ORLANDO, Fla. – There’s a chance that either Florida’s lackluster performance or Pittsburgh’s dominant showing was an aberration.
Maybe even both.
The top-seeded Gators (33-2) and ninth-seeded Panthers (26-9) likely will find out when they meet in the NCAA tournament’s South Region on Saturday.
Florida hopes to play with more energy and defensive intensity than it did in a 12-point win against 16th-seeded Albany. Pittsburgh wants to carry over something – everything, really – from its 29-point drubbing of Colorado.
“I think we’ll be ready,” Gators guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “I think we’ve got this game out of our system and we’re ready to move forward and ready to play like we know we can.”
The overall top seed in the tournament, Florida has won a school-record 27 straight games and swept the Southeastern Conference regular-season and tournament titles. The Gators have beaten teams inside and out, won close games and blowouts, taken everybody’s best shot and openly talked about winning it all.
The Great Danes provided a reality check Thursday. Albany played with Florida most of the game, and had it not been for a 4-minute stretch midway through the second half, the Gators might have ended up becoming the biggest upset victim in NCAA tournament history.
“In this tournament, you have to be aware that every team is fighting for their life, and the goal is just to survive,” center Patric Young said. “Seeding doesn’t matter when it comes down to between the lines. As you see, a 14 can beat a 3. Fortunately a 16 has never beat a 1, and we were able to keep that going.
“But moving forward … we have to make sure we do whatever it takes just to survive.”
No one will remember the tight game against Albany if the Gators continue to advance.
The same goes for Pitt’s opener. The Panthers led 13-0 early and 48-16 at halftime en route to their fourth victory in five games and most complete game in months.
After losing six of 10 games down the stretch in the regular season, coach Jamie Dixon’s team has learned to play without injured forward Durand Johnson and found its stride on both ends of the court.
The Panthers advanced to the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinal, losing by three points to Virginia, and then put on a show against the Buffaloes.
“We’re playing good basketball right now,” forward Lamar Patterson said. “We’ll know if we’re playing our best basketball on Saturday. … Right now is the perfect time to be making strides toward the best you can possibly be, and I feel like that’s what we’re doing as a team right now.”
Here are five other things to know about Pittsburgh and Florida heading into Saturday’s matchup:
Pressing issue: Pitt hasn’t faced very many pressing teams this season, so it could be a challenge handling Florida’s full-court attack. Then again, the Panthers have several capable ball-handlers and enough size to pass over the trapping Gators. Pitt finished with 18 assists and three turnovers against the Buffs. “We’re a hard team to press because we’ve got so many guys who can handle the ball and make great decisions,” Patterson said. “We’re just going to use that to our advantage and try to attack and get easy lay-ups.”
3-point line: When Florida is making 3-pointers, the Gators have been at their best this season. If not? Well, Florida has been somewhat vulnerable. The Gators were 4-of-13 shooting from behind the arc against Albany, which played a triangle-and-2 defense to take away shooters Michael Frazier II and Wilbekin. Frazier is Pitt’s main concern. “If he makes shots, makes a couple of them, it can break a game open,” Dixon said. “We’ll be aware of him.”
Big-man battle: Pitt’s Talib Zanna and Florida’s Young should be the matchup to watch. Zanna, a 6-foot-9, 230-pound center, had 18 points against Colorado and helped minimize Josh Scott’s effectiveness in the post. Young, a 6-9, 240-pound center, recorded his first double-double of the season against Albany. Young welcomed the challenge: “It’s going to be a battle up front,” he said. “I’m just excited for the opportunity to go against someone like that.”
Hill better: Florida guard Kasey Hill, a reserve freshman who had 10 points and two steals against Albany, is feeling better while recovering from turf toe earlier in the week. Coach Billy Donovan said Hill “seems to be fine” and there are “no restrictions on me from the bench in terms of limiting his minutes.”
Pitt stops: Pittsburgh is 1-4 against ranked teams this season, although three of those losses were decided by five points or less, and 2-15 all-time against teams ranked No. 1, like Florida.