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Monday, August 08, 2022

Maybe Walter Hodge dressed in the dark Friday morning. Or maybe, without even noticing, he found a way to send the strongest message of all.

"Wish you were here."

Printed on a 2006 NCAA Final Four shirt, the junior donned the top with the directive before Friday's practice, just four days before the Gators' National Invitation Tournament semifinal matchup.

Hodge said the move was unintentional, but the irony was fitting nonetheless.

"I've worn this a few times," Hodge said. "It's no big deal."

Listening to the Gators speak and play, one might actually believe UF's eldest player. The team has bonded ever since it flaked out of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

It seems the disappointment of the crushing loss to Alabama coupled with UF coach Billy Donovan's decision to kick the team out of the practice facility has materialized a sense of humility and understanding in the young group.

UF won the first two games of the NIT by an average of 26 points and beat No. 1 seed Arizona State by 13.

"It was kind of embarrassing for our team, but we learned from it," freshman Nick Calathes said. "We finally started to listen."

The Gators' transformation will be on display again Tuesday night at 7, when UF takes on Massachusetts in the semifinals of the NIT.

The game is set to tip off in Madison Square Garden in New York and pits two longtime friends against each other in a unique battle.

Massachusetts coach Travis Ford was a three-year player under UF coach Billy Donovan while Donovan was an assistant at Kentucky.

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The two developed a close relationship during their days in Lexington, where they squared off in heated one-on-one battles during the season. Ford was forced to sit his first season after transferring, so Donovan would keep him fresh by challenging him after practice.

"He and I developed a very close relationship," Donovan said. "I think my bond with him is maybe a little different."

Massachusetts is coming off a shocking win against Syracuse, where the Minutemen battled back from a 22-point deficit to take the road game.

Massachusetts is an impressive 24-10 this season and is led by guard Gary Forbes, who averages 19.5 points per game.

On the roster as well is 7-foot-1 Luke Bonner, the brother of former UF player Matt Bonner.

Bonner should pose a tough challenge for the Gators' front line, led by a surging Marreese Speights.

Speights was looking at stats before reporters arrived on Friday.

"That's poison," he said as he threw the sheet on the ground.

Speights appears almost giddy at the idea of heading to New York. The chance to play in Madison Square Garden looms pleasantly for the Gators big man.

"That's a dream place," Speights said. "It's been in movies and everything."

Speights, a St. Petersburg native, has no intention of letting his teammates spoil his image of the place dubbed "The World's Most Famous Arena."

Guard Jai Lucas told him it was dirty, but Speights said he has to see for himself.

"They said the arena and the whole city is dirty," Speights said. "I don't believe them."

Someone who shares Speights' sentiments is New York native Jonathan Mitchell.

Mitchell is 2-0 in the Garden, where he played twice in high school.

"I told them it's nothing like anything they've seen before," Mitchell said. "They're going to be shell-shocked."

Mitchell said he has taken on the role of tour guide and plans to show his teammates around if the squad has any down time.

Among the must-see spots are Times Square and the NBA Store.

"Some of these guys are tourists," he said.

Included in Mitchell's tour will be a stop at any New York pizza place, where he can enlighten his teammates.

"These guys think the pizza out here's pretty good," he said. "I just need to show them some real pizza."

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