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NCAA Tournament Preview Southeast Region - First Round (15) UC Santa Barbara vs. (2) Florida

Thursday, March 17 - Approximately 8:50 ET

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Both the Florida Gators and the Santa Barbara Gauchos come into the NCAA Tournament with a feeling that they have been blessed by providence. The Gators, who were dismantled in the SEC Tournament championship game by Kentucky, last Sunday, somehow found their way to a number two seed. With analysts from across the country bemoaning the Gators’ mere presence on the top shelf of the Southeast Region, head coach Billy Donovan may just have the kind of motivation his team needs to excel in this year’s Dance, especially when one considers the Gators’ first round opponent.

The Santa Barbara Gauchos, champions of the Big West Conference, defeated the Long Beach State 49ers on Saturday to capture the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Why is this shocking? The Gauchos had lost two previous meetings to Long Beach State by a combined 34 points. UCSB finished a full five games behind the Big West-leading 49ers. Suffice it to say, the Gauchos are greatly thrilled to be in the Tournament.

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The Florida Gators are no stranger to recent NCAA Tournament success. Florida won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007. Interestingly, the Gators have just three NCAA games outside of those title runs since 2001. Florida hasn’t won a tournament game since the 2007 national championship conquest of Ohio State. The threesome of sophomore guard Kenny Boykins, junior Erving Walker, and senior Chandler Parsons leads the Gators on both sides of the ball. As an above-average ballclub at both ends of the floor, Florida is best suited for tournament play. The Gators also won nine road or neutral games, proving their ability to win away from the comforts of home. Tampa isn’t too far from Gainesville and the Gators will have a decided home advantage in this protected-seed matchup. Look for the Gators to impose their will inside the trenches, and get out and run in transition.  UC Santa Barbara has shown an inability to rebound the ball consistently, and that will likely hurt “Los Gauchos” on Thursday.

The Gauchos are certainly playing their best basketball of the season at the right time. The winner of four games in a row, UCSB has a pair of players with an ability to impact this fistfight with Florida. Orlando Johnson has been head coach Bob Williams’ go-to-guy at key points this season, and the junior has stepped up. Johnson led the Gauchos with 21 points per game. Johnson’s teammate, James Nunnally, pitches in 16 points. The Gauchos will need to protect the ball on Thursday night, something they have not done all season. UCSB has committed more turnovers than the number of assists it has created. That must change for the Gauchos to have any shot at a historic upset. Truth be told, with the added incentive for the Gators to come out with guns blazing, it would truly be shocking to see the Gauchos competitive for very long.

By Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer
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