What a ride!
This season, this senior class, what a marvelous, fantastic, exciting, and exhilarating ride it and they have provided for Gator fans and alumni alike.
This Gator team has crafted a season for the ages that has all but made their fickle fans forget about the Florida Football Flop of 2013. At what was formerly considered a football school, head coach Billy Donovan has crafted a basketball program that other programs have modeled themselves after. Even the student section, now known as the Rowdy Reptiles but which used to be an afterthought at basketball games, is being looked upon as a model for other schools to build their fanbase upon. But it’s this team, this senior class which is doing things which have never been done before in Gainesville. Not even the 2005-06 and 2006-07 teams which won back to back NCAA tourneys have done some of the things this team and senior class have done.
Start with a 22 game consecutive win streak, move along to a 31 game home victory streak, a 28-2 overall record, and a 17-0 conference record. All school records for sure and then consider that this senior class has won three out of four SEC titles and it’s obvious this team, this group of four seniors, is special. Very special. And they’re not done yet.
On Saturday in the O’Dome and before a national ESPN audience, the Gators have a chance to make SEC history becoming the first team to go 18-0 in league play. Never been done before. Not by the great Kentucky teams of the past and certainly not by any previous Gator teams. And don’t downplay that record just because they just switched to this 18 game SEC schedule two years ago after conference expansion because for almost twenty years prior to the original conference expansion in 1992, the league had ten members and they played an 18 game round robin schedule where each team played every other team twice each season. If they do indeed beat Kentucky and grab the record it will certainly be special as it will likely be a tough record to match and can never be broken unless for some odd reason the conference adds even more games to the conference schedule which is unlikely to happen.
But speaking of Kentucky, it’s only fitting that the Gators seek to set a new conference record by beating the long time blue blood of the conference. For decades upon decades, Kentucky WAS basketball in the SEC. Sure there have been good teams and good programs over the years. Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama all come to mind during different periods, but none can match the pedigree of Kentucky. Kentucky has long been known for three things: horse racing, bourbon, and Wildcat basketball.
The Gators are relative newcomers on the national college basketball scene having only made their first NCAA tournament appearance in their history 26 years ago and having only been to the tourney a few times before Billy Donovan arrived. Now they seek to not only break a record held by prior Kentucky teams, they also seek to usurp the Wildcats as THE big dog basketball program in the SEC.
Despite the Gators back to back titles in 2005-06 and 2006-07, many nationally viewed that as an aberration. A one time luck of the draw getting a talented class of role players to achieve and perhaps overachieve. But as good as that class of Gator players was, this group is continuing to achieve so much more than what those guys did, albeit without an NCAA title to boast of, at least not yet. Three out of four SEC titles has only been accomplished by one other SEC program: you guessed it-Kentucky. This class has also been to three straight Elite Eight appearances in the NCAA tourney, something unmatched by any Gator team in it’s history. They have the opportunity to make it four in a row and perhaps this is the season they put it all together and get back to the Final Four for the fifth time in school history and hopefully bring a third tourney title back to Gainesville.
But before the cart gets placed before the horse, there’s a small matter of SEC history to make. The magnitude of it is not lost on the players but the seniors have been taught well and continue to parrot their head coaches “one game at a time” mantra.
“We’ve just been trying to take it one game at a time,” senior center Patric Young said in true Billy Donovan fashion. “We have the opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done before, to go 18 and 0 in conference play. And just keeping our eyes on the prize, the opportunity to do something great. To be a part of history has motivated us internally.”
Billy Donovan, for his part, is confident that his players understand what’s at stake and will not get overconfident themselves heading into the senior finale.
“I don’t think, through winning, I have seen a lot of them being overconfident and things like that,” Donovan said. “I think sometimes winning can become intoxicating where you get a false sense of really who you are. I think they’ve done a pretty good job of staying relatively grounded through all this stuff. And that’s the thing I think that’s made them really good.
In getting to 17-0 with one to go, the Gators have done a great job of overcoming not only the adversity they’ve faced this season, which has been a long laundry list, but also they’ve overcome human nature and the odds. Winning, particularly when one starts putting a streak together, can bring it’s own sets of problems and the Gators, for the most part, have successfully avoided those pitfalls this season.
“A lot of time players don’t know how to handle success very well,” said Donovan. “And I think these guys have done a pretty good job at least up until this point of handling things well in terms of moving to the next challenge.”
They’ve done it largely due to a good combination of strong senior leadership, coachable young players, focus on the process, and strong chemistry. These guys all like each other, care for each other, help each other, push each other, and play for each other. It’s obvious if you pay any attention at all to the individuals on this team that they are close knit both on and off the court.
“Coaches have pushed us from day one,” Patric Young said. “Laid down the foundation for us to achieve what we’re doing today. We’re all bought into it. We all love each other, we all push each other, we all compete every single day in practice. We do everything it takes to become great. And just the fact that we are seeing the fruits from that and have an opportunity to go 18 and 0 in conference is just a blessing and hopefully we’ll keep our heads on straight, humble going into the game and get it done.”
Donovan added, “I’ve said this before, I don’t think that we’ve got a great margin for error. I think the one thing about these guys is they really are coachable, they try to do everything that you ask them to do. There’s a good connection inside of our team with all of them. There’s a good respect level there. The freshman understand their roles. The seniors have done a good job trying to provide leadership to the younger guys. I think winning is important to them, they’re competitive.”
They, this team and this senior group in particular, have overcome all obstacles and distractions to date. On Saturday, comes one of what could be their biggest obstacles for a team playing at home for a chance at history: Senior Night. While most might not consider that to be a distraction, they could very well be wrong. Dead wrong. Senior Night where the school honors the senior players on court before the game can create two issues for players. One, it focuses on individual accomplishments, of which there are many for this group, but which is something this team has eschewed all season. Their mantra from day one is it’s about the team and group effort. It’s never about any individual guys, how they play individually, or any personal accomplishments. It’s always about a collective group effort and how they each play their roles within the larger group framework. Turning the attention to individuals or individual accomplishments can often have the effect of distracting players from the group goals.
Secondly, Senior Night can often be oh so bittersweet for players who are forced to think about the finality of their time at this school and on this team with this group of players and coaches with whom they have all grown fond. It’s always a highly emotional time for players and certainly will be for these guys who have done so much together and for this school. Different people handle emotional situations differently and often players can become depressed or reach a low emotional state which makes it hard to maintain focus and intensity in a sport which demands it for forty minutes.
Hopefully for this group none of the above will be a real concern. Donovan is convinced it won’t be.
“I haven’t talked to them about that [Senior Night],” Donovan said. “I think the biggest thing for us right now is the same approach we’ve had for seventeen games so far. The next game’s up and get prepared for that. It’s a team we played earlier just like South Carolina. I still think there’s things in front of this basketball team as I’ve mentioned to these guys. There’s a lot of things that they can accomplish this weekend. But it’s going to be one of those things where we can’t, in my opinion, we can’t get wrapped up in the moment of it being Senior Night. Obviously those four seniors have done a lot of special things here. They’ve been to three Elite Eights, they’ve won three out of four SEC championships, they’ve done a lot of special things. And I think sometimes it’s hard for seniors to play in games like that. I’m hopeful that they can get themselves ready to get out there and play and perform. That’s the biggest thing that I’m focused on right now, is us being really emotionally ready to play on Saturday.”
Getting emotionally ready to play their last conference game, the last home game of their college career could easily be the biggest distraction of all for these guys. No matter how much one tries to prepare in advance, there really is no way to do that. That feeling of finality when they walk out onto the O’Connell Center floor could cause them to swell up in pride and it could cause them to break out in tears or worse become depressed and nervous. For certain Gator Nation is hoping none of the above happens on Saturday. Best case scenario is they come out and allow the rockin’ and boisterous home crowd to fire them up and spur them on to one final regular season victory before the SEC tournament begins next week.
If it does, there’s a great chance these guys will make history. Of course, that’s not all folks. Continuing the winning streak, winning the conference tournament, hopefully going deep into the NCAA tourney, and perhaps winning it all will certainly be the goal after Saturday. But until then there’s one more game to go before they can go down as the best team in SEC history. 17-0 with one to go and history in the making. That’s what’s on tap for these Gators this weekend.