UF women's basketball looks for progress report vs. UT
Published: Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 12, 2011 at 5:24 p.m.
The Florida women's athletic program has a storied tradition of success. In 11 sports, the program has won 92 SEC team titles and 12 national championships.
At a glance
Who: No. 5 Tennessee (15-2, 3-0 SEC) vs. Florida (12-5, 2-1)
Where: O'Connell Center
When: Tonight, 7
Gainesville TV: Cox channel 259
Gainesville Radio: 99.5-FM
But a look at the trophy case would reveal a missing piece.
Women's basketball is the only sport not to have won a conference title other than the year-old lacrosse program. While allowances can be made for lacrosse, the basketball team can point to the stranglehold that Tennessee has had over the conference the past two decades.
When the Gators host the No. 5 Volunteers today at 7 p.m., it won't be a test of dominance as much as a progress report for the Florida program.
UF has made a habit of playing Tennessee tough in the O'Connell Center under coach Amanda Butler. Her teams are 1-1 against the Vols in Gainesville, including a 66-57 win in 2008 and a narrow 66-64 defeat last season.
In her fourth year as head coach, Butler has begun to change the mindset of a program that for decades has been stuck in the middle of the conference. She's expanded her recruiting base from the Southeast to the rest of the nation and begun to wake up a program long thought to be a sleeping giant.
"You have to go out and recruit some of the best players and get them to understand that it's all about a team effort and not about individuals," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "(Butler) does that very, very well."
Summitt knows a thing or two about building programs. Her 1,052 career wins at UT nearly double the 601 that Florida has compiled over 37 years. She took the basketball team when it awarded no scholarships and raised it to become one of the school's biggest breadwinners.
"It does take time," Summitt said. "But there's a lot of players out there that want to be in the SEC and have a chance to play on that stage. I think that enhances the opportunity for other SEC teams to be able to recruit those players."
Butler began recruiting as soon as she was hired to replace Carolyn Peck on April 13, 2007. At that point, Florida's recruiting base barely extended beyond the southern Tennessee border. She's since lured top players like Azania Stewart (Wood Green, England), Brittany Shine (Sacramento, Calif.) and 2011 commit Carlie Needles (Highlands Ranch, Colo.) to join her budding organization.
"It was just her vision," Shine said. "She knows where she wants the program to go and she sold me on that. I wanted to be a part of her vision and be a part of what Florida is going to become."
After four years, Butler now has a roster that boasts just one senior and six underclassmen and features the type of tough defense and pace-setting offense that she envisioned when she was hired.
"There's a mentality that you're trying to instill and there's an expectation that you're trying to bring to the court," Butler said. "That's not just when you're playing a quality opponent like Tennessee, but when you go to the practice court every day and say 'This is how we must practice not just to win ball games, but to seriously consider ourselves a contender in this league'."
Butler and her Gators have had their vision challenged along the way, and tough losses earlier in the season to Brown and Hampton prove that there are still growing pains, but a 2-1 SEC record, including a 64-52 win over then-undefeated and nationally ranked Arkansas, show that progress is being made this year.
UF has also won the respect of Van Chancellor, who built Mississippi into an SEC power between 1978-1997, won four WNBA titles with the Houston Comets and has reinvigorated a stagnant LSU program in recent years.
"In the Southeastern Conference, unless you get really, really lucky while you're trying to build a program, it's not going to happen overnight. By lucky, I mean you get a superstar," Chancellor said. "But (Butler) has done a great job and she's building it the right way. They're on their way. I see a great deal of improvement in that program and I don't see anything but a bright future for them."
That future includes a lot of work if the program is to come near Florida's string of 19 conference titles in volleyball, 17 in swimming and diving and 10 in soccer. It'll take effort beyond Butler's to approach the high-bar mark of 24 set by tennis, which bests all women's sports programs in the SEC.
With the foundation that Butler has laid, and her vision clearly in focus, she thinks it's just a matter of time before the numbers come, the alarm is set off and the giant awakens.
"It's really hard to get good in the SEC, because everyone is so good, the coaching is so good and the players are so good," Butler said, "but I like where we're at and I like the way we're playing and where we're headed."
Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.