One of the beauties of the NCAA Tournament is providing fans with rare matchups in a heated winner-take-all setting. For just the ninth time ever, and the first in 30 years, the seventh-seeded Florida Gators will take the hardwood against the No. 10 Virginia Tech Hokies in the opening FIrst Round game on Friday.
The Gators take the court making their fourth consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament, 21st overall, on uneven ground. The Gators have lost three of their last four since a 71-67 road win at Kentucky on Feb. 27. Florida opened their SEC Tournament against Vanderbilt, winning 69-63, but lost to Tennessee for the second time in five days in the semifinal round (78-66).
Over the moon with an at-large bid, Hokies fans are just happy to see their team playing. Virginia Tech only got four games in during the month of February due to COVID-19 protocols and missed two more opportunities against Louisville and NC State to start the month. Dating back to Feb. 6, Tech is 2-2 in its last four outings and took an 81-73 loss to North Carolina in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament.
South Region: No. 10 Virginia Tech Hokies (15-6) vs. No. 7 Florida Gators (14-9)
Time: Friday, March 19 at 12:15 p.m. ET
Where: Hinkle Fieldhouse (Indianapolis)
Keys for Virginia Tech
The Hokies typically go as Keve Aluma does. The second-team All-ACC forward leads the team in scoring (15.6), rebounds (167), and blocks (28). He does most of his damage around the rim and short range, so the fun in-game matchup will be Aluma (6-9, 235) against Florida's big man, Collin Castleton (6-11, 231). If either gets into foul trouble early, the team that has to sit their big man will be at a disadvantage.
Aluma can't be expected to carry the load all by himself either, so Virginia Tech needs to get others involved early. While he's not a threat from beyond the arc, guard Tyrece Radford still finds a way to get his points, as he's averaging 11.9 per game. Nahiem Alleyne (.409) and Hunter Cattoor (.450) are the top shooters from long range, and forward Justyn Mutts is one of those swing players who can take over, but he also has been inconsistent. He has bookended 20-point performances with two nine-point efforts in his last four games.
Keys for Florida
For Florida to advance to the second round, the Gators must get Tre Mann going early. The first-team All-SEC performer leads his squad in scoring (16.0) and is second in rebounds (125), assists (75), and steals (32). The sophomore has had a hot hand, scoring 20 or more in each of his last four games, with a 30-point effort against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament. In the defeat to the Volunteers, Mann only scored two points in the first half but poured on 28 after the intermission.
While Virginia Tech will seek to limit the damage done by Mann, the Hokies also must keep the aforementioned Castleton off the boards. If Mann or Castleton start off slow, Tyree Appleby (11.4) and Noah Locke (10.4) can provide some offense. If he's on target, Locke could be a difference-maker, as he's hitting 41 percent of his 3-point attempts.
On paper, both teams are evenly matched despite the seeding. Florida has momentum and has been playing more consistent basketball entering the tournament. Neither has been pushed of late entering Friday, so fatigue shouldn't be a factor but rust could be, especially for Virginia Tech. If the Hokies set the tone with their physicality, the Gators could have trouble getting into their preferred flow.
Virginia Tech has defeated four top-25 teams, two of those the top 10, but have played just five times since the beginning of February. Can the Hokies rediscover their early-season form that produced an 11-2 start?
Prediction: Florida 69, Virginia Tech 65
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.