OMAHA, NEB. –
The last time Virginia's Jontel Evans was this excited about an athletic trip he had images of Mickey Mouse ears and palm tree-adorned hotels interspersed with bouncing basketballs.
He was getting ready for a journey to Orlando for an AAU national tournament. At the time, Evans couldn't fathom a basketball adventure being any more rewarding. Who could blame him? He was a 10-year-old kid.
About a decade later, he's discovering Omaha represents something even closer to his own personal basketball Xanadu. His teammates feel the same way about this rare
treat for U.Va.
"I didn't think it could get any better than Orlando," said Evans, a Bethel High graduate. "Getting ready for this trip (to Omaha) takes me back to that trip when I was 10 years old, except it's even better."
Now, there's the business of making something more out of the trip other than just a fleeting appearance. On Friday, Evans will help lead West Region No. 10 seed U.Va. and its dwindling lineup against No. 7 seed
(23-10) in the second round of the
men's basketball tournament.
It'll be the first venture into the NCAA tournament for Evans and his teammates. U.Va. (22-9) hasn't played in the tournament since 2007.
"I keep telling a lot of the younger guys to really take it all in," said Evans, a junior. "You don't know when you'll be back. Look at Mike (
) and Sammy (Zeglinski). They're fifth-year guys and they're just now getting to go to the tournament. Just don't forget what this is like, and make the most of it."
U.Va. enters the tournament with just seven scholarship players due to transfers (guard KT Harrell and forward James Johnson in December), injuries (guard Malcolm Brogdon out for the entire postseason due to a foot injury) and suspensions (center Assane Sene suspended for the entire postseason due to an unspecified violation of team rules).
On the other hand, Florida routinely goes nine scholarship players deep and leads the nation in successful 3-point shooting (9.9 per game), while pacing the
in assists per game (14.9) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.3).
"(Florida's) offense gives anybody trouble," said U.Va. coach
on Thursday in Omaha in response to how his pack line defensive approach, which is responsible for giving up the second fewest points per game (53.7) in the nation this season, will deal with Florida's offense.
"Florida will test you with their speed and their ability to stretch it, but our challenge is making them shoot contested shots."
Florida's starting guard trio of
, Erving Walker and
contributes a combined 43 points per game, while U.Va.'s starting backcourt group of Joe Harris, Zeglinski and Evans counters with 27.5 points per game.
"I think the teams that have had success against (U.Va.) have been teams that been able to make some shots, but they do a great job of providing a lot of help, being in position to help," said coach
, who is in his 16th season at Florida, on Thursday.
Florida, which relies heavily on setting multiple screens to free shooters in the half-court, has scored 78 points or more in 18 games this season. U.Va. has posted 78 or more points just twice. Yet, Florida has held opponents under 60 points eight times, while U.Va. has done the same 22 times.
"Our two systems are going to clash," said Scott on Thursday.
"It's who is going to outlast each other. I think we'll get back, get set and handle the pressure. We'll come out with a win."
The presence of Scott and his 18.1 points and 8.4 rebounds per game helps level the court in terms of frontcourt production, but Florida is unique in that 6-foot-10 forward Erik Murphy can score from the low post or the perimeter. He's a 44.2 percent shooter from 3-point range.
Scott routinely draws double and triple teams, which means U.Va.'s perimeter shooting may also be critical. Zeglinski has made 14 of his last 40 shots in the last six games from 3-point range — a modest 35 percent, but a vast improvement from his previous five games when he made just 4 of 25 shots (16 percent) from beyond the 3-point line.
Of course, all the attention paid to Scott hasn't gone unnoticed by some of his teammates. He's the biggest reason U.Va. has reached this point, but his teammates are quick to remind outsiders he's not the only reason.
"We joke with him, talk about bowing down to the great Mike Scott," U.Va. forward Akil Mitchell said. "He'll tell us things like he gets to have the handicapped shower in the locker room to himself because it's bigger than the others.