ARLINGTON, Texas — Billy Donovan has been here before, which explains a lot about his approach to tonight's NCAA Tournament South Region semifinal against rising star Florida Gulf Coast.
In 2006, his Florida Gators faced the unenviable task of a Final Four matchup against that year's Cinderella team — No. 11 seed George Mason. The Gators, a No. 3 seed as they are this year, won handily, then went on to win the school's first basketball national championship.
So while No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast was back in Estero earlier this week reveling in its first trip to the Sweet 16 with pep rallies and national media appearances, the Gators quietly boarded a bus from Austin to Dallas and went straight to preparing for the business at hand.
"There's nothing else," UF junior guard Scottie Wilbekin said. "Here we just have each other, film and practice. We're not focused on anything right now but ourselves. I think that's huge, and it starts with Coach D and the coaching staff. They do a great job of getting us prepared."
What Florida has to be prepared for tonight is a team that has made its way into the national spotlight by defeating No. 2 seed Georgetown and No. 7 San Diego State. A team with stellar guard play and a penchant for highlight-reel dunking. And a team that everybody seems to be cheering for.
Which is nothing new for the Gators.
"It's not like we haven't been in this situation before," Florida senior guard Kenny Boynton said. "We played at Tennessee and the whole state of Tennessee was against us. We played at Missouri and the whole state of Missouri was against us. But we're not worried about the whole world being against us, because we're not playing the world. We're just playing another team. That's all we have to worry about."
While the Gators were preparing outside of the spotlight, the Eagles were doing the same — just in front of a bigger audience.
"It's been overwhelming, but we've been trying to do everything we can as a team, as a program, to not only handle the media requests but to promote the school itself," Eagles coach Andy Enfield said.
Meanwhile, the Gators are fully aware of what they're facing tonight. Although they've been mostly sequestered in Dallas, junior center Patric Young said they haven't been able to escape talk of FGCU on Twitter and national sports shows. They have accepted their role.
"When George Mason did their thing in 2006, that Gator team faced the same thing," Young said. "Yeah, the fans are going to be against us. So we just want to go out there and prove that we're not just going to be some pushover team, that they can just come in and walk over us and do the same things they've been doing. We're going to come out there and we're going to give them a fight."
As for being the bully, the villain? The Gators will embrace that, too.
"In these types of situations, you've got to have a chip on your shoulder," senior guard Mike Rosario said. "You've got to go out there with the mind-set that it's us against the world. The one thing that coach has told us is in this situation you've just got to be mentally tough. And that's one thing that I feel like we have been working on this past week, just being mentally tough and knowing that it's us against the world.
"You've got to have that mentality to pull out a game like this."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.