As if hoops heads needed an excuse to officially signal the start of the college basketball season, Tuesday night's match up of #4 Ohio State vs. #9 Florida will do just that. Barely a week into the new season, the Buckeyes visit to Gainesville is the first game of the year featuring two top-10 teams against each other.
Ohio State vs. Florida... Sound familiar?
A quick history lesson tells us theirs is by no means a storied rivalry, but of late the 2 major-conference powers have squared off on more than a fair share of nationally spotlighted platforms. That history, no matter how brief, is one that can only fire up an already talented team of Bucks.
December 23, 2006. Gainesville, Florida.
Again, in one of the 2006-2007 season's premier early games, the 3rd-ranked Buckeyes traveled to a raucous O-Dome in Gainesville to play #4 Florida. On the heels of its first national basketball championship, a veteran Gator squad thoroughly dismantled Ohio State and freshman beast Greg Oden for a 26-point, 86-60 win.
January 8, 2007. BCS National Championship. Glendale, Arizona.
This time on the gridiron, in a showdown for college football's national title, an underdog Florida squad surrendered an opening kickoff return touchdown to the nation's #1 team, then proceeded to run roughshod over an outmatched Ohio State bunch, seizing the national crown in an emphatic 41-14 beatdown.
A marquee rematch roughly 3 months later, Florida and Ohio State met on the hardwood again, this time for college basketball's national crown. Different date, same result. The Gators became the first team in college hoops history to win back-to-back titles with the same starting 5, celebrating their 2nd straight "one shining moment" with a 74-65 win.
December 22, 2007. Columbus, Ohio.
The return of the home-and-home saw Florida travel to Columbus for the programs' 3rd match up in 1 calendar year. Again, the home team celebrated the "W". A fresh-faced Florida bunch struggled to keep pace with Ohio State and the Buckeyes cruised, winning 62-49.
Now 3 years later and all grown up, Florida will look to atone for the lone blemish in its recent run against the Buckeyes. Yet even with all 5 starters back, and an apparent return to the depth that has trademarked the stellar squads of the Billy Donovan era, a win at home Tuesday night won't come easy. The Buckeyes bring a lot of size and experience to the O'Connell Center, 2 traits that should test Florida's ability to out-think and out-muscle one of the nation's biggest line ups.
"They are a team that probably a year ago wasn't quite as good of a rebounding team and I think now they have the potential to be one of the best rebounding teams in the country with (Jared) Sullinger and (Dallas) Lauderdale and (Deshaun) Thomas," Florida coach Billy Donovan told the Gainesville Sun. "Those guys have a lot of length and size, and they can rebound too." "They're sending four guys and there's no question we'll have to do a good job rebounding the ball ."
In Sullinger, Ohio State boasts one of America's top freshmen. The 6'9" power forward is big and long, and talented enough to score in a wide variety of ways.In its season opening win last week, Sullinger scored 19 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, claiming the Big 10's first freshman of the week honors. Expect plenty more to come.
And that was just the front-court Donovan was concerned with.
The Bucks' back-court goes 6'5", 6'5", and 6'6" featuring 2 seniors and a junior. Redshirt-senior David Lighty, the lone player on either team remaining from that 2007 national championship game, is a smooth operator on both ends, and senior Jon Diebler has accuracy from beyond 3 like few others in the country.
Lighty has played once in front of the Rowdy Reptiles, and while he can't say he recalls it fondly, he does remember it well.
"I really didn't know what to expect going down there my first time," said Lighty. "We knew they were good, but when you get down there, it's kind of unreal, the support they have from all their fans."
Obviously, that memory has been relayed to his partner on the perimeter.
"You can't prepare for the crowd being loud and everyone against you," Diebler said. "Just the mindset of going on the road has to be different. You really have to come focused."
Florida will need to come focused, as well. After bowing out in the NCAA's first-round last year, the Gators received plenty of pre-season hype. Whether or not it's justified has, of course, yet to be demonstrated.
We should know a lot more about each team by around 9 pm Tuesday night. By that time, the curtains on another college hoops season should be officially opened for action.
Scott LaPeer will be at the Ohio State/Florida game Tuesday night in Gainesville. You can follow him on twitter for updates and info at www.twitter.com/SLAPEER