ORLANDO, Fla. — The Florida basketball bandwagon was losing passengers just a week ago.
After dropping back-to-back games to Vanderbilt and three out of four overall, much of the excitement that had emerged during the Gators’ impressive 9-game winning streak had seemingly been jolted away by those stumbles.
Florida was then put on first-round upset alert by CBS analyst Seth Davis during the NCAA Tournament selection show, a source of motivation the players would refer back to these last few days.
But just as quickly, that funk and all that followed is looking like a mere speed bump.
The Gators (26-8) will enter next week as one of 16 teams left in the Big Dance with a prime spotlight and a legitimate opportunity to push this season to still further heights.
“We definitely feel it,” point guard Chris Chiozza said. “We got the connectivity back, everybody’s playing for one another. If we get a stop, even if we don’t score, you can see the excitement when we get a stop, get a steal, a rebound, anything, a good play. Everybody’s clapping for each other and supporting one another.”
That No. 4-seeded Florida is here, moving on to a Sweet 16 matchup with No. 8 Wisconsin (27-9) on Friday in New York City, should not be any surprise. The Gators were one of the hottest teams in the country before dropping those two closely-contested games to a Vanderbilt squad that clearly posed a unique matchup challenge for them.
That said, it is nonetheless significant what this team did over the last few days — for both the present and the big picture.
After two years out of the NCAA Tournament, the program is making another charge. Second-year coach Mike White now has some postseason performance with which to sell the upward trajectory and vision for a promising future.
That’s one offshoot of the Gators’ success in Orlando.
“We’re just trying to win. We want to bring Florida back, get Florida back (where it was),” point guard Kasey Hill said. “It’s all about the culture and it’s about everybody in here playing for each other. There’s no individual goals … it’s for everybody.”
The other product of their dominant opening weekend is what it means for the team’s potential the rest of this month.
Florida has now played three dominant halves of basketball in a row, reclaiming any momentum or mojo that had been lost.
Since trailing early in the second half of their NCAA Tournament opener Thursday against East Tennessee State, the Gators went on to outscore the Buccaneers 47-33 that half on the way to an 80-65 win before outscoring No. 5-seeded Virginia 31-17 in the first half Saturday and 65-39 for the game.
They held the Cavaliers to their lowest scoring output of the season while playing better defense than the statistically-rated best defensive team in the country.
Again, this isn’t coming out of nowhere. That 9-game winning streak, in which Florida beat its opponents by an average margin of 20.9 points, is not that far in the rearview mirror.
Now beating Virginia by 26 points, there was no way to see that coming, certainly, but Florida’s success so far in the NCAA Tournament is in line with the potential the team has shown all season.
“We had 9 in a row in the middle of the year where we had performances just like this on the road, a few at home but mostly on the road,” Chiozza said. “… We took what we’ve done all year and focused on that this game and just worried about controlling what we control and playing hard.”
Said Hill: “We’re a good team. We’ve been a good team all season. I don’t know if people are surprised or not, but those guys definitely said they were calling (us for) the first upset alert. That definitely motivated us.”
And the Gators, in turn, proved something.
Florida’s storied basketball program is used to Sweet 16 appearances, of course, but not this particular group.
Aside from Hill, the rest of the cast was making its NCAA Tournament debut. White was in the tourney for the first time as a head coach.
“We’ve still got a long ways to go, but so far it’s a high achievement for all of us,” center Kevarrius Hayes said. “Some of us have dreamed about this for a while, we were all hoping for it and here we are, still dancing.”
Said forward Devin Robinson: “We know what we can do. We know what we’re capable of. We didn’t finish the regular season or the SEC Tournament like we should have, and we had to regroup and re-collect and talk about what we need to do in the tournament. If we don’t want to go home, we had to fix some things and we’ve definitely fixed those things so far. So we’ve just got to keep going.”
So are the Gators fully back to where they were during the peak of that 9-game winning streak? Time will tell, but confidence-wise at least, they seem pretty close.
“I feel like we are,” Chiozza said. “It’s a great feeling to have too.”