Balance Of SEC Hoops Power Has Shifted To UF

Maybe the Richter scale didn't move when Dan Werner announced Saturday that he is going to be a Florida Gator, but that doesn't mean that the earth didn't move a bit. Not only is Werner a significant addition to an already outstanding recruiting class, but getting his commitment is a clear signal that things aren't the same anymore in the Southeastern Conference.

While Werner isn't quite ready for the NBA lottery he is the New Jersey Player of the Year and he is a prime time talent. With five starters and two outstanding reserves returning from the 2006 NCAA champions, he won't be pressing for starter's minutes next season at Florida but he is good enough that Coach Billy Donovan will give him solid minutes off the bench. Just don't figure him to start at least until his sophomore year. From the standpoint of immediate impact as a starter, signing Werner didn't cause the earth to tremble but this is indeed a signing that is chock full of significance.

Let's start with the obvious here. Florida beat Kentucky for a big time recruit and this came at a time when Kentucky has all the playing time in the world to offer. At Kentucky, where graduation and defections have cleared the deck and opened things up for a talented young guy to step right in, Werner is probably an instant starter at power forward. At Florida, he will be battling for backup minutes. That says a lot about the lure of Florida basketball these days when a prime timer would rather be a role player for a great team than a starter for a team that may have all the tradition in the world but plenty of questions.

Getting Werner is significant also because over the years, Florida-Kentucky basketball recruiting battles have pretty much been a reversal of Florida-Kentucky football games. Kentucky loses a basketball recruiting battle to Florida about as often as the Wildcat football team pulls off a win over the Gators. It only seems like we see Haley's comet streak across the northern sky more often than Kentucky beats the Gators in football.

Kentucky's combination of tradition, fan base and the lure of playing in front of frenzied packed houses of 24,000 at sold-out Rupp Arena give Big Blue a decided advantage in recruiting battles, not just with Florida but with practically every program in the country. Kentucky has the greatest basketball tradition in the entire nation and the Wildcats have the strongest and most mobile fan base to be found. Big Blue travels better than any team in college basketball. They sell out Midnight Madness at Kentucky. Don't even think you can get a ticket in Rupp for a real game.

All those advantages have played out in Kentucky's favor in the past, but Billy Donovan and Florida have spent the last 15 months re-arranging the league's power structure and with that comes a different perception of Florida basketball. The Gators do have a long way to go before they can match Kentucky's tradition and drawing power but all things considered, Florida has made a real case that the balance of power in the SEC is shifting from Lexington to Gainesville.

Consider the following: (1) SEC coaches and players voted the O'Connell Center as the toughest environment for an opponent in the SEC in 2005; (2) Florida's practice facilities and support staff rate among the best in the nation; and (3) Billy Donovan has taken the Gators to eight straight NCAA appearances and eight straight seasons with at least 20 wins, the third best streak all-time in the SEC and best by a coach that isn't at Kentucky; (4) Since March 2005, Florida has beaten Kentucky four straight games including once at Rupp and once in the finals of the 2005 SEC Basketball Tournament; (5) The Gators have won the last two SEC Basketball Tournament championships; and (6) Florida won the NCAA Basketball Tournament with the most dominating performance of any team since John Wooden was the coach at UCLA.

Now throw in the fact that while Kentucky lost its best player, sophomore Rajon Rondo, to the NBA Draft, Florida kept all four of its super sophomore starters. Instead of bolting for the big bucks of the NBA where they would have surely been lottery picks, Florida's entire sophomore front line is returning for the 2006-2007 season. Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer tore up the NCAA Tournament and they will be considered the best and most dominant front line in all of college basketball next year. The starting backcourt of point guard Taurean Green and shooting guard Lee Humphrey returns along with Chris Richard, the top front court reserve, and Walter Hodge, the first guard off the bench in last year's title run.

The Gators lost Adrian Moss to graduation and seldom-used reserve guard David Huertas and forward Jimmie Sutton, who redshirted last year, have transferred out. Losing Moss will hurt in the leadership department more than anything else. From a talent standpoint, his place in the rotation will be more than compensated by 6-10, 255-pound center/power forward Marreese Speights, who spent his senior year in high school starting at power forward for Hargrave Military Academy where the basketball team had 10 Division I signees.

Werner (6-8, 220) and Jonathon Mitchell (6-7, 230) will combine with Speights to give the Gators more front court depth than they had last year. Werner was the Associated Press Player of the Year in New Jersey while Mitchell was Mr. Basketball in New York. High riser Doneal Mack (6-5, 175), maybe the best dunker among the nation's freshmen, and defensive ace Brandon Powell (6-4, 200) will give Florida a solid five-man rotation at the guard positions.

That kind of depth combined with a starting five that was the best in all of college basketball last year means the Gators will be favored to win a second straight NCAA championship this year. The Gators will put a team on the floor next season that is deeper than any Donovan team since the 2000 team that made it all the way to the NCAA championship game. From top to bottom of the roster, Florida will be the most talented team in the Southeastern Conference.

In luring Werner away from Kentucky, the Gators took away a power player that Kentucky desperately needed. Other than Randolph Morris, who is no factor on the defensive end, Kentucky doesn't have an inside presence. The Wildcats signed a fine recruiting class but it's a class that is long on quickness but quite short on inside power. Skinny Perry Stevenson (6-9, 185) is the only player in Kentucky's recruiting class taller than 6-4.

The Gators will graduate Humphrey and Richard next year and it's likely that Noah, Horford and Brewer will leave a year early for the NBA Draft where they will be lottery picks but don't fret for Florida. Donovan has backed up this year's recruiting class with a 2007 class that promises to be every bit as good with 6-5 point guard/scoring machine Nick Calathes, 6-4 shooting guard Gary Clark and 6-7 wing forward Adam Allen. The Gators are also very much in the running for some of the top inside players in the country including 6-8, 235-pound Patrick Patterson.

The infusion of talent to go with the momentum of a national championship puts Florida in position to become the bully of the SEC. Donovan was close to taking over the league in 2000 but the early defections of Mike Miller and Donnell Harvey to the NBA cut that short. It took another five years to build the team back up to the talent level of 2000 but now the Gators have a lethal combination of talent, depth and the SEC's most stable coaching staff.

Being the workaholic that he is, don't think for a second that Donovan will let the Gators rest on their laurels. Florida won't take over the league on talent alone although the Gators will clearly have more talent than anyone else in the SEC next year and perhaps for the next two or three years. One of the chief reasons the Gators won it all last season was because they wouldn't let any team outwork them so there is no need to think that Florida's very talented team will slack off when it comes to practice and preparation. Hard work, talent, depth and solid coaching add up to a team that has its best days ahead.

The SEC proved that it is as solid top to bottom as any league in the country last year when Florida won the NCAA, LSU made the Final Four and South Carolina won the NIT for the second straight year. It was a superb year for the SEC and next season should be better. Even with Florida's talent and other advantages, winning the SEC will not be a cakewalk but even in a league whose rosters are filled with talented players the Florida Gators sit at the top, the power program that all the other teams aspire to be.

The balance of power has indeed shifted to Gainesville and Dan Werner's signing is positive proof that things just aren't the same as they used to be in the SEC.


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