant coach from Wichita State. He previously worked as an assistant in the SEC at Tennessee before former Vols coach Bruce Pearl and his staff were fired following NCAA violations.
Forbes has a roster that includes eight transfers, but one that has come together quickly over his first two seasons.
In addition to Cromer, junior guard Desonta Bradford (10.6 points per game), junior guard A.J. Merriweather (8.6 PPG), 6-foot-9 senior forward Hanner Mosquera-Perea (8.4 PPG) and 6-foot-8 senior forward Tevin Glass (8.9 PPG) round out the starting lineup.
Mosquera-Perea is a transfer from Indiana while Glass played for Forbes at both Northwest Florida State College and Wichita State.
“Honestly, with East Tennessee State, I think you’ve got two teams that are pretty similar in a lot of ways,” White said. “There’s probably nothing that intimidates them by us. I don’t think that they’re going to throw a ton of curveballs at us at the same time. I think we know what we’re dealing with. They know what they’re dealing with. Speed, quickness, athleticism, two teams that play really hard, very good length, good depth, two experienced teams. So this one is as much about us as it is about the opponent.”