Uno Shining Moment: For Florida, March Mojo May Lie in the Cards

Jeremy Woo
Sports Illustrated
Uno Shining Moment: For Florida, March Mojo May Lie in the Cards
Uno Shining Moment: For Florida, March Mojo May Lie in the Cards

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DES MOINES, Iowa — There was but a day to spare before his Gators would meet fate (and Nevada) in the Round of 64, and as it turned out, Mike White was still learning new things about his team. Bemused, he poked his head into Florida’s locker room ahead of Wednesday’s shootaround. There, he found six players and one manager seated around a white, plastic banquet table inconveniently situated in the middle of the carpet, forcing everyone else, including a scant contingent of press, to pay heed. “I walked in there, and I was wondering what they were doing,” recalls White. “They said, ‘Don’t worry coach. It’s just Uno.’”

Amid the tourney’s quick-turn travel schedule and frantic game-prep cycles, teams are asked to do a whole lot of sitting and waiting, and to do it together. Keeping loose becomes doubly essential. For the Gators, it has come by way of the famed, multicolored card game, recommended for ages 7 and above, and now tangentially helpful when it comes to toppling 7-seeds. Florida disposed of Nevada 70–61 on Thursday, surviving a grimy, rough-and-tumble tilt in which their 18-point lead was briefly whittled to five. They left Wells Fargo arena with an upset under their belt and a date with No. 2 Michigan on tap for Saturday, but also with scores of their own to settle back at the hotel.

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Though allegedly unbeknownst to their coach—informed of his team’s burgeoning addiction after Thursday’s win, White admitted he’d only just caught wind—the card craze now includes players and managers and spans the physical and digital. When there’s no space to play, the Gators back-burner the deck for an iMessage-based variant called Crazy 8. Uno has come and gone in the Florida locker room for the past couple seasons, and nobody can pinpoint exactly how it returned, but the cards showed back up some time after Christmas. Things escalated sometime in February. “It’s taken over as the main game. Everybody plays it now,” says senior Kevarrius Hayes. “During trips, long bus rides, even on the plane, it be like…who playing Uno?”

Card-loving athletes are far from a new breed: As recorded by The New York Times, the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and former Gator Al Horford caught the Uno bug in 2016. But stuff intensely competitive people into close quarters—bus seats, hotel beds, exit rows—and results can be explosive. Others dabble in and out, but the core Uno group includes Hayes, sophomores Mike Okauru and Dontay Bassett, freshmen Keyontae Johnson and Isaiah Stokes, and managers Clay McCool and Chris Sutherland, the latter of whom often supplies the cards.

Standard rules have been disputed, but are treated with respect. “It’s like oral tradition around here,” says Hayes. “We carry the rules. Can’t change them.” Players are tasked with keeping track of their wins individually, which, of course, leaves some room for interpretation. There is zero agreement on whose record is superior, little rhyme or reason to the games. It’s less about structure than it is competition. Johnson claims to have the most victories (“I just stay humble with it.”) Assistant coach Darris Nichols puts it like this: “At least they’re talking to each other.”

“Honestly, so, I’m gonna rank myself lower only because I don’t play as often,” explains Hayes. “But when I do get in the game, I’m a competitor. I’d go Keyontae, then Chris Sutherland. Dontay Bassett holds his own, then I come in fourth—the only reason is because I don’t play as often as they do. And then, then maybe Mike.”

“The hand that I get is not my fault,” insisted Okauru from an adjacent locker, who did admit to being much better when playing on his phone. “This is what it really is. The cards are random that you get, right. So guys get mad at me when I don’t have a certain color?”

“I’m probably the best, for real,” says freshman Andrew Nembhard, the team’s starting point guard. “Because, I got the best ratio in the games I’ve played. But uh…well, me, I just started playing last night.”

Although nobody’s naive enough to conflate playing cards with playing time, everyone in the locker room acknowledged the way the mood has shifted over the course of the past six weeks. “I definitely think team bonding comes from the court, the blood sweat and tears,” says Stokes. “But the off court chemistry is definitely a big factor. It’s definitely one way.” As White described it, “a really odd year” has seen the Gators, whose record once stood at a precipitous 12–11, coalesce on the cusp of the Sweet 16.

“We have been able to stick together by drawing close to one another,” Hayes said. An injury to starting forward Keith Stone thrust Johnson (whose defensive energy has been something of a revelation) into the lineup back in January. Jalen Hudson, who led the team in three-point percentage as a junior, spent much of the season mired in a slump. February brought rock bottom, after consecutive losses to Kentucky, Auburn and Tennessee. Nembhard cited a subsequent team meeting as a turning point. “We came together and were much more focused on making the most of the season for the seniors.”

Naturally, Florida went on to win five straight. Those were followed by three more losses, but the mood shifted. “We have our flaws, but collectively this team has got a lot of character in that we just kept plugging,” White said. They’ve relied heavily on their freshmen and gotten more out of Hudson and Hayes, who White cited for their leadership. It took wins over Arkansas and LSU (sealed by a late three from Nembhard) just to ensure they’d make it into the field of 68.

After all that, there was little concern about seeding entering the first-round matchup with a more experienced Nevada team. Florida’s focus shifts to second-seed Michigan, which handled Montana comfortably and owns arguably college basketball’s most frightening defense at peak form. “Any team that’s here right now has the capability of advancing at any time,” says Hayes. All things considered, labeling the Gators as a wild card would be fitting.

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