ORLANDO, Fla. - It's difficult to be such a favorite in college basketball. A team that shoots well, and executes their game plan, no matter what their talent level, size or speed, can make things difficult. Florida found that out in the first half against the Albany Great Danes in their first game in the NCAA tournament in Orlando.
Florida had every advantage you could ask for: size and speed and even depth, but Albany couldn't miss for a while and kept it close. Maybe it's the setting or the bigness of being the top seed, but the Gators looked out of sorts and a bit skittish in the first half. It wasn't until about halfway through that they found their range, finishing the half shooting 56% and taking a 34-28 lead. Statistically, the Gators dominated across the board, but couldn't shake the Danes. In some cases it was trying to do too much, and in others it was a bit of disbelief I'm sure that Albany was being so efficient. Anytime you're the top seed, any lower seeded team slows it down, limits the number of possessions and if they hit their shots as the clock winds down, they can keep it close. That was clearly Albany's strategy, and they kept it close.
In the second half it was more of the same but Florida was just too deep, too talented and in the end too determined.
It wasn't pretty, but in this tournament it's about "survive and advance." Florida used 10 points from Casey Hill and a double-double from Patric Young to beat Albany in the first round 67-55.
"We survived but we won't advance past Saturday if we play like that again," Scottie Wilbekin said in the post-game locker room.
"Too often we were playing not to lose," Michael Frazier II chimed in. "We have to go get it. We have to have that mindset."
I asked Will Yeguette if Florida was aware that they're the target as the top seed in the tournament. "We'll get everybody's best shot," the Gators senior said. "But we know that. We just weren't in sync. Give them credit but generally we were all on the same page. We'll look at film and figure it out."
It'll be Billy Donovan's job to determine how to get his team back into the mindset they carried through the end of the regular season and through the SEC tournament. He wasn't happy with the defense in the first half, but felt like it was better in the second. And Albany had a lot to do with that.
"The way they play, you know it's not going to be a high scoring game," Donovan explained. "I thought we did a pretty good job of forcing the tempo."
Once again, Young was the one able to put it in perspective. "Looking at this game, we feel moving forward that this isn't going to be enough to keep our season going. And we know there's more inside of us and more we can give. We didn't have our style of of play for 40 minutes. We didn't sustain that and we're going to have to do that if we want to make the Sweet 16 because Pitt played exceptionally well today. Hopefully Saturday we'll have a better mindset and focus."
In the locker room, it felt like a loss. Which is probably a good thing. Florida hasn't been beaten in over three months and their biggest hurdle coming into the tournament was finding new motivation to get back to their best basketball.
Every coach will tell you it's easier to teach after a win. The Gators have the luxury of putting this in the win column (their 33rd of the year) with the players feeling like they got beat. They're disappointed, understandably.
No better scenario for Donovan and his staff to hammer the message home again: Play well, or anybody can beat you.
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