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.
Once 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, we move on to the three finest non-NCAA Title seasons Gator basketball has ever had.
#6 -- 1998-99
#5 -- 1986-87
#4 -- 1966-67
#3 -- 1988-89 ----- After two straight NCAA bids most felt the Gator basketball program had "arrived". Not only had the Gators been a part of the "Big Dance", they also had been SEC runner-up for two straight years. This season began with concerns about replacing the backcourt of Vernon Maxwell and Ronnie Montgomery, but the Gators had proven quality up front with Dwayne Schintzius, Livingston Chatman and Dwayne Davis. Florida also returned Renaldo Garcia and Clifford Lett and welcomed high school stars Johnny Walker from Quincy and Cesar Portillo and Jose Ramos from Miami.
Well things didn't start well with Walker and Portillo failing to qualify academically and the Gators struggling to find chemistry on the floor. Schintzius was suspended for three game for his infamous "tennis racket" incident when he responded to someone throwing a beer bottle into a car he was in by whacking the guy on the head with the racket.
The Gators got beaten badly by FSU and Illinois and dropped their first two SEC games on the way to a 5-7 record and a road trip to Georgia. It was in Athens that the most dramatic in-season turnaround in school history ever occurred. Head coach Norm Sloan got into an argument with Ramos, the disappointing point guard, during practice and the rookie threatened his coach. "Take your hands off me old man or I'll knock you out". Ramos said. Sloan sent Ramos to the bus station, inserted Lett into the starting lineup and the Gators began to look like a basketball team. They beat Georgia that night and returned home for an 87-82 win over South Florida. A loss to Kentucky, win over Auburn and loss at Tennessee followed, leaving the Gators at a cross roads.
With an 8-9 record (2-4 in the SEC) the Gators were in danger of having the '89 season slip away, but Lett simply would not let that happen. Florida beat Mississippi State and then won the most remarkable game ever at Vanderbilt.
The Commodores had a very good team and seemed to have the Gators beat when they forced a turnover with one second left, leading by two points (72-70) when a plethora of tennis balls came streaking down from the crowd at Memorial Coliseum. The balls, obviously designed to taunt Schintzius for his indiscretion instead got the crowd a technical foul. The big fella made both shots to force overtime and then scored the first seven points in the extra period to key an 81-78 win.
The Gators would win their next nine SEC games as well, clinching at least a share of the SEC Title in Baton Rouge. Thousands of fans showed up at the commuted side of the Gainesville airport to welcome home the first SEC Championship team in Florida history.
The '89 team reached the finals of the SEC Tournament before falling to Alabama in the final. An exhausted Gator team then got an early Thursday game in the NCAA Tournament and barely put up a fight in losing to Colorado State 68-46.
No Gator basketball team ever overcame more than this one did. Not only did they have recruits not qualify, but another top signee, Stacey Poole tore his Achilles tendon, too. The point guard got fired and the team was below .500 after 17 games and yet they won the SEC Title. It's easy to see why this is one of the greatest seasons in Gator history.
Questions or comments? Contact FightinGators.com's Larry Vettel
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