By MARK LONG, AP Sports Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — How far Florida goes in the Southeastern Conference Tournament likely will determine how far it has to go to start NCAA play.
The 17th-ranked Gators probably need a win in Nashville, Tennessee, on Friday to lock up a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament. That would mean playing in nearby Orlando, where coach Mike White’s team surely would be surrounded by friends, family members and a pro-Florida crowd.
“I think it’d be huge. I think it’d be awesome,” White said Tuesday, just a short time after he was named coach of the year by the league and The Associated Press. “The (NCAA selection) committee right now if they were to decide, I don’t know, heck, we could be a 6 (seed). I could be way off. We could be a 3. I have no idea.”
Most prognosticators have the Gators as a No. 4 seed heading into postseason play. But a second straight loss — they ended the regular season by blowing a late lead at Vanderbilt — certainly could cost them a spot and force them out of state to open NCAA play.
“I’ve kept it at this: If we finish really strong and we’re playing really well, there’s a chance we could open up the NCAA Tournament in Orlando in front of Gator fans,” White said. “You see some smiles and you see some, ‘Well, let’s do it.’ But we got to win Friday night.”
That’s far from a given for the No. 2 seed in the bracket.
Florida (24-7, 14-4 SEC) will play the winner of 10th-seeded Texas A&M and No. 7 seed Vanderbilt, and the Commodores won both games (both by two points) against the Gators this season.
Florida led by as many as seven points in the second half of the first meeting in January at home before falling behind by the same margin. The Gators rallied and had a chance late, but KeVaughn Allen missed a 3-pointer in the waning seconds.
The second meeting last week went about the same. The Gators were up nine at halftime and ahead by double digits midway through the second half only to falter down the stretch. Kasey Hill missed a wild, driving layup in the final seconds that likely would have forced overtime.
“They’re a good team,” Hill said. “I hope we play them again though.”
“So we could beat them,” he added.
The Gators skipped practice Monday, instead opting for another lengthy team meeting. They won nine in a row after the previous one, which came in the days following the first loss to Vandy.
The latest meeting had a similar tone.
“It was just about stepping up and just getting back to doing our jobs,” Allen said. “Just not slack off at this time of year, just got to be excited going into the tournament and not worry about that loss and just keep moving forward.”
The Gators already have a solid NCAA Tournament resume. They are fifth in the latest RPI rankings, have the nation’s seventh-toughest strength of schedule and won 10 of 12 down the stretch.
But they have concerns. Center John Egbunu (knee) is out for the season , and they have struggled to replace his low-post presence on both ends. Hill’s assist-to-turnover ratio has floundered, with 12 assists and 18 turnovers in the last five games. And they need more consistent scoring out of starting forwards Devin Robinson and Justin Leon.
The SEC Tournament gives Florida a chance to start anew. Maybe more importantly, it’s also a chance for the team to lock up a coveted top-four seed.
“You’ve got to take it Friday night first, and that’s it,” White said. “Obviously, the bigger picture is you’re playing for seeding, you’re playing potentially for an opportunity for a championship and all those things. And you don’t have much time left.