Destiny arrives on Saturday in Lexington, KY. The SEC battle of the heavy weights. The under card fights are all done, now it’s time for the main event. Ali vs Frazier for SEC supremacy. [insert cliches here]. This may not be just a one versus two battle in the SEC, it may be a changing of the guard ceremony.
Kentucky, long one of college basketball blue blood programs going back to the days of legendary coach Adolph Rupp for whom the arena they’ll play in on Saturday is named, is now more of a TEAM that is simply a repository of young talent on their way to the NBA draft. Florida, once an afterthought on the college basketball landscape which wasn’t even a decent diversion between recruiting and football season, is now one of the top PROGRAMS in college basketball. Notice the emphasis on team versus program. It is not accidental.
On Saturday what you’ll see isn’t just a battle of top teams, you’ll see the difference in what the two programs have become. Kentucky is a team full of “one and done’s”. Because of an NBA draft rule which requires draft entrants to be at least one full year removed from high school, top draft choices head to college for a year before entering the draft. Kentucky, under head coach John Calipari, has become the main destination for those players. As such, they feature a lineup of top individual talent which changes from year to year.
Conversely, Florida is a throwback program. Having only two “one and done’s” in their history, Bradly Beal and Donnell Harvey, the Gators under head coach Billy Donovan have recruited a more stable rotation of players. His players, absent transfers, tend to stick around for the duration of their careers. Gator fans are able to learn their player’s names, connect with them, watch them grow up. This year’s team with four senior starters is a rarity these days in college basketball. For Gator fans, it’s a courtship. For Wildcat fans it’s speed dating.
To contrast, the guys that Kentucky recruited in 2010, the same class as these Gator seniors. are a distant memory to Wildcat fans. If they remember them at all. They’ve been through four different lineups in the time that these Gator seniors have played out their careers. If you blink, you miss them. Wildcat players are barely in Lexington long enough for paint to dry.
While Calipari is a coddling caretaker of NBA caliber talent, Billy Donovan is a prodding, poking mentor and sensei who coaches his players up to become NBA talent. Donovan doesn’t cater to personality, while Calipari has to stroke egos. When players come to Gainesville to play for Billy Donovan it’s like going to boot camp. Your identity is stripped and it’s no longer about “you” it’s about team. At Kentucky, it’s like backstage on a Disney channel set.
At Florida, players learn quickly they will sit until they learn the advanced offensive and defensive concepts that the Gators employ and fit within the system. Talent alone won’t help you get on the court for Billy Donovan, hard work and good listening skills are more important. At Kentucky, you’re expected to start and perform right from the start. You’re not going to be there long enough to do it any other way.
The Gators are a team forged in iron, built on a solid foundation, which has taken years to build by a master craftsman. Kentucky? Prefab, thrown up in days, loosely held together. The Gators are like skilled rifleman who’ve spent years perfecting their craft, while Kentucky are drive by shooters.
Billy Donovan is a father figure molding raw young men into skilled basketball players and even more importantly solid adult citizens ready to take on the challenges of life beyond the basketball court. Calipari? He’s a babysitter. Watching the kids for a short time, but never long enough to build more than a fleeting relationship. Billy Donovan’s doghouse is notorious. Ask Scottie Wilbekin or Mike Rosario. The doghouse is Billy’s way of training his players about working hard and living right. He’s teaching them as much about life lessons as he is about being better basketball players. At Kentucky there’s no time for a doghouse. These players are here today, gone tomorrow. If you sit them, they quit on you. And then they’re gone. What would be the point?
Tonight the #3 Gators take on the #14 Wildcats. The Wildcats have all the big names and likely the largest collection of future NBA talent in the NCAA, while the Gators have a well oiled machine that has taken four years to perfect. Neither team will look anywhere near next year what it looks like this year but for entirely different reasons. And both have taken entirely different routes to get where they are now. The contrast is striking. Age and experience versus youth and enthusiasm. Long term versus short term.
The Gators have built one of the top programs in college basketball. Kentucky has built the top NBA farm system.