Florida returns to NCAAs; Texas puts 7 in field

Florida is back in the NCAA tournament after a two-year absence.

Now, coach Billy Donovan and the Gators have a winning streak they

want to extend.

Florida earned the No. 10 seed in the West Regional on Sunday

and will play seventh-seeded BYU in the opening round Thursday in

Oklahoma City. Florida has won 12 consecutive games in the NCAAs,

all coming during back-to-back title runs in 2006 and 2007.

“We’re very, very excited, and grateful for the opportunity,”

Donovan said in Gainesville, Fla. “I’m most excited for our

players having a chance to experience this. For most of them, this

is something they haven’t been through yet. They’ve worked so hard

from Day 1, and it’s great to see them rewarded.”

The Gators missed the 65-team field the last two seasons and

settled for the NIT. They desperately wanted to get back in the

NCAAs this year, but struggled to overcome depth issues, poor

3-point shooting and inconsistent frontcourt play.

Florida (21-12) appeared to be a lock to end its drought after

beating Tennessee on Feb. 23, but lost four of its next five

games.

The Gators were beaten by Mississippi State in the second round

of the Southeastern Conference tournament Friday and had to wait 48

hours to learn their postseason fate.

This time, it was good news.

“It was a stressful 48 hours not knowing it we were in or

out,” forward Chandler Parsons said. “We’re really excited to be

a part of it. For most of us, it’s our first experience with the

NCAA tournament. We don’t just want to go and play one game. We

want to prove we’re deserving of being there.”

SEVENTH HEAVEN: The Lone Star State will be well-represented in

the NCAA tournament.

A total of seven Texas schools made the field, tying a record

set by California in 2002. Houston, North Texas and Sam Houston

State secured automatic berths by winning their conference

tournaments. Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M and UTEP earned at-large

berths.

Texas already holds the record for most schools to have appeared

in the tournament (23), but never before had the state had more

than five in one year.

Houston (19-15) is the biggest surprise of the group, winning

four straight games at the Conference USA tournament to nab the

program’s first berth since 1992. Cougars coach Tom Penders became

the ninth coach to lead four different schools to the NCAA

tournament.

SITTING PRETTY: Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett and his Gaels

finally got to relax and enjoy an NCAA tournament selection

show.

After beating nemesis Gonzaga to win the West Coast Conference

tournament and earn an automatic bid to the NCAAs, Saint Mary’s, a

perennial bubble team, knew it was in. So the Gaels and their fans

started celebrating early at McKeon Pavilion as they awaited word

of their seed and first-round opponent.

“I like doing it the way we did it this year so you’re not in

suspense,” Bennett said in Moraga, Calif. “It’s been a fun week,

an enjoyable week.”

Saint Mary’s (26-5) received the No. 10 seed in the South

Regional and will face seventh-seeded Richmond (25-8) in a

first-round game Thursday at Providence, R.I.

This is Saint Mary’s sixth NCAA tournament berth and third under

Bennett, in his ninth season at the school. The Gaels are 1-5 in

the NCAAs, with their only win coming during their first trip in

1959.

“I think we’re going to make a run in the tournament,” center

Omar Samhan said. “That’s what we’re planning on. I think beating

Gonzaga helped build confidence. This is the year we can do

it.”

Last year, the Gaels opened the season 18-1 but wound up

heartbroken and out of the tournament field. In 2005 and 2008,

Saint Mary’s earned at-large bids and No. 10 seeds but had to sweat

before hearing the good news. This year, the Gaels, enjoyed the

moment with around 1,000 of their fans.

“It’s about 100 times easier,” guard Mickey McConnell said.

“Just even in practice you don’t have it linger in the back of

your mind, ‘Are we going to play?’ We can just focus on getting

ready for whoever we’re going to play. Sitting here you’re relaxed.

It’s still pretty nerve-racking to find out where you’re going to

play, but it’s definitely not the same type of pressure.”

BACK IN TIME: Georgia Tech is returning to the city where it

launched its run to the 2004 NCAA championship game.

Yellow Jackets coach Paul Hewitt had a warm flashback when he

saw his 10th-seeded team was being sent to Milwaukee for its

first-round game against No. 7 seed Oklahoma State on Friday in the

Midwest Regional. Georgia Tech opened its successful 2004

tournament in Milwaukee.

“Hopefully, that’s a sign of good things to come,” Hewitt said

in Atlanta.

Georgia Tech beat Oklahoma State in the 2004 NCAA semifinals

before losing to Connecticut in the title game.

Beaten by No. 4 Duke 65-61 in the ACC championship game Sunday,

the Yellow Jackets (22-12) are going to the NCAAs for the first

time since 2007. They’re looking for their first win since

2005.

Hewitt said he’ll give his team Monday and Tuesday off before it

returns to practice.

“They need to sit back for a couple of days and just try to get

their thoughts together and enjoy this moment,” Hewitt said.

“Right now we’re just getting through this ACC tournament. It’s a

tough tournament with four games in four days. It’s taxing. We’ll

start getting our bodies right for Friday.”

LONG AND WINDING ROAD: Vanderbilt will travel a long way to play

a team from Kentucky.

Jermaine Beal and the Commodores are a No. 4 seed, matching

their best under coach Kevin Stallings. They will play 13th-seeded

Murray State, the Ohio Valley Conference regular season and

tournament champion, on Thursday in San Jose, Calif., in the West

Regional.

“It’s kind of ironic that we have to go 2,500, 3,000 miles to

play them,” Stallings said in Nashville, Tenn.

Murray State coach Billy Kennedy brought his Racers to Memorial

Gym at Vanderbilt just more than a week ago to practice during the

OVC tournament in Nashville. The Racers’ home campus is about two

hours away in Murray, Ky.

“I was thinking about just calling him and see if he just

wanted to play the game here and not have to travel all the way to

San Jose,” Stallings said. “Jermaine wouldn’t like that because

he said he wanted us to play as far away from here as we could. I

think you got your wish.”

Vanderbilt played in Phoenix during a 2004 run to the regional

semifinals and won its first two games in Sacramento, Calif., in

2007 before losing to Georgetown 66-65 in an East Regional

semifinal. Stallings also recalled beating Tennessee out west while

coaching Illinois State in 1998.

“The West has been blessed for us, or for me, and hopefully it

will be again,” Stallings said.

Even though the selection committee tries to keep top-seeded

teams as close to home as possible, Vanderbilt and Murray State are

far from the only squads with long trips ahead of them.

No. 4 seed Maryland goes to Spokane, Wash., to face 13th-seeded

Houston on Friday. No. 8 seed Gonzaga will travel from its campus

in Spokane to play No. 9 seed Florida State in Buffalo, N.Y., on

Friday. And another No. 8 seed, California, gets ninth-seeded

Louisville in Jacksonville, Fla., on Friday.

No. 10 seed St. Mary’s must travel from Moraga, Calif., to

Providence, R.I., to play seventh-seeded Richmond on Thursday. No.

11 seed San Diego State also is headed to Providence for a matchup

with sixth-seeded Tennessee. And 13th-seeded Siena was sent to

Spokane to play No. 4 seed Purdue on Friday.

AT THE BUZZER: Four teams from the Southeastern Conference

(Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Florida) made the NCAA

tournament after the league had an all-time low of three last year.

… The selection committee tries to set the pairings so that teams

from the same conference can’t play each other until at least the

regional finals. But with eight Big East schools in the field of

65, the round of 16 could include a pair of matchups between Big

East squads: No. 2 seed Villanova could face No. 6 seed Notre Dame

in the South Regional, and No. 2 seed West Virginia could play No.

6 seed Marquette in the East Regional. “The committee did

everything that they could to separate those teams as much as

possible. Once you get into the bracketing scenario, it can be

pretty complicated,” committee chairman Dan Guerrero said. “We

tried to match up teams that only played once during the regular

season, and in essence that’s where we ended up.”