Florida gets stranded in St. Louis before NCAA Tournament

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — At least Florida coach Mike White could joke about his team’s predicament: Getting stranded about 900 miles from home after the Southeastern Conference Tournament because the team’s chartered airplane was on a military mission.

This was Arch Madness.

“Had a nice spring break up in St. Louis, fighting the cold weather,” White said Monday. “It’s crazy. We spent four nights in a hotel to play one game. If our guys aren’t rested for practice, I don’t know if we’ll ever be rested.”

The 23rd-ranked Gators found themselves stuck in Missouri following an 80-72 setback against Arkansas in the SEC quarterfinals. Then the waiting began.

Florida’s charter flight was called to the Middle East to assist troops, leaving players, coaches, staff, cheerleaders and band members stuck in a hotel for two extra days.

Given how Florida (20-12) performed defensively against the Razorbacks, maybe the biggest surprise is that White didn’t find a way to get his team to a gym for extra work.

The Gators finally got on a plane Sunday afternoon — about 40 hours after the game ended — but only after a few more delays. They had to wait for a rested flight crew, a mechanical repair and finally some deicing.

They were still on the tarmac when the NCAA Tournament selection show started, learning via social media they were a No. 6 seed in the East Region. On Thursday night, Florida will play the winner of St. Bonaventure (25-7) vs. UCLA (21-11) in Dallas.

“I would rather know who we’re playing and be able to spend three or four days prepping for that team,” White said. “That’s the (difference) between being 20th and 21st (in seeding).”

Florida has advanced to the Elite Eight in five straight NCAA Tournament appearances (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2017), including last year’s run that ended one win shy of the Final Four. But this team is different from all those others, and not just because of its dozen losses and up-and-down ways.

“These guys aren’t really animated. Really, really nice guys. Too nice of a group, really,” White said. “I’d like to see this group one day tear up a locker room after we lose, but that’s not happening.”

White’s mostly introverted team has struggled to communicate on the court throughout the season. Even though the Gators improved on defense late in the season, their deficiencies were exposed against Arkansas.

That, coupled with having lost seven of 12 league games down the stretch, has few outsiders giving the Gators much of a chance to get past the opening weekend of the tournament.

White remembers the way his team found motivation in being pegged for an opening-round upset in 2017.

“We’ll use it again,” he said. “Who knows how much of a factor it will be with these guys? These guys are hard to tick off. My guys, I’m not sure I’ve found the button that produces a bunch of edge, but we’ll throw it at the wall, for sure.”

One thing the Gators have in their favor is a stacked backcourt. Speedy point guard Chris Chiozza and sharpshooters KeVaughn Allen, Jalen Hudson and Egor Koulechov give White plenty of scoring options and a number of guys who can be tough to prepare for and even more difficult to defend.

“Our backcourt gets a lot of headlines and deservedly so,” White said, recalling Chiozza’s running 3-pointer at the buzzer that beat Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden a year ago. “Chris Chiozza showed it last year — where single-handedly a guard can make a big play to propel his team.”

White also noted that Chiozza and his fellow guards also got outplayed by the Razorbacks.

The Gators dwelled on the loss for two days in St. Louis, but White has no idea if it will light a fire under his players in practice or, more importantly, in Dallas.

“This team doesn’t get really upset. I wish we would,” White said. “That’s consistently who this team’s been. I think that’s why you’ve got games where we look like a top-10 team and you’ve got games where we look like an NIT team. …

“But maybe,” he said, “we’ve got another positive chapter in us, where our urgency will pick back up.”