The future arrived early Tuesday night and it looked fairly bright for the Gators.
With two veteran players sidelined with injuries, No. 8 Florida opened the season with a starting lineup that included two freshmen and a sophomore.
Freshman forward Matt Walsh scored 26 and freshman guard Anthony Roberson added 13, leading the Gators to a 76-55 win over Louisiana Tech in the first round of the Preseason NIT _ before a national TV audience and 7,735 at the O'Connell Center.
Walsh and Roberson, with redshirt freshman Adrian Moss, outscored Florida's returning players 25-17 in the first half.
"I never expected to start the first game of the year on ESPN," said Walsh, whose performance is the third-best by a freshman in the nation this season and third-best by a Florida freshman in an opening game. "I just wanted to come in and do what I could to help the team. I never expected to have a great game like this, but like I said, it was my teammates getting me good looks and getting me good passes."
Florida advances to the second round and faces Eastern Illinois, which beat Boise State 73-59 Monday, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the O'Connell Center.
"I'm very, very happy with the way our team played," coach Billy Donovan said. "I wasn't very happy with our intensity in the second half, but that may have been my fault using some guys for so many minutes. We did not get much from Matt Bonner at all but we got great performances from (senior guard) Justin Hamilton and Walsh."
Senior forward Bonner was held to four points and five rebounds in 26 minutes. "I'm not worried about Matt," Donovan said. "He'll bounce back and be fine."
The big concern for Donovan entering was starting the young players to compensate for injuries to senior guard Brett Nelson and junior forward Bonell Colas. At least for one night, the concern was not warranted.
Walsh scored 17 in the first half and he, Roberson and sophomore forward David Lee each played more than 30 minutes. At one point, the Gators had four freshmen and a sophomore on the floor. Moss and freshman Mario Boggan also played 11 minutes, and freshman Rashid Al-Kaleem played 12.
"I said after the exhibition games that we can't wait on these freshmen (to grow up)," Donovan said. "They did some good things tonight."
Florida led 40-26 at the half, which ended with back-to-back steals and a block from Lee, who had 10 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 blocks.
The Gators shot 50 percent from the field in the first 10 minutes, but Louisiana Tech kept it close by shooting 42 percent. Florida had no answer inside for forward Antonio Meeking, who led Louisiana Tech with 20 points and 12 rebounds.
Louisiana Tech kept things close for almost 12 minutes before Florida took a commanding lead, forcing numerous turnovers with its halfcourt defense. Trailing 22-20 with 8:30 left in the half, the Gators closed things out with a 20-6 run. Eleven of those points were scored by freshmen.
"Somewhere in that first half the turnovers started coming and really kind of poured out, which got them out to a lead and really swung the momentum of the game," coach Keith Richard said. "To me, that was the story of the game."
Florida scored 28 off 22 Bulldogs turnovers, while giving up 11 off its 19 turnovers. The Bulldogs were without a field goal for seven minutes in the second half. The Gators' biggest problem was free-throw shooting; Florida shot 66 percent (16-of-24).
Representing Florida's veterans, Hamilton had 21 points, 5 steals and 5 assists, leading the perimeter defensive effort.
"We didn't do anything different than we try to do every game," Hamilton said of the Florida defense. "Our mindset is to shut them out on the defense."