After a two-year hiatus, the University of Florida has found its way back into the NCAA Tournament.
And despite a late-season skid, the Gators (24-8), ranked 17th in last week’s Associated Press poll, still managed to earn a No. 4 seed in the East Region. They will begin tournament play on Thursday against 13th-seeded East Tennessee State in Orlando.
It’s Florida’s first tournament appearance since the 2013-14 season and the first as a coach for Mike White.
East Tennessee State (27-7) earned an automatic bid into the tournament after winning the Southern Conference tournament. Should Florida win its first game against the Buccaneers, it will face the winner of the matchup between No. 5 seed Virginia and No. 12 seed UNC-Wilmington in the second round on Saturday.
Also in the East Region are No. 1 overall seed Villanova, No. 2 seed Duke, No. 3 seed Baylor and No. 7 seed South Carolina.
The Gators just three weeks ago were projected to be as high as a three seed in the NCAA Tournament.
But after starting center John Egbunu tore his ACL in the midst of Florida’s nine-game winning streak in the heart of Southeastern Conference play, the Gators began to hit a tailspin to close out the season.
Florida has gone 3-3 since the injury and lost three of its final four games heading into the Big Dance, including back-to-back losses to Vanderbilt over a seven-day span.
The most recent defeat, a 72-62 overtime loss on Friday in the SEC tournament quarterfinals, sent Florida packing from the SEC tourney before it could record a win for the first time since the 2008 conference tournament.
The Gators, who were the No. 2 seed and had a double-bye in the conference tournament, overcame a late eight-point deficit to tie the game at the end of regulation only to be outscored 14-4 in the five-minute overtime period.
“We just didn’t play well enough,” White said.
Starting Thursday, not playing well enough will result in Florida’s turnaround season in White’s second year at the helm coming to an abrupt halt.
“I think it’ll get us fired up,” said sophomore Kevarrius Hayes, who has been Florida’s starting center down the stretch after Egbunu’s season-ending injury.
But while Florida’s players are confident as they try to make a deep postseason run, White isn’t ready to take the glass-half-full approach with his team just yet.
“We’ve been in that place at times this year,” White said. “We’re not in that place right now. … We obviously have lost momentum.”
THIS AND THAT
▪ Florida has faced 10 teams in the NCAA Tournament field this season and is 7-8 against those opponents. Three of the losses were against Vanderbilt.
▪ Senior point guard Kasey Hill is the only player on Florida’s roster who has played in the NCAA Tournament.
Hill was a freshman during the Gators’ 2014 Final Four run.
▪ Florida is one of five SEC schools in the NCAA Tournament field, joining Kentucky (No. 2 seed, South), Arkansas (No. 8 seed, South), South Carolina (No. 7 seed, East) and Vanderbilt (No. 9 seed, West). This marks just the third time since 2011 that the conference had five representatives in the field.
▪ The Gators are 4-0 all-time against East Tennessee State, but the teams have not met since 1980.