NEW YORK — Whenever this postseason run ends for Florida, be it later today or with a national championship, this will be viewed as a breakthrough season for second-year head coach Mike White and what he’s building.
It’s already to that point as the Gators (27-8) prepare to clash with South Carolina (25-10) in the Elite Eight at 2:20 p.m. Sunday inside Madison Square Garden.
But White has mostly resisted any provocation to think in those terms. Not yet. His Gators have regrouped from a late-season swoon and gotten this far with a myopic focus on the next obstacle in front of them, and so it will continue that way with a familiar Gamecocks team.
“Nothing changes for us really. People have asked about the big picture and the greater perspective and chance to go to the Final Four and how do you feel, what’s going on in your head. I don’t know why, but I think my players would agree with me as well, that I don’t think it’s that difficult,” White said Saturday. “(Point guard Kasey Hill) just used the terminology ‘stay in the moment.’ If we’re not focused 100 percent on preparing as well as we can for South Carolina, then none of it matters. So it’s a one-game tournament for us. …
“We have a saying on our locker room door that it’s the last thing our guys see heading out to practice every day, that you are not promised tomorrow and that’s it. I mean, it’s a great opportunity against South Carolina, we’ll go back and celebrate the wins and mourn the losses, and go back and watch Chris (Chiozza’s) shot a million times in the spring. But right now it’s about the Gamecocks.”
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The Gators are in this spot thanks to a resilient performance against Wisconsin in which they overcame an 11-point first-half deficit and later a 5-point overtime deficit, eventually prevailing 84-83 on Chiozza’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
South Carolina, meanwhile, is on a tear and seemingly playing its best basketball of the season while making a splash on the national stage for the first time in, well, forever. The Gamecocks, who hadn’t been in the NCAA Tournament since 2004, are making their first-ever Elite Eight appearance.
They got here by blowing past Marquette (93-73), toppling Duke (88-81) and cruising past Baylor (70-50).
These teams are of course familiar with one another, having split their two regular-season meetings this year, but this might be the first time they’ve met with both teams playing their best.
When Florida lost a 57-53 defensive slugfest in Columbia, S.C., on Jan. 18 that was the first of back-to-back losses that would prompt a season-turning team meeting and a subsequent 9-game winning streak.
And when South Carolina came to Gainesville on Feb. 21 and lost 81-66, it was the Gamecocks’ third straight loss and part of a stretch of five losses in seven games.
Just like the Gators regrouped after losing three of their final four games heading into the tournament, the Gamecocks have cleaned up any of their own issues and are rolling with momentum heading into this showdown.
“They’re playing better. I think it’s an offensive thing,” White said. “Somebody asked me earlier, both teams seem like they are really defending lately. Since the first game of the season, Frank’s had his guys in the Top-5 in defensive efficiency in the entire country the entire year. Every time you look at this, they’re second, they’re third, they’re first. They have a really tough week, they drop to fourth. They’ve been incredible defensively all week. (Our) guys have been as well. It’s two Top-5 defenses in the country.
“I think the difference in them, in the tournament, just looking at their numbers, they’re just shooting the ball better. … So now to complement their unbelievable defense with the way they’re scoring the ball, it makes for a tough out.”
That offense is led, of course, by SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell, who is averaging 25.7 points per game in the NCAA Tournament. For that matter, the Gamecocks have five players averaging in double figures these last three games, but Thornwell will no doubt be a focal point for Florida defensively.
“He’s a tremendous player. He’s the Player of the Year in our conference, so we know he’s going to get his,” Chiozza said. “But we just try to not let him get everybody else going as well, try to put some size and length on him and make it tough for him to get his shots off and limit his open looks and just try to be physical with him and try to limit the ways he can affect the game. But he’s an all around player.”
As much as anything else, though, White is as concerned about his own team, how they will bounce back less than two days after such a draining Sweet 16 victory that ended well after midnight.
The players admitted it was hard to go to sleep Saturday morning after Chiozza’s momentous buzzer-beater.
“Already worried, not going to lie to you, about where our emotions are and our level of mental and physical fatigue,” White said Saturday afternoon.
It’s one game with plenty at stake. A Final Four appearance would further expedite White’s ascent on the national scene and put the Gators back on a stage they’ve become accustomed to over the years. And for the Gamecocks, well, it would totally change the national perception of a program enjoying its first real taste of NCAA Tournament success.
Just as White doesn’t want to consider the big picture just yet, though, South Carolina coach Frank Martin feels the same way.
For now, it’s just about this game.
“We’re playing a team we know. We’re not playing the moment. We’re not playing a building. We’re not playing the NCAA Tournament. We’re playing Florida Gators. And our focus should be playing a team that we have played twice,” Martin said. “Playing a team that we beat and playing a team that beat us, too. So, we’ll be humbled because of the opponent, because there’s respect there. We’ll be very confident in who we are. And I know I trust these guys will be.”