Florida State and Florida will be the two highest-seeded teams playing in the Orlando regional when the NCAA Ttournament begins on Thursday at the Amway Center.
But they are two of the teams at the site with the least NCAA tournament experience. The third-seeded Seminoles (25-8) will face No. 14 Florida Gulf Coast (26-8), which has played in two of the last three NCAAs; while the fourth-seeded Gators (24-8) will face No. 13 East Tennessee State (27-7), the only other team in the regional other than FSU that has no players with experience at the Dance.
FSU will play the late game on Thursday, following the conclusion of Maryland vs. Xavier (6:50 p.m.). UF plays after the finish of Virginia vs. UNC-Wilmington (12:40 p.m.).
Senior point guard Kasey Hill is the only player for the Gators who was on the Final Four team in 2014, where he averaged 5.6 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3.0 assists in five tournament games backing up Scottie Wilbekin. The other three seniors for UF, Canyon Barry, Justin Leon and Schuyler Rimmer are all transfers and of those three, only Rimmer has been to the tournament. He played one minute in a third-round game for Stanford as a freshman in 2014.
Since FSU hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament in five years, no one on the team has experienced the Madness.
The other teams in Orlando have players who are tournament-tested, having qualified last year.
Virginia, Florida’s potential second-round opponent, went to the regional finals. Maryland won twice to get to the Sweet 16 and Xavier and Florida Gulf Coast both won opening-round games.
North Carolina-Wilmington gave Duke all it could handle before falling in the first round.
There’s no denying the credentials the Gators and Seminoles bring to Orlando. Both were the second seeds in their conference tournaments and had more than enough quality victories to justify their top-four NCAA seeds.
But will experience, not just on the court but in handling the excitement of getting to the tournament, matter to both teams?
“After the [selection] show, we talked about the opportunity and where our focus should be,” Florida coach Mike White said during a news conference in Gainesville on Monday. “It’s March Madness and filtering the noise from all the different ways that it hits our guys will be a difficult challenge,”
FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said the team’s pride of getting to the first NCAA tournament in five years has to quickly give way to preparing for Gulf Coast.
“It gives us something to be proud of, feeling like they accomplished something over the course of the year,” Hamilton said. “But they have to realize now, it’s a new season.”
White said he’s counting on Hill to provide even more leadership this week. Hill played well in the 2014 NCAAs, including a 10-point game in the opening round against Albany, handing out 10 assists in a third-round victory over UCLA and contributing three rebounds and three assists in a victory over Dayton that got the Gators to the Final Four.
Hill also made 12 of 14 free throws — something that has been his weakness this season. But for the most part, he’s risen to the occasion in tournaments. Counting last year’s NIT run, in which Florida won twice before falling to George Washington, Hill is averaging 8.6 points, 2.7 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.6 steals in the post-season.
“We don’t have a lot of experience outside of Kasey,” White said. “If we had five or six guys who have been to multiple tournaments, it might be easier to have that focus and expect that focus. Kasey has done a good job of leading this group this week. They have to filter out the noise, tell people no on tickets, put the phone down and have a good practice. Kasey knows it.”
Most of Florida State’s players were on the team when they played in the NIT last season, but that experience lasted only two games. It will be up to players such as junior point guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes and senior center Michael Ojo to guide the team absent much March court time.
“There’s kind of a sense of relief, knowing how hard we’ve worked to get to this point and how far we’ve come,” Rathan-Mayes said on Sunday during a media availability following the selection shows. “It’s an amazing feeling but now it’s time to get to work. The veterans know how far we’ve come and we have the potential and the talent to make a deep run.”
Ojo said he now realizes what a blessing in disguise a knee injury was last season that led to being red-shirted. Had he not been hurt, Ojo’s career with the Seminoles would have been over after the second-round NIT loss.
“The injury was fortunate, in a way, because it got me to this year,” he said. “And this is the best year I’ve ever had. We’ve been working hard every day to make sure this program gets back and means a lot for myself and a lot for the coaching staff.”
Rathan-Mayes said the ‘Noles have always had more on their minds than just seeing the school name thrown up on a bracket during the selection show.
“We enjoyed it but it’s done,” he said. “We have to put the joy and the excitement away and go straight to work. We have a bigger goal than getting to the tournament, and that’s winning a national championship.”