NASHVILLE (KT) — John Calipari called Florida an NCAA Tournament team last week and the Gators moved one step closer toward reaching that goal with a 66-50 win over Arkansas Thursday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Gators (18-14) will play top-seeded LSU in the quarterfinals Friday at Bridgestone Arena. The two teams played during the regular season and split a pair of games, both in overtime. The Gators won 82-77 in Baton Rouge, while the Tigers (26-5) returned the favor with a 79-78 triumph on March 6 in Gainesville.
As with the previous two games, Florida coach Mike White predicts another close finish in the first of four quarterfinal-round games on Friday and added he doesn’t “know that my heart can (take it).”
“My guys probably can,” White said. “They've been a resilient group all year. Two high-level college basketball games. Two that we had chances to win both. Obviously, we had chances to lose both. It will be hopefully a great game. We all know how good they are. Hopefully, we're competitive enough in the same regard to have a chance late and we're in the same position where we can steal another one.”
White said the win over Arkansas was a must-needed victory to improve the team’s chances at landing at NCAA Tournament bid.
“Any time you beat an SEC team, it's a good win,” he said. “We've learned that, especially in the SEC tournament. Arkansas is a great program. They knocked us out last year. We knew how hard they would come out and play, how prepared they'd be, what a handful they are to have to score against and to have to defend.”
Arkansas, which had won three straight after a 70-66 loss at Kentucky on Feb. 26, awaits its postseason fate, which will possibly be an NIT bid after the NCAA Tournament bids are announced on Sunday.
“I think for a young basketball team, I welcome the opportunity for them to continue to play (in the postseason),” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. ”As I told them, you may have some more basketball, but we got to see a better performance than what we saw tonight. They hopefully get a chance to continue to play. They only can get better.”
WINLESS IN NASHVILLE
Vanderbilt’s season came to a close with a 69-52 setback to Texas A&M in the opening round of the tournament on Wednesday night. The Commodores (9-21) lost all 19 of its conference games and failed to notch a victory after Christmas break.
Vandy coach Bryce Drew isn’t sure of his future with the program but was more concerned for his players following the loss to the Aggies.
“This has been an emotional ride for them,” he said. “Adversity that none of us have faced before. So my first priority is to them. I'm a basketball coach, but I'm also a mentor. I'm also a leader. I'm also going to tell their parents I'm going to care for their hearts and futures. That's my big concern. That's my job. That's what I do.”
Georgia first-year coach Tom Crean, formerly of Indiana, concluded his first season with the Bulldogs with an 11-21 mark. It was the first time Georgia has lost 21 games or more in a season since the 1955-56 season when the Bulldogs went 3-21.
Crean said his first tour in Athens was tough to endure.
“It's hard,” Crean said. “When the season ends, I'm not very reflective and I'm not very futuristic. I'll get there, right? I've enjoyed working with these guys at a high level. We haven't known each other a year yet. It will be a year this weekend. I've enjoyed working with them immensely. I did not want the season to end. I did not want it to end. I've loved working with them.
“Unfortunately I'm not really mentally prepared to talk about the future. I know we have one. I know there is one. I know I'll be smack dab in the middle of it by sometime tomorrow. Right now it's hitting me that I'm going to miss those guys.”
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at email@example.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.