This list was more than a little bit easier to come up with since the Gators only had five NCAA bids and five 20-win seasons prior to Billy Donovan's arrival a dozen years ago.
One again as a reminder, I'm looking for seasons that were not only excellent ones, but those which may have been historic, unexpected and/or trail blazing. With that, let the countdown continue.
#5 -- 1986-87 ----- It had been six years since Norman Sloan had been brought back to resuscitate the Gator basketball program and to this point the results had been mixed. Florida had made it to the postseason for three straight years, but each of those trips was to the NIT. The previous year had seen the Gators reach the Final Four of the NIT, which set the stage for this season.
Gator fans were optimistic because most of the key players were back from the 19-game winners. Vernon Maxwell (19.6) and Andrew Moten (16) were prolific scorers and the new 3-point line was made for sharp shooting forward Joe Lawrence (10.4). But the big, and I do mean big addition, was 7-foot center Dwayne Schintzius from Brandon. Schintzius brought desperately needed size to the Gators, along with excellent shot blocking skills and a soft shooting touch. Add in Melvin Jones to a bench that included Pat Lawrence and Chris Capers and the Gators were deep and talented.
The Gators lost their season opener at Florida State as Schintzius struggled in his transition to college ball. But the Gators quickly clicked and ran off eight straight wins, scoring 82 points or more each time. The Gators went to Hawaii for the Rainbow classic, dropping two of three games to enter the New Year with a 9-3 record.
Florida beat Georgia and both Mississippi schools before suffering their first SEC loss at Kentucky. Four wins followed, caped by an exhilarating 90-80 overtime win over a strong Alabama team. All of a sudden the Gators were 16-4, 8-1 in the SEC and contenders for Florida's first NCAA bid and first SEC Championship.
The Gators kept it going, wining 4-of-6 to reach the 20-win mark for just the second time in school history. The Gators were 12-3 and still in the SEC race before losing their final three conference games to finish four games back of ‘Bama. Still a second place conference finish and 21-9 record was a tremendous accomplishment, one that couldn't be diminished by a first round SEC Tournament loss to LSU.
The Gators were sent to Syracuse for the first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history. To add to the atmosphere, Florida drew Sloan's former team, North Carolina State in the first round. Wolfpack Coach Jim Valvano was extremely complimentary of Sloan the day before the game when he was asked about the program he had inherited from "Stormin' Norman". When the game got underway Maxwell and Moten combined for 47 points and 14 rebounds leading the Gators to an 82-70 win.
Round two matched the Gators against Big Ten Champ Purdue and most expected the Gators season to end right there. It didn't. Schintzius outscored All Big Ten Center Melvin McCants 21-8 and Maxwell added 24 points to send the Gators to the Sweet 16.
It was off to the Meadowlands in New Jersey for the Gators as they challenged the Syracuse Orangemen. The New York media seriously over-hyped comments Schintzius made about matching up with ‘Cuse big man Rony Seikaly, and that was magnified when Seikaly had a huge game with 33 points. Still Florida led by five when Derrick Coleman made a spectacular block of a Moten drive to the basket to ignite a 23-12 run down the stretch. Florida's greatest season ever was over at 23-12.
I chose this season for obvious reasons. The Gators had never been to the NCAA Tournament before and had rarely contended in the SEC. That they also made it to the Sweet 16 makes it one of the eight best seasons to this date.
Questions or comments? Contact FightinGators.com's Larry Vettel
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