COLUMBUS — The jerseys will still say Florida and Ohio State on the front and it’s still basketball, five to a side.
But today’s rematch between the Gators and Buckeyes is as far away from their showdown in last year’s national championship game as an NBA player’s salary is from a college kid’s meager checking account.
Florida (11-1) comes in brimming with confidence. Ohio State (7-3) has an inferiority complex. Both might be wrong about how good they are or aren’t.
“They’re naively confident, if that makes sense,” coach Billy Donovan said of his Gators. “They think they’re good players, a good team. But I don’t think they’ve seen enough. We haven’t lined up against a top-five team.”
Florida has yet to even leave the state’s borders. Imagine the shock when the young Gators get off their plane and feel the snow and cold temperatures in Columbus.
Then imagine what it’ll be like when they step before a sold-out Value City Arena crowd that will be especially hostile. Florida broke a lot of Buckeyes hearts in last year’s Bowl Championship Series national title game (a 41-14 rout) and this past spring’s basketball final (an 84-75 win that gave the Gators a second consecutive title).
There’s a distinct feeling among Ohio State fans that the Gators deserve a little payback.
“We don’t even think about that,” Gators junior guard Walter Hodge said of the rematch. “We’re past that. Maybe they’re going to think about that, revenge and all that. But that’s in the past.
“We have the banner over here. That’s not going anywhere.”
Both lineups are mere shadows of what was on the floor in the title game last April in Atlanta. Florida lost Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer — all NBA lottery picks — along with Taurean Green, Chris Richard and Lee Humphrey, while Ohio State is without No. 1 pick Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook — also first-round picks — in addition to seniors Ron Lewis and Ivan Harris.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta believes the 2007 championship game will be remembered for years to come.
“What was it, eight guys were drafted from that game?” he said. “Without a doubt that championship game is going to go down as one of the most talented ever.”
Those left behind have taken different roads to this point. Florida has been coaxed along with no major road tests or ranked opponents. Ohio State has had a brutal schedule, including games with North Carolina, Syracuse, Texas A&M and Butler.
No wonder the Buckeyes, who have holdover Jamar Butler along with two freshmen in the starting lineup, have been searching to find themselves.
“We’ve had the fortune or misfortune that we’ve played in a lot of big ballgames this year,” Matta said. “Time always tells, but we’ve been able to draw from those games. From a coaching perspective, that helps you. It doesn’t help your sleep pattern at night, but it does help you.”
Florida goes with a lineup that includes freshmen Nick Calathes and Jai Lucas, sophomores Dan Werner and Marreese Speights, along with Hodge. Donovan welcomes the game as a chance to get his players’ attention.
“We’re a group right now that has no clue of what’s coming,” he said. “We’re going to find out a little bit more.
“I want to see the air of belief when they get punched right in the teeth or right in the mouth and they get backed up. Do we still keep that air of confidence and do we still keep that air of belief? That’s what I think the key to our team is right now. How do we respond to adversity when our confidence gets rattled or shattered a little bit and we get hit?”
It’s a new year, with new problems and new possibilities on both sides.
“We’re a completely different team. They’re a completely different team,” Florida freshman Chandler Parsons said. “So all the games that have been played in the past few years — football and the national championship in basketball — it feels like that wasn’t even our team. That was the University of Florida, but we’re going in there with a whole new look and they’ve got a whole new look.”
AP sportswriter Mark Long in Gainesville, Fla., contributed to this report.
WHO: Ohio State vs. Florida
TIME: 4 p.m.
WHERE: Value City Arena, Columbus
TV/RADIO: Channel 19; WEOL 930-AM, WKNR 850-AM