OKLAHOMA CITY — After spending the past two postseasons watching other teams participate in the NCAA Tournament, make no mistake: The Florida basketball players are ecstatic to be among this year's field of 65 teams.
No. 10 seed Florida will kick off the tourney today against No. 7 seed Brigham Young in what the Gators view as a chance to show they are back and finally belong.
"Obviously the pressure was lifted off of us by making the tournament, but we want to come in and play well," said senior foward Dan Werner, who was a freshman on Florida's second national championship team (2006-07). "All we can control is ourselves and hopefully play the best that we can."
In the midst of their excitement, the Gators have spent the past four days trying to find that delicate balance between being giddy over ending the two-year NIT streak and understanding that there's more to this than just hearing your name called on Selection Sunday.
"That's exactly what this whole growth process is about right now," coach Billy Donovan said. "Are we happy? Are we complacent? Do we feel like we've reached our goal? Or do we have more to do?"
The players will tell you it's the latter.
"We definitely want something bigger than just getting into the tournament," freshman guard Kenny Boynton said. "Anything could happen now. It was a possibility that we wouldn't be in, so we will use that as motivation."
A little motivation probably wouldn't hurt. No. 14 ranked BYU is extremely physical in its frontcourt, has the best 3-point shooting team in the Mountain West Conference (41.9 percent) and leads the nation in scoring margin, 17.8. UF is holding opponents to 32 percent beyond the arc. BYU junior guard Jimmer Fredette is the conference's leading scorer (21.7) and has hit 73 3-pointers this season. He scored a career-high 49 against Arizona this season and also scored a record 75 in two games in the Mountain West tournament last week.
"Being in the SEC, we had a chance to see a lot of great point guards in John Wall and Devan Downey," Donovan said. "I don't think either one of those two guys impact a college game like Fredette does. He is one of the best-kept secrets in college basketball."
BYU coach Dave Rose said Fredette's versatility makes him difficult for opponents.
"He can shoot off the dribble, he can shoot runners off balance," Rose said. "He can get himself to the free-throw line. He plays at a pace that is really hard to guard, and he has deep range, which makes him a lot quicker than he really is because you have to come up to pressure him to defend."
For BYU, the game presents an opportunity to put an end to past tournament woes. The Cougars have lost in the first round in their past seven NCAA Tournament appearances.
"It's a new team, it's a new time and we need to not think about it at all," Fredette said. "Just move forward and try to hopefully get a win. That's what our focus is on right now."
Florida has lost four of its past five games, but the Gators insist they aren't in a slump and the late-season problems will have no bearing today.
"It's a new season," sophomore forward Chandler Parsons said. "Nothing really matters up to this point. We're 0-0, BYU is 0-0. So it really doesn't matter what you've done to get there. Everyone has a clean slate, and everyone starts fresh."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.