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Monday, August 08, 2022

March Madness has arrived, well sort of.

Wednesday night marks UF's first game in this year's National Invitation Tournament, and the players - as well as the fans - are searching for positives.

"It's a let down," UF senior and Rowdy Reptile Alyssa Halper said. "I know it's a rebuilding year and all, but we're used to winning national championships here, so of course it's disappointing."

Tickets for the opener against San Diego State, which is set to tip off at 9, are still available. Even better, they're selling at $12 a pop.

Rowdy Reptiles weren't required to sign up like they do during the regular season and will be arriving on a first-come, first-served basis.

The hype in Gainesville, needless to say, is lacking.

For the players, the opportunity to salvage some credibility is what's at stake.

"We have something to prove," guard Nick Calathes said. "The NIT isn't the NCAA Tournament, but it's still something to play for."

Calathes, who recently became UF's all-time single-season assist leader after surpassing Ronnie Montgomery's 20-year-old mark of 190, mentioned how difficult it was to practice on Selection Sunday knowing UF's name would likely not be called.

Perhaps adding coals to the fire is the fate of his brother, St. Joseph's forward Pat Calathes, whose Hawks squad secured an 11 seed in the Big Dance.

Calathes said he was excited for his older brother but saddened by the process.

"It was real hard, to be honest with you," he said.

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Calathes isn't the only Gators player looking for motivation heading into Wednesday night's contest. UF coach Billy Donovan said he's aware focus might become an issue.

"I understand how they feel, because I think every player across the country at some point always winds up wanting to get into the NCAA Tournament," Donovan said. "Going to the NCAA Tournament was something that we wanted to do; that's where every school wants to get to."

The Gators (21-11) are the No. 2 seed in their quarter of the bracket, which is headlined by Arizona State.

UF will take on No. 7 San Diego State (20-12), which hails from the Mountain West Conference.

The Aztecs went 9-7 in conference play and have a schedule darkened by a 46-43 loss to Air Force, as well as defeats to TCU, Utah and Northern Colorado.

San Diego State lost to BYU in the semifinals of the MWC Tournament.

Donovan admitted he isn't too familiar with the group.

"For me, it's not like I've seen them a lot, just because they're out in California," Donovan said. "We have a lot, as a coaching staff, to get prepared for and to present to our guys."

UF will key in on leading scorer Lorrenzo Wade, a transfer from Louisville who is averaging nearly 15 points per game.

Forward Ryan Amoroso is another transfer, coming from Marquette.

"They have a lot of talented individual pieces," Donovan said.

UF's biggest challenge shouldn't be on the personnel side. Getting up for a game they never planned or hoped for should be the Gators' toughest task.

"It's a huge disappointment," Calathes said. "We didn't reach our goal."

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