As the Florida Gators sat in their locker room Thursday, waiting to play in the team’s first NCAA Tournament game since 2014, Mike White turned on the TV.
The coach played a 10-second clip from the Sunday’s NCAA Selection Show, on which Florida earned a No. 4 seed and analyst Seth Davis quickly called the Gators out as a likely first-round upset.
“Everybody was just quiet,” point guard Chris Chiozza said. “We got in the zone and just came together. We knew we didn’t want to be that team to be upset.”
So they strolled onto the Amway Center court and took action.
Florida dominated No. 13 East Tennessee State on Thursday, cruising to an 80-65 win in Orlando’s Amway Center to snap a two-game losing streak and move on to Saturday’s late game against No. 5 seed Virginia.
UF shot 48.1 percent from the field and had six players score at least seven points.
“That put a chip on our shoulders,” said junior Devin Robinson, who tied a career high with 24 points on 10-of-17 shooting and capped the game with a ferocious dunk just before the final buzzer sounded. “We just knew we had to come out here and prove everybody wrong once again.”
They did on Thursday. Now, they have to do it again around 8:30 p.m. Saturday if they want to make the trip to the Sweet 16 in Madison Square Garden next week.
This time, though, it will be against a methodical, slow-paced Virginia team known for its stifling defense.
KenPom.com ranks the Cavaliers last out of 351 Division I teams in adjusted tempo, a metric that evaluates the average number of offensive possessions a team has in a 40-minute game, with 59 offensive possessions per game. Florida, by comparison, is averaging 68.8 possessions per game. UCLA leads the NCAA field with 73.2 possessions per game.
Virginia takes its time and wears down the opposing defense, which in turn causes the opponent to become sluggish on offense as the game progresses.
The model has worked for the Cavaliers all season, holding opponents to a nation-low 56.1 points per game mark and only allowing the opponent to score more than 70 points just five times.
“When our defense is right, we can play with a lot of people and be successful,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “When it’s not, it’s hard.”
Florida (25-8), on the other hand, utilizes the speed of point guards Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza to slash through opposing defenses. The Gators, who are only allowing 66.5 points per game and are holding opponents to 40.8 percent shooting from the field, will look to find a way to speed up the Cavaliers without overexerting themselves early.
“It’s going to be smash mouth,” White said. “Hopefully, it’s a game down the stretch where we can find ways to score it against their prolific D a little better than they can score against ours.”
Chiozza added: “That’s difficult because you’re not used to [Virginia’s slow tempo]. In practice every day, we’re flying up and down because that’s us against each other. … It’s going to be a challenge.”
The Gators have faced challenges lately this season.
They dropped three of their final four games heading into the NCAA Tournament and have looks out of sorts offensively at points since starting center John Egbunu tore his ACL.
But that didn’t stop Florida from rolling into the second round of the Big Dance, and players said it’s not going to affect their confidence of advancing once more.
“They probably saw that we lost three of the last four and think we’re spiraling downhill,” Robinson said, “but we’re just getting started.”