ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida is just a few weeks removed from being one of the hottest teams in the country and looking like a very intriguing postseason pick.
Now, the No. 4-seeded Gators stumble into the NCAA Tournament after losses in three of their past four games while instead becoming a popular upset pick heading into a Thursday matchup with 13-seed East Tennessee State.
Florida coach Mike White said his players heard the analysts’ opinions during the NCAA Tournament selection show and know that sentiment is out there.
“People love to see upsets, of course, and upsets happen a bunch. There are a lot of really, really good mid-major teams, East Tennessee State being one,” White said. “Our guys won’t forget it because our guys, we watched it as a unit, and we watched it on a big TV in our locker room and the volume was turned up loud. So they saw it and they heard it.”
White doesn’t want that to be the focus for the Gators (24-8), though. Nor does he need any reminder of how tenuous a team’s postseason existence can be.
White was the starting point guard for the No. 4-seeded Ole Miss team that lost to No. 13 Valparaiso on Bryce Drew’s dramatic buzzer-beater back in 1998.
“The Shot,” as it became known, remains one of the signature highlights in NCAA Tournament history, getting fresh air time each March.
If that wound is no longer fresh for White, the latest from Drew certainly is. Drew is now coach at Vanderbilt, and his Commodores got the best of White’s Gators three times this season — including back-to-back in the regular-season finale and a knockout blow in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals.
“That one felt like it’s felt this week. It’s been a tough week. Really tough week,” White said after his team arrived at the Amway Center. “I remember … after the Valpo (game), after the Bryce Drew shot — and I can’t even talk about Bryce right now, I’m so mad at Bryce. We did text back and forth yesterday. What a great job he’s done this year. But he hit that shot on us, and I remember sitting in that locker room it seemed like for hours. For hours.
“You know, I was a kid. I was, whatever, 21, acting like I was about 14, and I remember our (sports information director) telling me, ‘You have to talk to the media,’ and I refused. So I apologize to them now.”
White played in three NCAA tournaments with Ole Miss, breaking through the next year with a win over Villanova for the program’s first tourney victory. But that doesn’t erase the memories of being on the wrong end of one of March Madness’ most memorable upsets.
White vs. Drew, head to head
White said he guarded Drew for about half of that game, but he was not on him for the iconic shot. Valparaiso inbounded the ball from the far end with 2.5 seconds on the clock, lobbing it across half court where Bill Jenkins jumped to catch it and quickly pass it to Drew on the right wing for the buzzer-beater and a 70-69 win.
“Bryce teases with me and says, ‘You wouldn’t have let me catch the ball. You were older than the freshman guard.’ And I quickly tell Bryce, ‘Well you know, I would have fouled you. It would have been a 4-point play. I would have fouled the heck out of you. I don’t know if they would have called it or not,’ ” White said, drawing laughs.
“He was a great player. That was a big moment in the tournament’s history. Obviously, I wish we weren’t on that end of it. But it’s all part of it and we have an opportunity to make more memories, to make positive memories.”
There have been 26 upsets all time in 4-13 matchups, but White has not made an example of that Valparaiso game with his current team.
“I don’t think so. He probably wants to forget it, honestly. He hasn’t said anything about that,” senior guard Canyon Barry said.
Also, that game was 19 years ago. Florida has far more recent and more relevant reminders of its own vulnerability.
The Gators had a team meeting earlier this week to refocus, and the only thing White wants his players thinking about is the talent on the other side of this matchup and what they have to do to prevent East Tennessee State (27-7) from joining that annual montage of memorable upsets.
“Our focus needs to be on East Tennessee State and the game plan much more so than we’re going to prove everyone wrong and not get upset,” White said. “Heck, we were favored in our last game and didn’t take care of business.”