AUSTIN, Texas — Between Florida's starting five there are 38 combined games' worth of NCAA Tournament experience.
Seniors Eric Murphy and Kenny Boynton have the most with nine each and are 6-3 in those games. Junior center Patric Young is 6-2 in his NCAA appearances.
As the No. 3 seed Gators (26-7) begin their tournament run tonight against No. 14 Northwestern State (23-8), their hope is all that experience will be a big advantage when the pressure that is an integral part of March Madness mounts.
"The experience factor is huge as far as knowing what it takes to win," Young said. "We've won a lot of games in the tournament. Being able to embrace the moment together, just knowing that being together in any situation is the only way you're going to get through whatever is thrown at you, whatever adversity. That's probably the key factor there."
Florida has appeared in 13 NCAA Tournaments during coach Billy Donovan's 17 seasons, going 28-10. But for Donovan, who won the 2006 national championship with an impressive group of sophomores, experience has to be coupled with playing well.
"I would say this, to me the most important thing this time of year is maybe not the experience part of it," Donovan said. "You can have all the experience you want, but if you don't play well, a lot of that experience is wasted. I think the one good part for us going into the game is at least our guys have been in this environment, they have been in this venue, they have experienced this. … I think the experience, if you play well, can help you. But if you don't play well, I'm not so sure how much it helps."
What they've also experienced is the agony of getting close— but not close enough. The Gators have advanced to the Elite Eight the past two seasons, only to lose leads late in the game and failing to advance to the Final Four. They are trying to navigate the delicate balance between learning from the past but not letting it affect the present.
"Those things are in the past, but we have worked to fix whatever may have caused that," Murphy said. "We're just focused on Northwestern State right now. We've got to come out and be ready to play."
"I'm as hopeful as anybody can be," junior guard Scottie Wilbekin said about advancing farther this season. "We're more hopeful that we win the championship, but we just have to take it one game at a time. … We've been doing a lot of work this week and fixing the little things and we're ready.
Florida's seniors — Boynton, Murphy and guard Mike Rosario— carry a do-or-die mentality, knowing it's now or never for an NCAA title.
"I think that me, Murph and Mike, our main thing is winning," Boynton said. "We want to go out as winners. Our goal is to get to the national championship and win it. And nothing less than that."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]