After traveling around the state of Florida and making a stop in New York along the way, the Florida Gators men’s basketball team is ready for time at home.
The newly renovated Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center will make its debut Wednesday when the Gators (8-3) host Arkansas-Little Rock (9-3). First tip is set for 7 p.m., and the game will be televised on the SEC Network.
“We’ve been road warriors since the start of the season,” UF center Kevarrius Hayes said after UF’s final game of its road stretch, an 87-46 win over Charlotte on Saturday in the Orange Bowl Classic in Sunrise. “It’s going to feel great to be back in our facility. I know the fans are going to love it.”
There’s a lot to be excited about. The $64.5 million facelift made to the O’Connell Center is noticeable as soon as fans walk into the building.
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Fans are immediately greeted by a Gators’ logo on the floor as well as a Gator head mural on the wall above their heads.
The concessions areas have been expanded, and additional bathrooms have been added.
When they step into the arena, they’ll see a $2 million video board hanging above midcourt. The video boards at each concourse have also been replaced — a $1.5 million cost for the four boards. Everyone will now also enjoy chairback seating, a move which cut maximum seating capacity from 11,538 to 10,133.
“I would trade a brand-new arena, I’m sure our fans would to, for what we’ve had to endure,” Florida coach Mike White said.
UF hasn’t had a home game since March 1, its regular-season home finale last season against Kentucky. In the 17 games since, the Gators reached the semifinals of both the SEC Tournament and the National Invitation Tournament to close out the 2015-16 season and then went 8-3 on their road swing to start this year. The three losses are against teams that are currently in the Top 25: No. 5 Duke, No. 8 Gonzaga and No. 21 Florida State. UF is ranked fourth in the latest RPI rankings, behind just Villanova, Baylor and Xavier.
“To draw out the positives I think it’s given our team the opportunity to get closer together, to develop as a team,” White said, “and it gives us build in computer, numerical opportunities if we happen to be a team that’s in the discussion for an [NCAA Tournament] at-large bid.”
Those NCAA Tournament opportunities, though, will only stay afloat if the Gators continue winning. Next up: Arkansas-Little Rock, a team that won the Sun Belt Conference last year and upset No. 5 seed Purdue in the opening round of last year’s NCAA Tournament. It’s the Gators’ last game before starting SEC play.
The Trojans are coming off a 63-48 loss to Oral Roberts on Monday, a loss that snapped the team’s six-game win streak. Arkansas-Little Rock has four players averaging at least 10 points and 27 minutes of action, with senior guard Marcus Johnson Jr. (14.8 points) leading the way.
“We’ve beaten some good teams because of the success with all the adversity that’s been in front of us, with all of the travel,” White said. “I like to think that our guys are a little more together and a little bit more confident heading into the SEC season right around the corner.”