The winners get all the laughs. That’s how Canyon Barry could have one of the sloppiest games of his normally fluid career and still be joking about one of his Florida Gator teammates coming up short of the front rim or anything else solid on a woeful free-throw attempt.
“That’s my room-dog,” Barry said of Gorjok Gak, a 6-foot-11 freshman from Australia who hasn’t quite figured out how to make those long arms and legs work in perfect concert. “I live with him. Maybe I can get him to shoot free throws underhand so maybe he’d stop shooting airballs.”
It wasn’t so funny when it happened, not with Florida nursing a two-point lead over No. 13 seed East Tennessee State late in Thursday’s first half and free points at an absolute premium. This isn’t how Billy Donovan’s Gators used to play back in the day when Final Four trips were common and an entire second line of capable scorers sat ready on the bench.
Give coach Mike White credit, though, for reaching the NCAA tournament in his second season at Florida (Billy D didn’t) and for getting an 80-65 win Thursday in spite of a 1-for-11 shooting day by All-SEC first team guard KeVaughn Allen.
“That’s kind of who we are,” said White, who actually showed game tape to his team at halftime rather than tearing into them about a shaky 33-32 lead over a Southern Conference team. “We’ve had eight different leading scorers, and it takes a special group to be able to be successful when that happens.”
Special, to be honest, is what the 25-8 Gators still hope to be, beginning with a second-round game against Virginia on Saturday.
The Cavaliers have wins this season over North Carolina and Louisville and a 61-59 loss at Villanova. That’s mixing it up with the high seeds. A team like that won’t be rattled playing Florida in Orlando’s Amway Center, or matching defensive intensity with a Gator team that went 1-2 against ACC competition this year.
There is a problem scouting White’s group, however. You just never know what you’re going to get.
In Thursday’s game, for instance, Devin Robinson led Florida in scoring with a 24-point splash that was distributed in the most unusual way, with two 3-pointers and five dunks, including one of the crowd-pleasing windmill variety. That sounds more like two different players than one 6-foot-8 motion machine.
Then there was Kevarrius Hayes, who made six steals, an NCAA tournament record for a program that has 55 games on its voluminous March Madness résumé. Hayes is not a guard. He is 6-feet-9 and has had to play the center position since John Egbunu was lost to a torn ACL seven games ago.
Lately Gak has been on the attack, too, even though he appeared in just 11 Florida games prior to Thursday’s four-point performance in seven very interesting minutes. The airball free throw, plus one other bad miss, make him 1-for-8 from the line this year, the kind of guy who isn’t commonly trusted in this one-and-done environment, but White likes that wide wingspan and that long shadow and the idea that players from all over the world will be watching what he does with Gak.
Donovan kept working on Frenchman Will Yeguete, remember, until he transformed the raw rebounder into a Final Four battleship. It can happen this way when a coach and a program are given time to become bigger, to become one.
Looks like that is happening with White, who was asked how it felt to be 1-0 in his NCAA tournament coaching career and answered “It’s great for Florida basketball. I mean, Florida was going to get back, regardless of who is sitting in this chair.”
That’s not entirely true. Florida is a football school with a basketball bonus, or at least that’s how it feels to most fans. Back-to-back national titles by Donovan moved the needle, but not all the way in some other direction. White starts over now, getting the Gators back into the NCAA tourney after a two-year absence and working to get the kind of handle on Kentucky in the SEC that Donovan only occasionally earned and briefly kept.
Suppose that the lightning guard tandem of Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza tortures Virginia the way they did East Tennessee State? They combined for 28 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists Thursday, and rescued the Gators from what could have been a deadly scoring drought midway through the game.
Push those same hot buttons a little more and it’s possible to see the Gators in the Sweet 16 against defending national champion Villanova. That’s a long way to dream for any team, but for Florida, which lost three of its last four games coming into this tournament, it’s almost asking for trouble.
“Knowing that we were picked by a lot of people to be the first upset of the tournament, that put a chip on our shoulder,” Robinson said. “We can’t stop here. This is only one game. We still have — how many more games have we got?”
That’s always the question, and it’s always a partial answer until somebody’s holding the trophy.
Until then, the laughs go to the winners, and the wrinkles go to the coach, even a 40-year-old kid like White.