Gut Check Weekend For Billy Donovan's Crew

They are no longer flying under anyone's radar and there is a growing appreciation for what Coach Billy Donovan is doing with this group of very young Florida Gators. Nobody expected a team that starts four sophomores and a junior to start out the season 17-0 and anyone who would have predicted that the Gators would be ranked second in the nation two thirds of the way through January would have been Baker Acted a couple of months ago.

So here they are, the only ranked team in the Southeastern Conference and one of only three teams in the nation with an unbeaten record. Only the Dookies are rated higher and that's pretty much expected every year. As long as Coach K is running the show up in Durham you can pretty much pencil in high rankings on Duke's dance card.

Duke gets the respect because Coach K has won three national championships and come close three or four other times. Duke gets the respect because it's in the Atlantic Coast Conference, always considered one of the top two basketball leagues in the country.

The respect shows in the rankings every year and it shows in the television schedules. There aren't many games that Duke plays that aren't at least regionally televised so the mystique is fueled to grow because of maximum exposure.

What Mike Krzyzewski has done at Duke is remarkable yet it shouldn't be all that surprising. Duke had a tremendous basketball tradition before he arrived and while he is the author of the only three national championships in school history, if he hadn't delivered big time results he would have been sent packing long ago. As long as they play basketball at the level they do six miles away in Chapel Hill, the pressure will always be on whoever is coaching Duke to at least keep up.

That brings us to what Billy Donovan has done at Florida, and not just with this team --- which is remarkable --- but what he's done in his 10 years at the University of Florida. He's three wins away from his eighth straight 20-win season and there's no question that the Gators will make the NCAA's big dance for the eighth straight year.

Do you know how many coaches in Southeastern Conference history have won 20 or more for eight straight years?

Their names are Adolph Rupp and Tubby Smith. They coach at Kentucky where there is no excuse whatsoever for not winning 20 games a year. Kentucky was winning 20 a year and national championships back in the days when Florida's basketball team was coached by a football assistant.

It was two years after Rupp had won his fourth and final NCAA championship (1958) that Florida finally broke down and hired a full-time basketball coach in Norm Sloan. Sloan had the Gators on the verge of basketball greatness when he left Florida to take the job at North Carolina State after the 1966 season. Norm really didn't want to go because he knew how close Florida basketball was to breaking the Kentucky stranglehold on the SEC but little things such as having to pay for carpet in his office out of his own pocket drove him away.

Florida took a step backward by following up Sloan with Tommy Bartlett, a superb tennis coach but a rotten choice to lead a program to never before reached heights in basketball. Once Sloan's recruits all graduated, Bartlett was exposed and gone shortly thereafter.

Only when Sloan came back in the 1980s did Florida finally get its first NCAA tournament bid. Before Sloan could secure that first NCAA tournament bid in 1987 both LSU and Georgia had made the Final Four plus Alabama was a regular in the Sweet Sixteen.

Lon Kruger had one magical year at Florida in 1994, getting Florida to the Final Four for the first time, but Kruger left after two more seasons, convinced that you can't recruit top basketball talent to the University of Florida.

When you take all those things into consideration, what Donovan has done at Florida is remarkable and deserving of far more respect on the national scene than he gets.

Part of the reason for the lack of respect is because of the Big Blue shadow that engulfs the entire SEC. Arkansas won a national championship under Nolan Richardson in the 1990s but that's the only national title won by an SEC team other than Kentucky, which has won three more since Rupp retired (by Joe B. Hall in 1978, by Rick Pitino in 1996 and by Tubby in 1998). On the national scene, the entire SEC is measured by the success of Kentucky. If Kentucky is having a so-so year by Kentucky standards such as the one that the Wildcats are going through right now, then the rest of the SEC is viewed as weak. And, until some SEC team other than Kentucky makes regular appearances in the Sweet Sixteen, the national perception of the SEC is going to be Kentucky and the 11 Dwarfs.

That's not fair, but that's the way it is.

The Gators deserve better than that. Donovan deserves better than that. There was very little tradition at Florida before he got to Gainesville and now he's got the Gators winning 20 every year, in the NCAAs every year and attracting outstanding players to the program, something that Kruger never could do. He's established tradition and made the Gators a permanent part of the NCAA Tournament landscape at a football first school.

If you take a look at next year's recruiting class and then throw in the commitments the Gators already have for the class after that, then perhaps the perception of football first will change to at least one where basketball gets equal footing. If you can't envision runs at national championships in the next two or three years, then you need to remove your blinders.

It's more than just recruiting, too. All you have to do is look at Florida's starting lineup this year. This is not exactly a who's who when it comes to recruiting classes. Corey Brewer is the only McDonald's All-American on the team, a far cry from that 2000 Florida team that was loaded with McDonald's and Parade All-Americans but Donovan has proven that it's more than just throwing the ball out on the court and letting wave after wave of big stars do their thing. That was the knock on him back in 2000. Anyone who would think that he's all-recruit, no-coach Billy hasn't been paying attention, particularly in the last couple of years. You don't do what he's done if you can't coach.

He won 24 games and the SEC Tournament last year with a coaching version of smoke and mirrors. Matt Walsh, Anthony Roberson and David Lee sure could produce on the offensive end but they weren't the kind who could run the floor and somehow Donovan played hide and seek well enough that their defensive deficiencies were hidden so that they couldn't be regularly exploited.

He's 17-0 this year with a team that even he admits has a fragile makeup, not in terms of team chemistry, which is probably the best he's ever had at Florida, but in terms of depth. He's got nine scholarship players and he can survive some foul trouble or injury in the two post positions because he's got four good ones in Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Chris Richard and Adrian Moss. They're all tall, pretty much interchangeable, play excellent defense and none of them are offensive liabilities.

Where it gets tricky is in the back court. If Brewer is in foul trouble or injured, the Gators have to play serious small ball or slow the game down and bring in a big guy for a tall timbers front line. Most of the time Donovan goes small with freshman Walter Hodge, a 6-footer who is a reverse of what you get from the typical freshman. Most freshmen have no problems with the offensive game. It's on defense that they struggle. Hodge is just the opposite, a liability with the ball in his hands because he still hasn't figured out what he can't do at this level. He's still trying things on offense that he got away with in high school and until he learns what he can't do, he'll be a problem looking for a place to happen on offense.

If Lee Humphrey goes down with a foul or injury, Hodge or David Huertas come off the bench and neither of them strike fear into opponents like Lethal Weapon 3. Humphrey automatically opens up the inside because he's got the accuracy to go with the shooting range. He has to be accounted for every possession.

And then there is Taurean Green, the team's only real ball handler and decision maker on the point. If he were to go down for any kind of extended period, Donovan might have to experiment with the idea of moving Brewer to the point. Brewer is not the ball handler Green is and he certainly isn't the three-point shooter, but he is a superb slasher to the basket and an extraordinary passer. Green is indeed the one player the Gators cannot afford to lose for a stretch of more than a few minutes.

So it is a very fragile makeup to this team. They're riding high at the moment but they are an injury or one of those games when a zebra loves the sound of his whistle away from disaster. If you want a reason why Florida probably gets less respect than any number two team in recent history that is probably one of the places to look for your answers. The national media sees how well the Gators play and there is indeed a growing appreciation for their unselfishness and team chemistry, but there is also an awareness of how close Florida is to disaster.

That has a lot to do with the expectation among some of the nation's "experts" that Florida is ripe for the upset in Knoxville this weekend. The Vols are a better team this year under Bruce Peal than they were the last three years under Buzz Peterson even though Peterson had more talent to work with. They are unranked but they have beaten Texas and they are the potential needle that could burst Florida's unbeaten balloon.

If and when the Gators lose we'll find out just how much respect they've earned with their brilliant start to the season. If they drop more than two or three spots, then it's safe to say that the national media perception is that Florida is either too fragile or that Florida is merely the best team in a league that desperately needs Kentucky to play better to raise the entire SEC image. So consider this a gut check weekend, a weekend when we find if the Gators can maintain their magical start and a weekend in which we may find out exactly how the national media disrespects the SEC. If the Gators win, then the wild ride continues. If they lose, we'll find out quickly if there is national respect.

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