The NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed got all it could handle — for a half at least — before Florida pulled away from 16th seed Albany 67-55 in Orlando. Here are three observations as the Gators moved the top seeds to 117-0 all-time.
1. Give Albany some credit, but Florida simply came out flat
A lot is made of the SEC Championship Game being played minutes before the release of the NCAA tourney bracket. But the reality is, a run to a Sweet 16 appearance for Florida would include playing five times in nine days.
It was enough for coach Billy Donovan to lobby from his pulpit for any league with teams playing their title game on Sunday shouldn’t open tourney play until Friday — and given the way his Gators came out against the Great Danes, he may have had a point.
Albany continually broke down the Gators’ press — mostly due to the speed of point guard D.J. Evans , more on him later — and shot 46.2 percent in the first half.
Florida managed to settle in when it mattered, getting breathing room behind an 18-6 run that was fueled by the inside play of Patric Young and Dorian Finney-Smith. Dorian scored 16 off the bench and Young had 10 along with 10 rebounds for his first double-double of the season. Florida outscored Albany 36-10 in the paint, with 24 of those points coming in the first half.
That domination did make it odd that Florida was still throwing up 12 three-point attempts, hitting on just three of them. It could have been due to the Gators’ hot hand there, as they hit eight or more in eight of the last nine games coming in, or that they were looking to put Albany away for good, but it’s clear Florida had an overwhelming edge inside.
But overall, this was far from Florida at its most complete and it’s certain to have some second-guessing their standing as this bracket’s overall No. 1.
2. Evans gave the Gators all kinds of fits — was it a sign of vulnerability
The 5-foot-9 point guard set the tone for the Great Danes as they went into the locker room trailing 34-28 at the half. He had 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting as Albany hit on 12 of their first 20 shots.
But he was a non-factor after taking a Kasey Hill knee to the head with 13:17 to play and the Gators leading 44-39. Evans hit just one field goal the rest of the way, a three coming with 1:17 to play and Florida up 10.
It’s always been said the tournament is predicated by guard play and Florida potentially has some strong lead ball-handlers to deal with in its own region, most notably Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis. That Evans had that kind of day with Scottie Wilbekin, one of the nation’s top defensive PGs, is a surprising. But Wilbekin did at times look a little gassed. As he told reporters afterward on the Danes’ approach "They threw a triangle and two at us and it threw us out of whack. We let it bleed into our defense."
The Gators have had trouble with strong guards before this season, including UConn’s Shabazz Napier, who burned them for 26 points on Dec. 2. But Wilbekin was in his fourth back after being suspended and injured his ankle with 3:01 to play and never returned.
Evans’ performance was impressive, but Florida was unable to deliver the pressure we’ve come to expect. After forcing an average of 14 turnovers per game, they had 10, but just three in the first half. Here’s expecting the Gators look more like the team that’s No. 5 in Ken Pom’s AdjD rankings (89.8) in the Round of 32.
Speaking of what lies ahead …
3. Next up: Pitt
The No. 9 seed’s 29-point victory over eighth-seeded Colorado looks more staggering than it really was.
The Buffaloes have been free-falling since losing their best player, Spencer Dinwiddie, to an ACL injury in January and are now 9-10 without him. They have lost to Arizona by 27 and 20 points and have scored 59 or less points five times, including each of their last four games — so getting blown out of the tourney was no surprise.
The Panthers have found a star in 6-foot-8 forward Talib Zanna, who has averaged 16 and 10.3 rebounds over the last eight games and had 18 and five against the Buffs and it’s going to make for an intriguing clash as he bangs with Young down low.
But this matchup is likely to be decided by whether Pitt guard Cameron Wright can do any damage with Wilbekin, the lynchpin of the Gators’ D. Interestingly enough ,the two are very familiar with one another, participating in USA Basketball U19 training camp together.