DALLAS – Last year, the Florida Gators came within one win of the Final Four. This year, they have not looked like a Final Four contender, at least, not consistently. As Florida prepares to tip off against St. Bonaventure in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, head coach Mike White is hoping that will change.
Part of the challenge for White this year has been getting the kind of relentless effort that translates to defensive toughness and strong finishes to games.
"My guys, I’m not sure I’ve found the button that produces a bunch of edge," said White. "But we’ll throw it at the wall, for sure.”
Florida (20-11) was ranked in the top five early in the season, and then struggled as conference play opened. The team finished the regular season well, with three straight wins, but the Gators were bounced from the SEC Tournament in their first game.
Point guard Chris Chiozza and KeVaughan Allen are the biggest returning contributors from the Sweet 16 run. Chiozza hit a running 3-pointer to beat the buzzer in an 84-83 overtime win against Wisconsin in the regional semifinals last year, and Allen scored a career-high 35 points in that game. Egor Koulechov brings plenty of experience as a graduate transfer from Rice who was a freshman at Arizona State when the Sun Devils lost to Texas on a buzzer beater in an NCAA Tournament opener in 2014.
As the No. 6 seed in the East Region, Florida faces St. Bonaventure (26-7), which beat UCLA Tuesday in an opening round game, 65-58. The win was the first NCAA tournament victory for the school since 1970, when they were bounced from the Final Four by Jacksonville University. This season, the Bonnies were the second-place team in the Atlantic 10 and are led by their backcourt. Guards Jaylen Adams (19.4 points per game) and Matt Mobley (18.4) lead the team in scoring. Both are seniors, so they shouldn't be fazed by playing in the postseason.
Florida played, and beat, St. Bonaventure 73-66 in Lakeland last season, but Adams (28 points) and Mobley (20) both had big games in the loss.
Florida's postseason road got off to a rocky start. Not only did they lose to Arkansas in the SEC Tournament, but they were also stranded in St. Louis following the loss. Players, coaches and others spent two extra days in Missouri and even missed the NCAA Tournament selection show. It gave the sixth-seeded Gators extra time to reflect on their 12th loss of the season and maybe find "another positive chapter in us."
The winner of Thursday night's game will face either Texas Tech or Stephen F. Austin in the second round in Dallas.