Nevermind a season-opening 12-game road trip.
Nevermind a Nov. 11 start date, one that will hopefully breed a campaign worthy of the Florida Gators women’s basketball team’s first back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearance since 2001-02.
Despite beginning organized practices barely two weeks ago, UF is instead prepping for Jan. 1, 2017, when an afternoon home game against Auburn at the newly minted Exactech Arena will kick off the squad’s Southeastern Conference slate.
“Last year was a ridiculous year of strength for our league,” coach Amanda Butler said, “and I don’t think there will be any change this year. If anything, I think it will be an extra measure tougher.”
Based on the conference’s performance last season, her claim might hold true.
Nine out of 14 SEC teams made the NCAA Tournament, with four breaking into the Sweet 16.
Including Florida, nine schools posted conference winning percentages of .500 or greater, pointing to a level of parity that translates to tough competition.
“It’s what draws great players to this league,” Butler said.
“They want to test themselves against the best.”
And with five new recruits in tow, UF will be aiming for triumph.
Despite boasting the SEC’s highest-scoring offense (77.4 points per game), the Gators finished tied for fourth in regular-season conference play with a record of 10-6, hampered by a defense that allowed 69.0 points per game, 274th in the nation.
Given that, it’s no wonder that, with defensive dynamo Simone Westbrook out long term with a knee injury, Butler has primarily focused UF’s preseason practices on generating a more balanced effort in its own court.
“We always want to be competitive and aggressive, and we work really hard,” sophomore guard Eleanna Christinaki said.
“Everyone is a big part of our team, and we need everybody. If the team is successful, then everyone is successful.”
With that team-centric approach, Christinaki and her teammates will look to clinch an SEC tournament title, the first in program history.
“We’ve got great coaching, tremendous programs, the best student-athletes, I think, in the country. So we don’t expect it to be a soft year by any means,” Butler said.
“We just want to be the best Florida Gators we can be.
“We feel like if we can do that, regardless if it’s in conference or outside of conference, we’ve got a great chance to be successful.”