Florida players know the numbers do not support their case. But the Gators say they are not concerned about the team’s 0-6 mark in games decided by fewer than 10 points this season as they prepare to open NCAA Tournament play against Northwestern (La.) State.Florida (26-7), the No. 3 seed in the South Regional, meets Northwestern (La.) State at 6:37 p.m. Friday in Austin at the Frank Erwin Center. The Demons (23-8), winners of the Southland Conference tournament, enter as the nation’s highest-scoring team (81.0 avg.).If this one is not a blowout, Florida guard Mike Rosario said players will not panic and no one is worried about finding a go-to guy to lean on in crunch time.“I wouldn’t say someone has to be a step-up guy,” Rosario said. “I would just say that, as far as the level of concentration and being poised in situations in the second half, I feel like we have to still come out aggressive in the second half and be in attack mode … We know going forward everyone is going to bring their best shot in every game. We have a target on us for being the No. 3 seed and being the experienced team that we are. We feel like that we’ve got to come out aggressive and just be the Florida Gators.”Not the underdogUCLA players strenuously objected to suggestions they should be the underdog in Friday’s South Region matchup against Minnesota because the Bruins (25-8), the No. 6 seed, will be without guard/forward Jordan Adams, the team’s second-leading scorer (15.3 avg.). Freshman Shabazz Muhammad, the team’s leading scorer (17.8 avg.), discounted the possibility that his team would fall to the Golden Gophers (20-12), who enter the game with a 5-11 mark in their last 16 contests.“Everyone is saying that Minnesota is going to beat us because we have one player that is out. That doesn’t really matter,” Muhammad said. “We are still a really good team. We are going to prove it.”Local attractionNorthwestern (La.) State coach Mike McConathy said he is counting on an otherwise-neutral crowd in Austin to adopt his team, the No. 14 seed in the South Regional, in Friday’s matchup against No. 3 Florida. As the only school competing in the regional that is located within a six-hour drive of Austin, McConathy said the Demons qualify as “local” … almost. They also qualify as an underdog, which may be more important to fans if the Demons keep it close in the early going.“If we come and we really compete and give people something to identify with, that can be a good thing,” McConathy said. “We’re just thankful for the opportunity to be close to home, because it’s great for us to be able to get some of our fans here. And we have a group that has been fun to watch. If we take care of business like we should, I think fans will really like this Demon hoops squad.”Northwestern State leads the nation in scoring, averaging 81 points per contest.Not our problemIn a season when the SEC received only three NCAA berths and has watched two of its premier basketball programs (Kentucky, Tennessee) fall in first-round upsets in the NIT, Florida players say they do not feel like they are carrying the reputation of the league into Friday’s game in Austin against Northwestern (La.) State.“Not at all,” said Gators guard Kenny Boynton. “Those teams losing, I don’t think it has anything to do with us.”Forward Erik Murphy said: “Those teams, they’re not us. I don’t think it should worry us at all. We’ve just got to play our game.”Friendship on holdSteve Fisher and Lon Kruger forged a friendship with roots in the Big Ten, tightened in the Mountain West and stretched all the way to opposite benches in the NCAA Tournament.It’s a matchup they’d have loved to miss.One friend is going to lose and the other will take it almost as hard as if he lost himself.“It's always different when you're facing someone that you've been really gotten close to over the years,” Kruger said.Kruger will shunt personal feelings for 40 minutes when he leads 10th-seed Oklahoma (20-11) against Fisher and No. 7 seed San Diego State (22-10) on Friday in Philadelphia.Once the ball tips, Kruger will make a dash of history as the first coach to lead five different programs to the NCAA Tournament. He brought Kansas State, Florida, Illinois and UNLV into the tournament, becoming the first coach to take the Gators to the Final Four in 1994.His ol’ pal Fisher is a tournament-tested lifer, as well. He won a national championship with Michigan in 1989 and led the Fab Five Wolverines to consecutive national runner-up finishes in 1992 and 1993. This report includes material from The Associated Press.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch