DALLAS — No. 6-seeded Florida was the favorite in its NCAA Tournament opener against No. 11 St. Bonaventure, the higher seed expected to take care of business Thursday night.
Even if the Gators didn’t necessarily perceive it that way, embracing the notion that they were a popular upset pick in the opening round.
As they now move on in the tournament to a second-round matchup with third-seeded Texas Tech (24-9) on Saturday, they will actually be underdogs. The Red Raiders were a 2-point favorite by bookmakers as of Friday evening, and as they did Thursday, they’ll pack American Airlines Center with a large and loud contingent of supporters.
But these Gators (21-12) gained some measure of confidence in that 77-62 tournament-opening win, with a dominant stretch to turn a close game into a blowout.
“Yeah, a little bit. A lot of people were picking us to lose again in the first round. You know, I’m sure they’re picking us to lose to Texas Tech,” point guard Chris Chiozza said. “We’re going to try not to make too much out of that, just come out and play the way we do. [But] we definitely have a little chip on our shoulder.”
Said freshman guard Mike Okauru: “A lot of people picked us to lose the first game. Like I’ve been saying, we’re not really worried about what everybody else thinks about us. We’re just going to go out there and play Florida basketball.”
The Gators were back at the arena Friday, talking about the next obstacle in their path as they hope to keep this rollercoaster of a season climbing a little higher at the end.
St. Bonaventure was a formidable mid-major having a memorable season. Texas Tech is a similar upstart, but with Big 12 talent and one of the fast-rising coaches in the country in Chris Beard.
In his second season in Lubbock, Texas, Beard has guided the Red Raiders to their most wins since the 1995-96 season.
They’re led by senior guard Keenan Evans (17.7 points per game) and some talented freshmen in fellow guards Zhaire Smith (11.1 PPG, 4.8 rebounds per game) and Jarrett Culver (11.5 PPG, 4.8 RPG).
Texas Tech trailed by 8 early in the second half Thursday against Stephen F. Austin before pulling away for a 70-60 win, led by 23 points from Evans and 10 points and 8 rebounds from Smith.
“Keenan Evans is terrific. Their freshmen, where do they come from? My goodness, the years that they’ve had, their freshman class is big-time,” Florida coach Mike White said.
“I think their team speed is as good as we’ve played all year, which helps them in transition offense and defense. The way they change ends of the floor is top-notch. And then overall, as a I mentioned, figuring out a way to score against these guys could be our biggest test. … They don’t have any deficiencies defensively. They’re good offensively. They’re going to be hard to guard. But man, do they lock you up. Chris has got these guys really defending and playing really, really hard.”
White lauded the way Texas Tech switches in their man-to-man defense thanks to the versatility of their frontcourt players.
The Red Raiders have had success slowing teams down on the offensive end, and overall they rank 15th nationally in holding opponents to an average of 64.6 points per game.
“We’ve played teams like that before that want to slow us down,” Chiozza said. “We’re just going to start on the defensive end and get our offense going and get some stops and get out in transition. That’s the main thing, just we’re not really worried about the offense too much, just we’re focused on the defensive end and that’s where it’s going to get us baskets on the other end.”
That was the case against St. Bonaventure, as Florida forced 18 turnovers while swarming and flustering the Bonnies into 26.1 shooting in the first half and 3 of 19 shooting from 3-point range (15.8 percent) for the game.
Give White credit for sticking to his principles with this team. Early in the season when Florida piled up 100-plus points in four games, he was the first to note the Gators’ defense was disastrous and had to be improved.
He probably earned a few doubters/critics as his efforts to get Florida to play more in his defensive vision led to inconsistency on both ends of the floor.
But Florida’s defense did improve down the stretch, and on Thursday night it was the reason the Gators survived their own ice-cold offensive start while still winning big.
They just have to hope they can sustain that now.
“We hope so. It’s been a struggle with this team all year [trying] to keep it consistent, but we hope this time around March when everything counts and you’ve got to leave it all on the line, we hope we can keep it going,” guard Egor Koulechov said.
Beard, Texas Tech’s head coach, offered his scouting report on Florida, and as coaches do, it was glowingly positive.
“Our respect for Florida and their program and their coach couldn’t be any higher,” Beard said. “This is one of the best offensive teams in college basketball, the 3-point shooting. They’re a really good defensive team that gets a lot of steals and turns you over. And a coach that’s one of the best coaches in college basketball. His teams play hard. They don’t beat themselves. … They have our full respect and full attention.”
Florida is certainly capable of being one of the more entertaining offensive teams in college basketball when getting the most out of its four guards Jalen Hudson (15.3 PPG), Koulechov (13.8 PPG), Chiozza (11.1 PPG, 6.2 assists per game) and KeVaughn Allen (11.1 PPG).
And the Gators showed Thursday night that in the right matchup with the right focus they can be an effective defensive team.
But they have not always been those things, and they have certainly beat themselves at times.
The Gators and their fans are just hoping that the best version of this team started to emerge during the middle of that gameThursday night and that it can lead to something like the program’s Elite 8 run last year.
That’s why to Koulechov, it doesn’t matter what anybody is expecting of or saying about the Gators at this point, whether they’re an underdog or favorite, etc.
“We’re not trying to think of it that way. We’re kind of competing with ourselves, trying to be the best we can be out there,” he said. “We’re just trying to play the hardest. We know that every game can be the last game. This group of guys, we love each other, we’re just trying to keep it going.”