No need for undefeated talk when SEC is priority
Published: Saturday, January 26, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 25, 2013 at 10:09 p.m.
Maybe I paid more attention to things on the television during my two weeks of downtime while my new hip settled into its socket. (For example, I had no idea how many times “The New Adventures of Old Christine” is on the air in a given day.) And most of you would probably tell me I should be used to “jump-the-gun” analysis from ESPN's family of networks.
But it was during the Florida-Georgia game Wednesday night that they flashed it — the fact that no team in the SEC has ever gone 18-0 in conference games.
At the time, Florida was struggling with Georgia, but that's not why it startled me. It startled me because it's crazy to think about any team going undefeated in conference play in any conference. And it's even crazier to worry about it.
I'm sure it's not on the mind of Billy Donovan. He knows how easy it is to walk into an opponent's arena with the better team and get overwhelmed by white noise and fan sweat. And he also knows that the only goal right now is to win the SEC. If these Gators go 16-2 or 15-3 or whatever it takes to win the conference, that's all that really matters.
This is a basketball program that — for all its success under Donovan — has only five SEC titles in its history (four of them under Donovan). SEC championships may be blase at Kentucky, but not here.
I get why it has been and will be talked about. It has been 21 years since any SEC team could go 18-0. In 1991, the league last played 18 conference games but switched to 16 when the SEC went to 12 teams to accommodate an SEC football championship game.
The result was that many of the conference's coaches used those two extra non-conference games to pad their win totals and — and I know I'm way out on a limb here — I believe that the soft scheduling eventually took its toll on the league and turned it into mush.
But that's another story for another time.
You're going to hear a lot about this 18-0 stuff if Florida gets past Mississippi State, especially because it could set up a battle of unbeatens next Saturday night when Florida faces the other SEC unbeaten — Ole Miss.
Florida is a veteran team, which is always good for dealing with expectations. There isn't a whole lot that Kenny Boynton and Erik Murphy haven't seen during their four years at UF. The Gators also benefit from not having one guy who you can shut down and stifle their offense. Kill the head? Which head?
Oh, and I like their coach. Donovan keeps getting better. (This is where Jimmy Dykes or some other talking head usually inserts the, “He's not Billy the Kid any more. He's Billy, the dean of SEC coaches.” That was cliche four years ago.)
I remember a conversation I had with Donovan after the 2007-08 season. That Gator team was the first in 10 years not to make the NCAA Tournament. It was following a team that had won two straight national titles.
“Dools, I feel like we had to start all over again,” he said.
That's never easy. When the Oh-Fours left, they took with them not only tons of talent, but experience and basketball IQ. Donovan had to start from scratch and it took him awhile to get the right chemistry. We've seen it the last two years with runs to the Elite Eight. And we're seeing it again this year with a team that is embarrassing SEC opponents.
But that comes with a caveat. We all know the SEC isn't very good. After two weeks of watching every college basketball game that was on the tube, I can tell you that is a correct assessment. I believe the conference is getting better. And for many of those teams, beating Florida would make their season.
It's similar to beating Kentucky. The Wildcats are struggling, and we all know why. Last year was the perfect storm because John Calipari was able to mix an incredible freshman class with veterans who were hungry and knew what was coming. This year, it's just a bunch of talented kids who don't get it yet.
But it doesn't matter when they put that Kentucky jersey on. Everyone wants to beat the 'Cats.
Florida's brand has grown so much under Donovan that it's a big deal to beat the Gators as well. You're not only beating a top-10 team with an unbeaten conference record and an impressive RPI, you're beating the team that won two NCAA titles not that long ago.
That's why it will be tough from here on out. Don't forget, the SEC schedule is always back-ended for UF (two games v. Kentucky, Ole Miss and Alabama at home, Missouri on the road).
And this is still a team with a seven-man rotation with two of the seven (Murphy and Will Yeguete) playing through injuries. Even when Casey Prather comes back, this team is eventually going to hit a wall because of all of the minutes that have been played.
Still, a 5-0 SEC start has set them up to do something special.
But it's not about winning them all. It's about winning enough.
That's all that really matters.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.
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