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Published: Friday, 11/14/2008

There's logic behind UT facing Gators

Which team would I prefer facing in my first game as a college head basketball coach?

Well, DeVry Institute comes to mind. Great Lakes Truck Driving School would be another. I'd take a shot at the University of Phoenix, at any of its 200 locations nationwide. The University of Northwest Ohio might be too much of a challenge, frankly. The Lima school actually has a team and a court. Too risky.

Gene Cross, the new men's coach at the University of Toledo, drew Florida. The Gators have national championship banners hanging from the rafters. They have Billy Donovan kneeling in front of the bench. They have four starters returning from a 24-win team.

This isn't the ideal way to open your head coaching career, as Cross will tonight when his Rockets play in Gainesville. It's certainly not the way to go if you have any thought of starting 1-0.

But Cross isn't completely goofy. This game is part of something called the O'Reilly Auto Parts College Basketball Experience Classic, which is both a mouthful and completely goofy.

You can't call it a tournament, because it is not one. It has 12 teams playing at four sites, and the four host teams advance to the "championship round" in Kansas City whether they win both, one, or none of their two opening-round games.

Florida, for example, hosts Toledo tonight and Bradley on Sunday. The other three host teams are Syracuse, Kansas, and Washington. While the four hosts advance, the other eight participants will move on to a round-robin series at one of two other sites.

In UT's case, it will be back to the sunshine state, to Florida International's gym in Miami where the Rockets will meet the host Panthers as well as Cleveland State and West Georgia on Nov. 24-26.

It is that part of the O'Reilly Classic, in addition to tonight's national exposure on ESPNU, that most appealed to Cross.

You see, with the time-crunch renovation of Savage Arena, UT officials did not feel comfortable scheduling a home game prior to Dec. 3. As a result, the Rockets were destined to be road warriors during November. But there's a difference between being on the road and being a visiting team.

"We wanted to be part of an exceptional event, and we are," Cross said. "But it was crucial getting the two neutral-site games and going to the round-robin portion where we'll be playing teams we can compete against and, maybe, get some wins.

"When the deck was shuffled, we got the opener at Florida. It was either going to be there or Kansas or Washington or Syracuse. Take your pick. I've been to the Carrier Dome [in Syracuse] with 30,000 people in the stands, and that's no fun either. Any one of the four would have been a test. So we get Florida, but we get the three games in Miami, too, and that was important."

Cross, most recently an assistant at Notre Dame, isn't writing off tonight's meeting with the Gators. If nothing else, it will dish up some valuable experience for his new team.

"It's a challenge for us, no question," he said. "It will be a gauge of where we are at, mentally more than anything. They have two national championship banners that went up recently. They're experienced, and they'll press us from start to finish. How poised and under control will we be, and how will we handle that environment? We'll learn a lot from it."

Lessons are good. So are wins. They just don't always come at the same time.



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