OMAHA, Neb. — When Florida coach Billy Donovan met with his players Friday night, one of the first things he told them was that playing Norfolk State meant they won't earn any new fans at the CenturyLink Center today.
"The first thing Coach told us is everybody in the country has just turned against you," Gators junior guard Kenny Boynton said Saturday afternoon.
NCAA basketball fans love the underdog, and the No. 7 seed Gators are well aware that Norfolk State fits that bill perfectly. When the 15th-seeded Spartans entered the arena during the evening session Friday night after upsetting No. 2 Missouri, they received a standing ovation. They responded by standing and applauding the fans.
"Honestly, we would like to not be part of their run," Florida sophomore center Patric Young said. "We would like to not be that if we could because we know everyone loves Cinderella, underdog stories. Even if you're neutral you love those stories, and fans here that are going for other teams, that are watching the game, they're going to be cheering for those guys because they would love to see the underdogs, like the George Masons and the VCUs, make the runs. And we hope to stop that."
To basketball fans across the nation, Norfolk State may be the newest Cinderella, but to the Gators, this is no fairy tale matchup.
"With Cinderella, luck comes into play," Boynton said. "I don't think anything about that win was luck."
For Norfolk State, it has been a whirlwind week. This is a team that has never played in the NCAA Tournament, had a police escort or flown on a charter plane until this past week. The Spartans are walking that fine line between living a dream and staying in reality.
"I'm still hyped," point guard Pendarvis Williams said. "I've gotta calm my nerves and move on to the next game."
The Spartans pose a huge challenge for Florida in their size and athleticism. NSU boasts a starting five whose shortest player is 6-foot-5 guard/forward Rodney McCauley and includes 6-foot-6 Williams. Florida counters with 5-foot-8 point guard Erving Walker and Boynton, who is 6-2. NSU coach Anthony Davis plans to use a similar game plan as he did with Missouri.
"Just like with Missouri, we're going to try to keep those guys out of the lane," Davis said. "Dribble penetration is important because it creates shots for other teams, so we don't want them to get into the lane, we want to use our length to challenge shots so they're not knocking down wide-open shots. We know they're not going to shoot as bad as they did (Friday), at all."
Florida shot 17.4 percent from 3-point range in Friday's second-round win over Virginia, and Walker and Boynton have struggled. Boynton is shooting 27 percent over the past six games.
The Spartans not only can shoot from outside — they hit 52.6 percent from 3-point range against Missouri — but can dominate the inside as well. Senior center Kyle O'Quinn is 6-10, 240 pounds and averages 16.2 points and 10.5 rebounds. Keeping O'Quinn in check, and keeping Young out of foul trouble, will be critical in the game because of the Gators' lack of depth in the frontcourt.
"They have great size," Donovan said. "We're going to have to do a good job understanding that we cannot give them wide-open 3s. They shoot the ball well from behind the line and inside the line."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]