It’s like a traveling road show when teams go deep into the NCAA tournament. Like that old saying, this week it’s, “If it’s Wednesday this must be Memphis.”
Adapting to that kind of travel and schedule, new arena’s, new locker rooms, new environments favor a veteran team in college basketball and certainly the 2014 Gators are that. Lead by 4 seniors, they’ve played on the road, had late nights, strange schedules and bad plane rides in their careers. But it’s all gotten them to this place in the Sweet 16 against UCLA.
“You have to have a routine,” Senior center Patric Young said lounging in front of his locker on Wednesday afternoon. “Everybody has the little things that they do before a game and you have to keep doing those things. The coaches do a great job of setting things up so we don’t have to worry about a thing.”
Since the NCAA went to a standardized floor at all of the sites a few years ago, it was striking how similar the FedEx Forum looked like Amway Arena from floor level.
“The floor is always the same so it’s not much to worry about,” Senior Guard Scotty Wilbekin surmised right before the Gators shoot around. “The floor’s the same, the basket’s the same. We just need to be ready to play our best.”
It would seem the farther a team goes in the tournament, the tougher the competition might be. While that doesn’t always happen, in this case, UCLA will be the most difficult opponent the Gators have seen. Tall, strong, offensive minded, the Bruins like to score a lot of points while Florida is among the best at limiting their opponent.
Wilbekin broke it down pretty simply when asked about UCLA’s high scoring offensive game. “We’re going to play defense, be we’re also going to have to play offense They’re going to play offense, but they’re also going to have to play defense. So it’s just going to be a battle.”
Senior forward Will Yeguete said it might come down to a battle of wills. “We’re going to stick to our principles and just play the way we’ve been playing and we’re just going to have to limit them because we know they’re going to score tough shots.”
Three times in the last eight years Florida has eliminated UCLA in the NCAA tournament. In their title years the Gators beat the Bruins in the title game and in the semi-finals. Three years ago they ousted them in the second round. While some would think that means Florida has UCLA figured out, the players say none of that matters.
When asked, Wilbekin could recall an end-of-game sequence when Florida sent the Bruins packing in 2011 in Tampa. Other than that, he says it’ll have zero impact on the game Thursday night. “I don’t think it’ll affect the game at all honestly,” Wilbekin said while seated at the formal podium interview.
Pushing out all of the “distractions” as coaches call it will be a big plus for Florida. They’re still the #1 seed and top ranked in the polls. They’re the target for everybody and they’re the favorite. The veteran leadership on this team has helped them get to this point and has refocused the Gators on what’s possible.
“The coaches asked us who we wanted to be,” Young recalled from last week. “They reminded us that we have a chance to be one of the best teams in Florida history if we just focus on the things we can do. Play the kind of defense we’re capable of, do the little things. It’s right there within our grasp.”
Have they retained the mindset that propelled them to victory over Pittsburgh last Saturday in Orlando?
“I didn’t want to talk to anybody before the game Saturday,” Young explained. “I was just focused on going out there. I don’t expect to want to talk to anybody tomorrow either.”