By MARK LONG
AP Sports Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Although Florida is a top-four seed playing two hours from home, the Gators feel like an underdog heading into the NCAA Tournament.
Coach Mike White even acknowledged Monday that his team is a popular pick to get upset in the opening round of March Madness.
“Everybody’s saying it,” White said.
There might be reason to believe it.
Florida (24-8), which fell three spots to No. 20 in the final Associated Press college basketball poll of the season, has lost three of its last four games and hasn’t figured out how to play without center John Egbunu. Senior Kasey Hill looks lost at times and has more turnovers (19) than assists (13) in the six games since Egbunu’s season-ending knee injury. Fellow guard Canyon Barry has scored seven or fewer points in four of those games, including two scoreless outings. Devin Robinson, who reached double digits in 12 of Florida’s first 14 games this season, has become wildly inconsistent on that end of the floor.
And Justin Leon and Kevarrius Hayes, guys expected to fill Egbunu’s role inside, have been barely noticeable of late.
So the fourth-seeded Gators might just be vulnerable when they step on the floor against 13th-seeded Eastern Tennessee State (27-7) in Orlando on Thursday. “I hope it helps our guys,” White said. “It doesn’t bother me at all. I don’t care.
If I were in the same position … I might pick the same thing. They’re really good and 13s have upset 4s. I’ve been a part of one.
“Our guys heard it. They saw it. I don’t know how much they’ll read this week. I hope none. I hope they all crack their phones and throw them in the garbage. Hopefully it’s a tiny, tiny bit more motivation. I don’t know how much more we need. We need a W in the worst way.”
It’s also quite possible that Florida’s recent skid has been overblown.
The Gators lost at Kentucky, the toughest place at play in the Southeastern Conference, and twice to Vanderbilt in Nashville. They led in all three games and also beat tournament- bound South Carolina and
Arkansas in the last three weeks.
So it’s not difficult for Florida to spin its slump. There are plenty of numbers that help, too. The Gators are 10th in Ratings Percentage Index, seventh in strength of schedule and ninth in the latest Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings. Florida also is one of five in the 68-team field that didn’t lose to a non- tournament opponent during the season, joining Arizona, Villanova, Louisville and UCLA.
Nonetheless, the Gators are looking at this week as a chance to reboot.
“It’s a new start for us,” leading scorer KeVaughn Allen said. “The three losses that we had, just got to turn it into a motivation for us.”
Players should get extra motivation from being back in Orlando and playing in front of what’s expected to be a pro-Florida crowd. Two of the team’s best non-conference wins came in the Amway Center, when the Gators beat Seton Hall and Miami in the Advocare Invitational in late November. They almost upset Gonzaga, too.
The Gators might not be the same now without Egbunu, but White doesn’t think they’re far off despite those three losses that have some questioning the team’s chances.
“I think we’re very close,” White said. “Our margin for error has decreased, so we’ve just got to be ultra sound. Our communication has got to be better. Our discipline has got to be better. … Just simple things.”
But enough that it dampened Florida’s celebration as players and coaches watched the selection show Sunday.
“If we had won five of the last six, I’d feel a little better. It kind of takes away some of the excitement,” White said. “No one likes losing, so the mood right now is, `We’ve lost two in a row.’ It’s not, `Yay, we’re going to the tournament.’
“I hope our guys aren’t feeling like that. I don’t sense they are. I sense a serious tone right now.”