The buzz turns to basketball

Published: Wednesday, January 15, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 14, 2003 at 10:51 p.m.

It has been difficult to go anywhere in Gainesville this week without the conversation turning to Florida basketball. Your barber, his golf pro, her doctor, the man painting my house.

That's the ripple effect that Anthony Roberson's shot heard 'round the Gator Nation had on those who bleed orange and blue.

They may come after me with white coats and a net for saying this, but here goes: Florida basketball- right here, right now - is bigger than football recruiting.

I feel better just for getting that out.

But that is what has happened in our town. The buzz is about Matt Bonner and Christian Drejer's return and Brett Nelson's slump. Chris Leak? Yeah, great. When do the Gators play again?

That's what consecutive wins over ranked teams will do for a program. Billy Donovan put Gator basketball on the map before the turn of the millennium and has proven it's not going anywhere. Remember when some hair-brained columnists wrote that Florida's run to the national championship game in 2000 was a one-time deal and that Donovan would never be able to have sustained success at a football school?

I've got news for them. This is a basketball school.

Last Saturday, hundreds of students who waited to get in for free were turned away. There was no room at the In Crowd. Undeterred, students began camping out Monday for tonight's Tennessee game. It is also a sellout.

Last week may have been the best week ever for Florida basketball outside of the Gators' two marches to the Final Four. Now, we come to a week that may be even more important for the success of this basketball team.

It starts tonight with a home game against the Vols and extends to Saturday's game at South Carolina. These are games the sixth-ranked team in the country is supposed to win.

But we have seen it already this year that being the better team doesn't guarantee victory. Ask Mississippi State, now 0-2 in the SEC. Or Alabama, which lost at Vanderbilt. Or Oklahoma, a loser to Oklahoma State on Monday night.

How this team handles success will have more to do with its season than the actual success will. The Gators may have learned a lesson when they beat Kansas and turned around to lose to West Virginia.

But nobody really knows. Donovan's players can say all the right things, about how they won't get too full of themselves or be overconfident. Remember, these are kids. They've been hearing everything I've been hearing in triplicate. I doubt Roberson would take five steps on campus this week without hearing how great he is.

It's only human nature to puff your chest out when you are the SEC Player of the Week. For all of these players, it's easy to get your head in the clouds when you are ranked ahead of the two teams in the SEC who were projected as possible Final Four participants, not to mention Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana and the defending national champions, a team you have already defeated on the road.

That's why this week is a more difficult coaching job for Donovan than last week. It's easy to get your team ready to play at Mississippi State or against a team that has beaten you at home for two straight years.

This is the hard part.

The SEC season is a grind. You certainly don't win it before Martin Luther King Day. It may be the big games that define a season, but it's these games that define your team.

All of the glory of last week could be negated by this week if the Gators aren't focused. Tennessee has the players to beat Florida. Ron Slay may be the best player on the court tonight. South Carolina has enough talent, especially at home, to beat Florida. Who could forget the game two years ago in Columbia, when a shot at the buzzer sent the Gators home with a loss?

Florida can't be thinking about LSU on the 28th or that grueling week in early February when Florida goes to Kentucky, then comes home four days later to take on Alabama.

All of those three teams are ranked. Tennessee is not. Neither is South Carolina.

But they all count.

And if Florida is to continue to build momentum, the Gators have to take care of the business between the spotlight games.

Donovan was quick to point out that last year's team got off to a great start, too, then went 7-8 over its last 15 games. Unfortunately for UF, that stretch defined the season.

All last week did was show that Florida is a team to watch, that it can win the big games. Now, we find out if the Gators can win the little ones.

And keep the buzz alive.

You can reach sports columnist Pat Dooley by e-mail at or by calling 374-5053. You can see Pat on "Sports Showdown" with Larry Vettel on WGFL-CBS 4 Friday at 11 p.m. and Saturday at 11:30 a.m.

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