ORLANDO — There will be blood. Or at least some deep bruises.
When the Florida Gators and Pittsburgh Panthers do battle in the South Region third round at Amway Center on Saturday — with a ticket to the Sweet 16 at stake — they better keep a cut man on standby.
“This could be the most physical game you’ll see in the NCAA Tournament this year,” said Albany coach Will Brown, whose team played (and lost to) both teams this season.
The arena’s chiseled enforcers: Pittsburgh’s Talib Zanna and UF’s Patric Young.
In Zanna’s world, the word “dirty” is actually a compliment.
Young certainly took it that way.
“I know he’s a physical guy,” said Zanna, the 6-9 forward who personifies Pittsburgh’s hard-nosed philosophy. “He plays dirty. It’s going to be fun.”
Countered Young, Florida’s dynamic big man: “I think he meant that we were both similar players. We do whatever it takes. ... It’s going to be a battle.”
Florida’s multiple, suffocating defense is well known in these parts. The Gators (33-2) limited Albany to 55 points and under 40 percent shooting in Thursday’s tournament opener — and still came away disappointed with the effort.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, ranks 20th nationally in defensive scoring, allowing just 61.9 points per game. Teams have made a little more than 41 percent of their shots against the Panthers (26-9) this year.
Just ask Colorado how confounding Pitt’s defense can be. The Buffaloes missed 27 of their 42 shots against the Panthers in Thursday’s Round of 64 matchup, a 77-48 bludgeoning that was as lopsided as the score indicated.
But Pittsburgh isn’t just a grind-it-out defensive team. Coach Jamie Dixon said Friday that his team is actually more efficient on the offensive end.
A big reason: Pittsburgh takes great care of the basketball; its assist-to-turnover ratio is 1.52 — eighth-best nationally.
“We’re playing good basketball right now,” said Panthers forward Lamar Patterson, an all-Atlantic Coast Conference second-team selection. “We’ll know if we’re playing our best basketball on Saturday.”
The Gators, meanwhile, did not nearly play their best basketball Thursday.
They were tied with Albany with some 13 minutes left before getting enough stops to advance. In doing so, UF extended its school-record winning streak to 27 games.
That’s manageable when there’s a wide gulf in talent, as was the case Thursday. Against Pittsburgh, however, a slow start could be lethal.
In the past week, the Panthers beat tournament-qualifying North Carolina, took eventual ACC champion and NCAA No. 1 seed Virginia to the limit and demolished Colorado.
As Patterson put it, the Panthers are peaking. If that’s not enough to get Florida’s attention, Duke’s early exit should do the trick.
Gators players were a few minutes late to their Friday press availability because they were watching 14th-seeded Mercer bounce the Blue Devils from the tournament.
“In this tournament, you have to be aware that every team is fighting for their lives,” Young said. “Seeding doesn’t matter.”