GAINESVILLE — Jalan West was watching the SEC championship game between Ole Miss and Florida on Sunday afternoon when he noticed something he believes very negatively affected the Gators: They looked exhausted.
A short time later, West learned that his Northwestern State team, from Natchitoches, La., would be Florida's second-round opponent Friday night in the NCAA Tournament. And it occurred to him the Demons might have an area they can use to their advantage.
Northwestern State plays 10 deep, and in the Southland Conference tournament title game, that was a factor in its ability to defeat Stephen F. Austin. Maybe, West thought, the Demons can do the same with the Gators, who are relying mostly on seven players.
"For Stephen F. Austin … they got tired down the stretch, and we wore them down," said West, the Southland Conference freshman of the year. "And I think that's going to be a factor against Florida, because if we can wear some of their players down, maybe they'll miss more shots."
The Demons thrive on an uptempo style of play that is a major reason they lead the nation with an average 81 points per game. They'll put that offense to the test against a Florida defense that is third in the nation — holding opponents to an average 53.7 points — but can also play uptempo.
"We like to play fast, too," UF coach Billy Donovan said. "(Northwestern State has) gotten to this point for their style of play and way they play. They do a great job at it. We've got to obviously play our style of play, too. But I think the game is going to certainly be played in transition, and they're really good in transition. They can score quickly. They can turn you over a lot. They're really good at those things."
West and senior guard Shamir Davis are a threat to score as well as distribute. In the Demons' final home game of the season, West had 11 points and 12 assists. The Demons can also pound it inside with 6-foot-8 swingman James Hulbin and 6-7 junior DeQuan Hicks. Yet coach Mike McConathy considers Florida about as tough an opponent as there is in this tournament.
"It truly presents a challenge," McConathy said. "There are 66 other teams in the tournament, and I don't know if we could have gotten one that would be possibly the most difficult match as far as style for us. Because they do many things well.
"So it's a real challenge, because we want to run. And we do run with opportunities, but you've got to make sure you take the right shot, because if you don't, they're going to be coming back, and they are going to be dropping 3s on you, and if you get behind them, it's a very difficult thing."
Although Northwestern is a double-digit underdog, it knows first hand an upset is possible. As a No. 14 seed, Northwestern State upset No. 3 seed Iowa 64-63 in the first round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament, rallying from 14 points down.
The Demons, who will be playing about five hours from home, hope to recapture some of that magic against the Gators.
"That's kind of the buzz around here right now," West said. "I think we want to make a buzz for ourselves. I think our team really wants that for themselves. If we knock off Florida, I think that'll be a pretty good thing."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]