Narrowing this list down to six seasons was easier than last week's football series because the Gators only had five NCAA bids and five 20-win seasons prior to Billy Donovan's arrival a dozen years ago. This has been particularly fun for me because I have been along for the ride for all but one of these six sensational campaigns.
Some may argue this list, and I look forward to that input. Still, to me it's clear what was the best season in Gator history prior to the NCAA Titles in 2006 and 2007. This season stands out because it had everything you could ask for in a great season… almost. But what it did more than anything else is put Florida on the college basketball map.
#6 -- 1998-99
#5 -- 1986-87
#4 -- 1966-67
#3 -- 1988-89
#2 -- 1999-00
#1 -- 1993-94 ----- Of the best seasons in school history this one was probably the least expected. The Gators were coming off a 16 -12 season, but were encouraged about the addition of Ben Davis giving them a much needed low post scoring threat. However, Davis was dismissed and it looked like this season would be a third straight NIT trip at best.
Then came the shot heard ‘round college basketball. Dametri Hill who showed up weighing in the mid 300's and contributed all of 17 points as a freshman had lost what Coach Lon Kruger described as "the equivalent of a third grader". In addition, he had patented what one of my radio show callers dubbed "Da Meat Hook", a baby hook shot that let the 6-7 Hill score over much taller opponents.
But the thing that made this team so special is what made 2006 such a great year, chemistry. Dan Cross and Craig Brown gave the Gator a mature backcourt that could score (30.5) rebound (8.8) and defend. Brown for my money goes down as the best leader UF has ever had and this team reflected that every time out.
The Gators opened with five wins before dropping a ten-point decision to Florida State. Another loss to Louisville in Hawaii was the only other blemish in an 11 game pre-conference slate. The Gators opened the new year with five straight wins including an eye opening 59-57 decision over Kentucky. This team was living up to its motto, "Find a Way".
A road loss to Alabama was followed by five more SEC wins and the Gators were now 19-3, 8-1 in conference play and headed for a showdown with league powerhouse Arkansas. The Razorbacks won that one, a 99-87 shootout, but the Gators bounced back with three more wins. Losses at Vanderbilt and Kentucky took the Gators out of SEC Title contention, but the regular season still ended up impressive with a 23-6 mark and a 12-4 SEC record, good enough to share the SEC East title.
The Gators made it to the SEC Tournament final, losing to Kentucky, but Florida had earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It was the first bid for the Gators under Kruger and just the fourth in school history. Florida was sent to Long Island to play James Madison and struggled to a 64-62 first round win. Cross (16) and Brown (15) combined for almost half the team's scoring. Next up was Pennsylvania and after a slow start the Gators advanced 70-58. Cross led the way with 22 while Hill added 16 to send the Gators to Miami for the Sweet 16.
Florida loved having the home state advantage when they faced Connecticut in the Miami Arena. They also loved watching UConn star Donyell Marshall clang a pair of free throws, helping to send the game into overtime. Florida outscored the Huskies 12-3 in the extra session, and the Gators won 69-60. Boston College was a surprise team in the elite eight having upset Indiana. The Eagles were a very talented team led by center Bill Gurley and they were no pushover. In fact they led the game 56-53 with about five minutes to play when Brown tied the contest with a 3-pointer. The Gator senior then blocked a shot by Gurley and hit another 3 at the other end. Another stop preceded another Brown long-range shot and the Gators were up by six - 74-66 was the end result and the Gators were in the Final Four.
It was surreal to walk into the Charlotte Arena and see the Florida banner hanging from the rafters along with college hoops bluebloods Duke, Arkansas and Arizona. I was plenty happy just to be there, but the Gators certainly weren't content. Florida led Duke at the half 39-32 and stretched it to a 13-point lead before Grant Hill went nuts. He not only scored 25 points to go with six rebounds and five assists, but Hill shut down Brown, limiting the Gators' top scorer to eight points. Duke got the win, but the Gators of 1993-94 proved a Final Four team could be built in Gainesville. Billy Donovan would come on board two years later and would eventually prove a whole lot more.
We hope you enjoyed the countdown and look forward to your feedback. Next week, we look at the best non-national title seasons in all other Gator sports.
Questions or comments? Contact FightinGators.com's Larry Vettel
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