ORLANDO, Fla. — After a quick exit in the SEC Tournament, and after three losses in the past four games overall, Florida basketball coach Mike White felt the need for another team meeting.
The Gators used a two-hour meeting in late January to discuss their frustrations and observations before bouncing back from consecutive losses with nine straight wins.
This time, though, White did almost all the talking as the No. 4-seed Gators prepared for their NCAA Tournament opener Thursday against No. 13-seed East Tennessee State. Their game is scheduled for 3:10 p.m. ET at the Amway Center in Orlando. TV coverage: truTV.
“It wasn’t quite as open with communication. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity for our guys. It was more, let’s watch the film. It was more me talking,” White said. “We’ve talked a lot as a team, and again, it’s been a long year. I didn’t think we needed Kasey (Hill) to talk for 5 minutes and Chris (Chiozza) to talk for 5 minutes and so on and so forth. They got the message and they’ve embraced the fact that our … margin for error has decreased, and now it’s you lose and you go home and it’s over.”
Since those nine consecutive wins, the Gators (24-8) lost to Kentucky and then Vanderbilt twice, including that early ouster in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament last Friday.
The matchup with the Commodores clearly was an obstacle for Florida. So too has been the loss of starting center John Egbunu to a torn ACL on Feb. 14. Egbunu was the Gators’ best rebounder and interior defender, and beyond that their front court depth was been left thin without him.
Some of Florida’s issues can be fixed; some can’t. But overall, White remains encouraged heading into Thursday’s game with a 27-7 ETSU team.
“This group likes each other. They want to keep playing. They want to prolong the season as long as possible. And they also understand in order to do that we’ve got to tighten some things up,” White said. “We’ve been pretty consistent offensively but not overpowering. So defensively, we can’t make the four or five mistakes we made last week, which is better than making 20, but we’re not good enough. We’re not good enough to beat ETSU by making another four or five that lead to big baskets for these guys.”
Vandy losses, valuable lessons
The back-to-back losses to Vanderbilt were both tight games. The Gators let a 12-point lead slip away in the regular-season finale and then rallied to force overtime in the SEC Tournament before falling flat.
White looks back on those games as a missed opportunity for momentum heading into the NCAA Tournament. He believes if the Gators had just not made this certain mistake or that particular defensive lapse the narrative could be different heading into this week.
But it is what it is, and he made sure his points of emphasis were clearly delivered.
“We went back to the drawing board. Right now we know coming in here we have to pick everything back up. We know and we understand that it’s win or go home,” junior forward Devin Robinson said. ” … We had a meeting as a team and the staff to basically get everything out, put everything on the table like we have when we lost two games in a row and just knew we had to recollect as a team and get to the root of what was going on and figure out that if we’re going to keep playing like this we’re going to end our season short. So we got back into the gym, and practice has been (going) really well.”
Added senior guard Canyon Barry: “I think the main thing for us is just staying focused. When we played Vandy, we didn’t play our best basketball. We didn’t follow the scouting report, made too many defensive mistakes. Just simple things we’ve been working on all year, we just seemed to refuse to do against that team. But like Devin said, we’ve had a couple of great practices. I think we’re getting our edge back and we’ll be ready to play.”
The Bucs stop here
East Tennessee State is making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2010. The Buccaneers won the Southern Conference’s regular-season and tournament championships and enter the tournament with nine wins in their past 10 games.
Their best win was a 67-65 victory at Mississippi State in December, and they played Tennessee to within 4 points. They’ve also lost to the Woffords and Furmans of the college basketball world.
T.J. Cromer, a 6-foot-3 senior guard, leads the team with 19.1 points per game and the Bucs rank 10th nationally in field goal percentage at 49.1. They certainly present an interesting matchup for the Gators.
But if nothing else, at least it’s a fresh matchup.
“I’m just happy we can get back to playing our normal defense,” senior point guard Kasey Hill said. “We don’t got to guard Vandy and switch 1 through 5. I think we’ll do a lot better.”