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Friday, January 21, 2022

How much can one team grow in a week?

Since suffering an embarrassing loss to Alabama in the first round of the Southeastern Conference tournament, the Gators have turned a complete 180 in just a matter of days.

It began when the young players were shunned by their own coach, kicked out of their practice facility, stripped of their apparel and told to start over.

It was evident in the intense practices, which started just a day after the loss and continued into the weekend including Sunday, when the world was watching the NCAA Tournament selection show - something the Gators knew they could miss.

It was there when the National Invitational Tournament selection committee didn't think UF was worthy of a No. 1 seed in the No. 2 tournament.

It was still there when the team's first home game against San Diego State didn't draw enough fans to fill half the arena.

But then something happened. We may never know what it was.

The Gators have won their first two games by an average of 26 points, and one week after all this began UF is riding high.

"We're still playing for a championship," guard Jai Lucas said. "We're going to play like it."

In the last two games, UF has crushed two upstart programs. It started with a 73-49 thrashing of San Diego State, a 20-win team that never stood a chance.

Then came Creighton, a squad that has appeared in the NCAA Tournament 16 times, including seven of the last nine years. UF dominated the Bluejays 82-54.

"I feel just being around the guys there's a different air and different sprit about the whole team," Lucas said. "We're just coming out and competing now."

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Whether or not UF has truly turned things around is about to be tested. The Gators gear up to play Arizona State on Tuesday at 9.

The Sun Devils were the main focus of this year's NCAA Tournament snub discussion. Arizona State enters tonight's contest with a 21-12 record and feature a resume that includes wins against Big Dance participants Stanford and Southern Cal and two victories against Arizona.

Many experts expressed concern over how Arizona State could be left out of the field while Arizona, who lost twice to the Sun Devils, was admitted. In addition, the Sun Devils had a better conference record than their in-state rivals.

While this debate rages in the desert, the Gators must focus on their toughest opponent to date. On paper, Arizona State might be the strongest team in the NIT and stands between UF and a trip to New York.

"That's going to be a heck of a game," center Marreese Speights said. "That's a good team, we're a good team - so we're just gonna go at it."

Speights said he understands things are about to get a lot harder. To this point, UF has played teams that are good but miles short of great.

Arizona State has defeated elite teams this season, and even though the team failed to make the NCAA Tournament it represents the type of competition UF would have faced if the Gators had made it through.

"We would like to win by 30, but we know it's not going to happen," Speights said.

So far, Arizona State has won its two NIT games by double digits, defeating Alabama State 64-53 and Southern Illinois 65-51.

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