Southeast Regional action at the 2011 NCAA Tournament continues Thursday from the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa as the second-seeded Florida Gators entertain the Gauchos of UC Santa Barbara, seeded 15th out of the Big West Conference.
Florida received an at-large bid after falling to Kentucky in the SEC title game, 70-54, just the Gators' second loss in the last 12 games after capturing the regular-season crown. The other loss also came against the Wildcats in what was a return to glory of sorts for UF in 2010-11. The Gators posted 26 wins against seven losses during a tough schedule, not only in the Southeastern Conference but against the likes of Ohio State, Xavier, Florida State, Kansas State and Morehead State -- all tournament teams this year. The only loss out of that group came to Ohio State, 93-75, in the second game of the season. Florida is making its 16th appearance in the tournament and holds a solid 29-13 mark in such games just four years removed from back-to-back national championships under head coach Billy Donovan in 2006 and '07. The Gators' lone trip back to the NCAAs before this season was a one-and-done exit last year in a loss to BYU. Under Donovan, UF is 22-8 in the Big Dance with three Final Four appearances.
UC Santa Barbara claimed its second straight Big West Conference crown this season to set up a return date to the tournament. The road was vastly different this time around though, as the Gauchos entered as the fifth seed and needed to rattle off three wins in three days culminating in a 64-56 triumph over regular-season champ and top seed Long Beach State. UCSB will have its work cut out for it again Thursday after taking a step back from last year's top-billed Big West squad entering the league tourney. The Gauchos ended the year with an 18-13 record and just 8-8 in league play, and although they struggled at times during the regular season, can take heart in having played a trying non-conference slate. UCSB played back-to-back games in December against tournament teams UNLV and San Diego State, defeating the Rebels via a 68-62 win before a 26-point blowout loss to the Aztecs. The Gauchos will be making their fifth appearance at the Big Dance and lost to Ohio State in the opening round last year. Their overall NCAA tourney ledger stands at 1-4.
The Gators and Gauchos will be throwing down against one another for the first time on Thursday.
UC Santa Barbara carries with it the league's top scorer in junior Orlando Johnson, who put up 21.1 points per game to follow up a breakout season in 2009-10 when he was selected as both Big West Player of the Year and Big West Tournament MVP. Johnson again captured tournament MVP honors in 2011, averaging 28.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists while shooting 51.9 percent from the floor and 66.7 percent on threes (12-of-18) for the upstart Gauchos. The performance was reminiscent of what Johnson contributed all season long for UCSB, posting 6.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 63 three-pointers on 40.1-percent accuracy. James Nunnally is as fine a second option as you'll find, averaging 16.4 points and 5.7 boards while dropping 61 threes on 37.2 percent shooting. Jaime Serna adds a bit of depth with 8.0 ppg and 4.4 rebounds while topping the roster with a 56.7 shooting percentage. He stepped up his play to the tune of 12.0 ppg and 7.3 rpg with a 68.4 shooting percentage in the Big West tourney. However, the Gauchos' collective offense stands just sixth in-conference at 68.4 ppg. The defense attempts to make up for that shortcoming by holding opponents to a 65.4-point average -- good for third in the league. UCSB can also hang its hat on the Big West's top free- throw percentage (75.5), an area they may be able to exploit Thursday should they be able to hang with the Gators into the second half.
Florida has four double-digit scorers in the fold, and while none is considered a true star, the parity among the key contributors has the club poised for a deep run in the tournament. Erving Walker tops the roster in scoring with 14.4 points per game while adding 3.3 assists and 68 three- pointers on 37.8 percent shooting. Standout sophomore Kenny Boynton leads the team with 72 threes on 33.3 percent shooting and stands second to Walker at 14.1 ppg. Versatile senior Chandler Parsons provides 11.5 ppg and team-highs of 7.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists. Vernon Macklin stands third in the SEC in field-goal percentage (57.4) and averages 11.3 ppg to pair with 5.5 boards. Alex Tyus also pulls down 5.5 rpg and adds 8.7 ppg to the mix. The Gators produced a nice balance on either end of the floor to place fourth in the conference in scoring offense (71.5 ppg) and second in scoring defense (63.1 ppg). Florida topped the conference in field-goal percentage (46.2) and was also the league's top rebounding team with a plus-6.1 margin with 37.5 per game in addition to ranking second in assists (13.7 apg) and third in assist/turnover ratio (1.1). One area of concern is free-throw shooting where the Gators placed ninth (66.7).
UCSB has a tall task ahead of it with the mighty Gators sliding in as one of the better balanced clubs in the tournament. It's not often a two seed slips up this early in the bracket, and Florida should find itself comfortably moving on to the weekend.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Florida 79, UC Santa Barbara 63