ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Don’t tell top-seeded Florida that its NCAA tournament opener should be a lopsided laugher.
The Gators don’t want to hear it after eking out back-to-back, grind-it-out games against Tennessee and Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference tournament.
So forget the 26-game winning streak. Disregard being 21 1/2-point favorites against 16th-seeded Albany. Coach Billy Donovan has gotten in his players ears, and they listened.
“Coach D does a good job reminding us that no matter what the rankings are every year, there are upsets,” guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “So it really doesn’t matter once the ball goes up. Anything can happen. Anybody can beat anybody, so we’ve got to be on our toes.”
The Gators (32-2), the No. 1 seed in the South Region, open tournament play Thursday against the Great Danes (19-14), who beat Mount St. Mary’s 71-64 in the First Four on Tuesday night.
No. 1 seeds are 116-0 in opening games since the NCAA tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The majority of those have been essentially over shortly after they tipped.
Florida seemingly has the Great Danes outmanned at every position. And just about everyone agrees: Just after Albany’s first NCAA tournament victory, coach Will Brown got a question about the daunting matchup — from his 11-year-old son.
“Within 15 minutes after the game, he said, âDad, do we play Florida now?’ I said yes. He goes, âAre we going to get killed?’ Brown said. “I looked at him, smiled and said, âWe’ll be OK, buddy. I’ll watch some film, but I’ll let you know how we’re going to do.””
The Gators refused to buy into the mismatch mentality.
“They definitely can beat us,’ forward Casey Prather said. “Anybody can beat us in this tournament, so we got to be ready from the get go.”
Albany likes to play a slow tempo, has struggled with turnovers and doesn’t shoot 3-pointers particularly well. That’s not exactly the blueprint for beating Florida.
Adding to Albany’s problems, the team left Dayton, Ohio, around midnight and arrived at the hotel in Orlando around 3:30 a.m. Wednesday. The Danes, who only played seven guys in the First Four, were back on the court for an open practice in the afternoon and trying to prepare for the Gators.
“I probably went to sleep around 4:30, but actually I couldn’t even really sleep because I was so anxious to play,” guard DJ Evans said.
Aside from the mismatch on paper, here are five things to know about Albany and Florida:
HILL HURTING: Florida backup point guard Kasey Hill is dealing with turf toe on his right foot and could be limited, if even available, against Albany. Hill, who averages 5.5 points and 3.1 assists in 22-plus minutes a game, will be re-evaluated following a Thursday morning shootaround.
WHY NOT? The Great Danes know a No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed. They also figure it’s going to happen one day, so “why not us,” senior guard Peter Hooley said.
“We’ve been playing great basketball the last three weeks,” Hooley said. “We’ve been a resilient group. Every time our back is against the wall, we’ve managed to keep fighting and staying together and coming out with some good results. We know that all of us are going to be prepared well and we’re going to be staying together and really believe that anything can happen.”
PRAISE FOR PATRIC: Donovan had high praise for senior center Patric Young, calling him one of the best post defenders he’s had in his 18 seasons in Gainesville and one of the most reliable players on and off the court. “His intelligence level has got a lot to do with it, too,” Donovan said. “He can see things happening before they happen.”
OUTBACK ANYONE? Albany has four players from Australia, including captains Hooley, Luke Devlin and Sam Rowley. The fourth is Rowley’s younger brother, Michael. And the team’s international flavor hardly stops at the outback. The Great Danes also have guard Anders Haas from Denmark and forward Levan Shengelia from the Republic of Georgia.
NBA FLASHBACK: Donovan was an NBA coach for a few days in 2007. He accepted the head coaching job with the Orlando Magic a few months after the Gators won the second of back-to-back national titles and then changed his mind a few days later. Playing the NCAA tournament in Orlando meant returning to the place that was nearly his office. “For me, obviously, it seems like a long time ago,” Donovan said. “But for me, I think that’s over and done with, and I’ve kind of moved on from it. I also understand sometimes those questions are going to come up now and then.”