GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Better check the calendar again to make sure it says Tuesday, Nov. 16.
Not that we're complaining, but it does feel odd to have two Final Four contenders playing against each other this early in the season.
The tendency in the past has been for elite teams to shy away from a true home-and-home matchup within the first week of the season. Playing in a pre-arranged ACC-Big Ten Challenge game or an exempted tournament doesn’t count. This matchup between Ohio State and Florida was a true home-and-home series and both coaches should be applauded for scheduling it.
Florida is the SEC favorite and with good reason. The Gators return all five starters and added a stud in freshman forward Patric Young. The Gators did squeak into the NCAA tournament last season and lost to BYU in the first round. But the lack of postseason success (no tourney wins since the back-to-back titles) is a legitimate concern. How this group will handle the expectations is a legitimate issue. Florida coach Billy Donovan is quick to point out that this team hasn’t won anything yet.
Ohio State lost the national player of the year in Evan Turner. For most teams that would be a crushing blow, but not in Columbus. The Bucks return plenty of key players in David Lighty, Jon Diebler, William Buford and Dallas Lauderdale. But once again OSU coach Thad Matta has delivered with impact freshmen. If you want to get a glimpse at the present and future of Buckeye basketball, then make sure to check Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft.
If there is one thing that I want to see in this game, it’s how those freshmen handle the atmosphere at the O’Connell Center. Sullinger has the advantage inside over Alex Tyus in terms of talent. But Sullinger doesn’t have the experience of a veteran player. Tyus does. The backcourt battles with Lighty, Buford, Diebler and Craft against the Gators’ Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton will be one of the better ones we’ll see during the course of the marathon. And then there's UF's Chandler Parsons, who will be a little bit of everywhere on the court.
The most interesting player on this night might be Parsons. He has proved that he can make a decisive shot in big games. How he finds freedom against the length of Ohio State will be a challenge.
Look, we’re not going to anoint a national champ out of this game in early November. But if Ohio State can steal a road win at Florida it will speak volumes for the maturity of this team and its chances of challenging in the Big Ten against Michigan State, Illinois, Purdue and possibly Minnesota. Florida needs to hold serve at home to answer the expectations.
These two teams played for the 2007 national title in similar circumstances. Ohio State was led by freshmen in key positions (Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr., at center and the point). Florida had a veteran roster. If the Buckeyes are to get back again this April it will be because of the complementing freshmen. If the Gators get to Houston it will be because the upperclassmen have answered the leadership void and delivered on their production.