The Florida Gators and the UCLA Bruins met for the third time in the last six years in the NCAA Tournament last Saturday. Since those epic match-ups, both teams have struggled to reclaim their spot at the top of the college basketball hierarchy. Many argue that Florida doesn't deserve a spot at the table when it comes to talking about well regarded and traditional program and those thoughts aren't without merit.
Florida's basketball success came in the 2000s and until the back-to-back championships they only had a successful couple of moments; winning the SEC Tournament for the first time in 2005, being ranked No. 1 only to lose both times, and advancing to the NCAA Championship game in 2000 as a five-seed.
So when Florida won the National Championship in 2006 the fans could hardily believe it. A team that would beat the little schools of the poor in the non-conference schedule, upset a team or two in SEC play, and chronically underperformed in big game, it was a shock to everyone that the Gators handled the pressure and finally broke through.
That was a different group than Gator fans were accustomed to, they weren't the McDonald's All Americans who came to Florida for two or three years, put up big numbers and tried their luck at the NBA (Matt Walsh, Anthony Roberson). This was a group who enjoyed college and enjoyed being together, the "Oh-Fours" as they dubbed themselves. Looking back its easy to see why they won.
When your front court consists of Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer you ought to be pretty successful at the college level. Well the "Oh-Fours" left a year early for the NBA draft and Billy Donovan left for a few days for the Orlando Magic only to return and try and rebuild the program.
Donovan could never have imagined that it would take him four years to bring the program back to the NCAA Tournament and win a game once in the tournament. Hurt by early departures from the likes of All-SEC Players G Nick Calathes and F Marreese Speights, the Gators once again turned into your pre-2006 soft Gators. Continually heightening expectation with their stellar, yet easy, non-conference play and then tanking in SEC play.
This pattern went on for three solid years, and despite showing minimal growth from 2009 to 2010 and their record pretty similar, the Gators entered the NCAA tournament in 2010 to lose in double Overtime to the Fighting Jimmers of BYU, er, I mean the Cougars of BYU.
Despite some actual toughness shown in that game the Gators were relegated to watching the Sweet 16, Elite 8, Final Four and Championship games at home like the rest of us. So it was quite remarkable when the pre-season polls came out and the Gators were ranked in the top 15 after making limited off season changes. A team who barely made the tournament was now the pick to win the SEC solely because they brought back all five starters.
I never knew that was a recipe for success. Ask the Cleveland Cavaliers fans if they believe bringing back all five starters from this year will make them a playoff team next year. They will look at your with a perplexed look, maybe even scoff at you, and walk away laughing.
This Gators team is different. After a loss to Jacksonville University in December, the Gators responded with a 20-3 record-winning tough games on the road for the first time in years. The college basketball season is a long one and teams mature and develop through the year, and this team would be the poster boy for that ideal.
This team is tough. This team wants to win, no it needs to win. They won't settle for anything less. Seniors F Chandler Parsons, F Alex Tyus and C Vernon Macklin lead this group. Parsons has developed the most of the group. Showing up a 6'8" 180 lb kid his freshmen year and developing into the SEC Player of the Year in 2011. As Parsons goes so do the Gators. He has developed a mean streak to him, a relentless desire to get better and a determination to win.
Can the Gators move past the Sweet 16? Who knows? But Billy Donovan and this team have accomplished something for this program this season. They have made the college basketball world talk about the Gators. And that is something that has been missing for a couple of years.