TAMPA, Fla. – About this time three years ago, Chandler Parsons and Orlando Johnson made decisions that changed their basketball careers.
Parsons sat in Florida coach Billy Donovan's office and chose to overhaul his attitude. On the opposite coast, Johnson left rebuilding Loyola Marymount for less-established UC Santa Barbara.
One of them will get their first win Thursday night when the Gators (26-7), the No. 2 seed in the Southeast region, play the 15th-seeded Gauchos (18-13).
Parsons and Johnson took totally different paths to get to this point.
Parsons followed Corey Brewer, Al Horford and Joakim Noah at Florida, and expected to get to the Final Four every season. But the 6-foot-9 senior from nearby Orlando refused to buy into Donovan's defense-first philosophy and spent most of his time thinking about NBA stardom.
Donovan offered Parsons a wake-up call in 2008, just after his freshman season. In a private meeting, Donovan told Parsons he need to change his ways or transfer to another school.
Parsons stuck around and is coming off his best season. He's averaging 11.5 points and leads Florida in rebounding and assists. He was a unanimous selection as the Southeastern Conference player of the year.
"(Donovan) really put my back against the wall and I had to make a decision whether I was going to buy into his system or I could have took the easy way out and went somewhere else," Parsons said. "Never in my mind did I ever want to leave Florida. I respect Coach for that, for trying to get the best out of me.
"I think him pushing me that hard has gotten me to where I am today."
Johnson considered signing with UCSB out of Palma High School in Salinas, Calif., but coach Bob Williams stopped recruiting him. Johnson ended up at Loyola Marymount, where the led the team in scoring and rebounding as a freshman.
But after a five-win season, Loyola Marymount coach Rodney Tention resigned, and Johnson started searching for a new team. Williams, realizing his recruiting mistake, jumped at the chance to get Johnson onboard.
"I just wanted to start over and begin a new me," said Johnson, who leads the Gauchos with 21.l points and 6.3 rebounds and was named the MVP of the Big West tournament. "There's definitely no regrets. I wanted to make my stamp on a program like this. I felt like I could be a player they could build off."
The Gauchos have.
Johnson, a 6-foot-5 swingman from Seaside, Calif., has led the team in scoring in 16 of the last 19 games and emerged as a legitimate NBA prospect. He scored 85 points in the Big West tournament and led the Gauchos to the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in school history.
"I really do think we have a chance to make something happen," Johnson said. "The guys in this locker room, as long as they believe in what we're been doing all season, even through the ups and downs, as long as we keep fighting we'll have a chance."
No one should count Johnson out, either.
Johnson never met his father, and when he was a little more than a year old, his mother was murdered in a crime that remains unsolved. When he was 6, a fire destroyed his grandmother's home and killed his great-grandmother, aunt and two young cousins.
His grandmother died five years later. His brothers, Robbie Johnson and Jamell Damon, took over from there. They were in their 20s and had children of their own, but took on the added responsibility in hopes of keeping their little brother off the streets.
"I felt like I had to grow up really fast," Orlando Johnson said. "For them to stop there and take on me, it was a lot for them. I just don't know how they did it. I'm glad I can repay them by being here today and giving them the opportunity to see me play."
Williams said Johnson has enjoyed a "phenomenal life."
"He doesn't have a traditional life," Williams said. "He didn't have mom and dad there taking care of him and all that. He had two brothers that love him dearly and have been like parents to him and have been like best friends to him. Orlando has a support system that's second to none in terms of that."
Parsons knows what that feels like.
His parents have been to just about every game since he's been at Florida. Parsons learned to play basketball from his father, a Division II player of the year, and his grandfather, a former Rutgers standout who got drafted by the New York Knicks. Two of his three brothers also played college sports.
"They've been through the process," Parsons said. "They understood what it's like to be a freshman, what it's like after a loss, after a win. They're really been in my corner and been very supporting of me ever since I've been at Florida."
Like Johnson, Parsons isn't ready for his story to be finished.
"I want it to end six games from now with us cutting down the nets," he said.