When Florida and Kentucky took the court in Gainesville, one team was trying to cap off one of the best seasons in SEC history, including a perfect 18-0 conference record. The other team had began the season with one of the highest-rated recruiting classes in history, and even higher expectations (the UK 40-0 promotional shirts admittedly were a ridiculous idea even before the season started). So on the final weekend of the regular season, it was Kentucky that had failed to live up to their preseason #1 ranking. Florida, on the other hand, spent much of the season ranked behind Arizona and Syracuse before reeling off 23 consecutive wins and a likely number one seed in the NCAA tournament.
Their most recent win finished an impressive 18-0 SEC record. The last regular season victory culminated one of the winningest four-year spans for Florida basketball. After three consecutive trips to the Elite Eight, this group of seniors has a great chance for a return to the Final Four for the first time since their 2007 national championship. No freshman phenom highlights the Florida roster; this team was developed into a championship contender over the past four years. In the “one-and-done” days, when each top prospect is already circling NBA draft night on the calendar, this Florida team showed that players committing to improving each year can build a great team.
The parity was made clearer against a Kentucky team that perennially collects the nation’s top recruits before sending them to the NBA. On Saturday, Kentucky started 4 freshman. Florida started 4 seniors, who combined for 51 points, including key baskets in the second half that put the game away. How fitting that their final victory occurred on Senior Day. This was supposed to be Kentucky’s year, led by a band of teenagers ready to waltz through a national championship on their way to the NBA. Instead it’s Florida that has captured the national spotlight, showing exactly what can be accomplished by a team that commits to a goal and believes in the system.
After Florida won the 2006 national championship, all 5 starters committed to returning the following year, and vowed they would repeat as champions the following year (they did). Maybe there’s something about sunny Gainesville that makes players want to stick around, but whatever the reason, Billy Donovan is again coaching a determined, experienced team ready to make another championship run. This is a tribute to a team that has improved, developed, and focused their efforts into another postseason run, highlighted by the leadership of senior players.
It’s hard to fault any talented player for entering the NBA draft. Not everyone can pass up a pro contract for another year playing of college ball. Yet although the lottery picks steal much of the media attention, let us not so quickly forget the great teams that rebuild, set goals, and improve every year. After all, that is one of the best aspects about sports: the accomplishments of a team can emerge greater than the sum of its parts. Each season, teams bring in great recruiting classes with tremendous potential. If they commit to improving every year and focusing on a larger goal, there’s no limit to what they can accomplish. We only wish that more players would stay long enough to find out. AN