Gators open play in NIT tonight
Florida will open play in the National Invitational Tournament tonight, with regrets about not making the NCAA Tournament, but hopeful about what it can accomplish the remainder of the season.
The Gators (23-10) will play Jacksonville University (18-13) tonight at 8 in the O'Connell Center. This is the second straight year the Gators have played in the NIT, and the Florida players are trying to find some positives in it all.
"Playing a basketball game, there's going to be obstacles you're going to go through,'' sophomore guard Nick Calathes said. "It's a great opportunity. If you look at the NIT, there's really good teams that didn't even get into the NIT, like Vandy. It'll be a great opportunity to finish the year out the way we want to and just play.''
The Gators lost four of their last six games, and following Friday night's loss to Auburn in the SEC tournament quarterfinals, the Gators knew in their hearts they most likely wouldn't make the NCAA Tournament field.
"It was definitely tough for us,'' Calathes said. "Obviously in our minds we kind of knew we didn't get enough wins to get in. It's definitely tough. It's one of your goals at the beginning of the season, to come in and make the NCAA Tournament. But we watched it (NCAA selection show). We figured our name wasn't going to be called.''
In JU, the Gators will face a team that was favored to win the Sun Belt Conference and head to the NCAA Tournament, but fell short in the conference tournament championship game to East Tennessee State.
"We had a chance to see a lot of them last year,'' UF coach Billy Donovan said. "They have a lot of returning players. I think last year most of them were sophomores and juniors, now most of them are juniors and seniors. They are an older team. They are a terrific rebounding team. They've got a lot of really good pieces. If you look at some of the games they played early on, against Baylor, Ohio State, Georgetown, Ohio State, they were right there with every one of them. So this is a very, very good team that played great in their league. They are a very, very good team.''
Donovan said he hasn't had to use any extra motivational tactics to get his team ready to play.
"I don't think there's really been much change with those guys,'' Donovan said. "They've tried to come out, they've tried to work hard and get better.''
For senior guard Walter Hodge, who has been a part of two national championship teams, playing in his final season and not making the NCAA Tournament is extra tough. Hodge said he didn't watch the selection show, saying he didn't want to watch other people go crazy when their school's name was called.
However, he doesn't plan to take the NIT lightly. He'd like to go out with one more championship.
"We just have to finish the right way,'' Hodge said. "This is where we are at. We can do something special, too. They have great teams in the NIT, so it's not going to be easy. We just have to go and play our best.''