Gators weren’t supposed to be this successful in Calipari era

Florida coach Billy Donovan walks off the court after the Gators' 78-69 win over Alabama at the O'Connell Center on Feb. 8.

Matt Stamey / Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 28, 2014 at 8:43 p.m.

The way time flies as you age, it seems like only a few months ago. But it was 2009, back when Tim Tebow-led Florida football was the dominant story and Billy Donovan was trying to rebuild his basketball program.

After the ultimate successes of 2006 and ’07 and Donovan’s brief NBA marriage, he had missed two straight NCAA Tournaments. There were misguided whispers that Donovan had lost his passion after the flip-flop.

And as if things couldn’t get much worse, Kentucky kicked Billy Gillispie to the curb after only two seasons and hired John Calipari.

That was it. It was over for the other SEC teams. With Calipari’s ability to recruit and Kentucky’s tradition and fanbase, there was little point to even play the conference season.

His first class was ranked No. 1 and won the SEC, while losing only twice in conference play. Thanks for coming, fellas. It’s a one-horse league and a bunch of nags.

Except, something happened. Florida snuck into the NCAA Tournament that season, the first sign that Donovan had things headed in the right direction. And what has happened since has been truly remarkable.

With Florida’s win over Vanderbilt on Tuesday night, the Gators clinched a share of the SEC title. On Thursday night, Arkansas did Florida a favor (not that UF really needed it) by completing an overtime sweep of the Wildcats and clinching the outright SEC title for the Gators.

That’s three in the last four years for Florida. It should be a source of immense pride for the Gator Nation, especially when you stop and really think about what Donovan and his teams have accomplished.

You don’t want to give all of the credit to the four seniors who have been a part of the three titles because that would diminish the efforts of Chandler Parsons, Vernon Macklin, Erik Murphy, et al. But this class is the first in Florida history to capture three SEC titles. And that’s a pretty big deal.

You can downgrade the SEC as a basketball league all you want. I can’t really defend the quality of play over the last two seasons. There will be arguments heading into the NCAA Tournament that Florida’s sparkling SEC record is fool’s gold, depending on how many teams get into the field.

To this I say one thing — Kentucky is still in the league, right?

I know that teams and seasons are judged by how they finish in the Big Dance. It’s what we do, whether it’s fair or not.

I just think it’s important to point out the way everyone felt four years ago, before this magical run began.

Because nobody saw this coming.

Not with Kentucky picking and choosing McDonald’s All-Americans like Calipari was shopping at Tiffany’s with an unlimited black American Express card. Not with one-and-done players flocking to Lexington as if they were lemmings leaping into the Big Blue Sea.

The SEC was supposed to be Kentucky’s playground, a place to have fun and get ready for the tournament that really matters. Maybe that’s one reason why Florida has been the best team in the league over the last four years.

I know. Kentucky has been in two Final Fours and won a national title during this four-year stretch. I understand that the Wildcats have won 10 NCAA Tournament games to Florida’s nine during this run.

But in SEC games, Florida heads into Saturday’s game against LSU with a 52-13 record to Kentucky’s 49-16 over the last four years. There’s not a big difference there, except when it comes to counting SEC championships.

Those still matter around here, and it’s a testament to Donovan’s abilities to not only recruit and coach but to win. Because the quality of the league isn’t what matters. In the SEC, beating Florida is a huge deal, almost as big as beating Kentucky. And there are enough good players in the league to make every game — every team that wants to be a SportsCenter highlight — a potential loss.

We’ll see what happens the rest of the way. As several people have pointed out, even if Florida doesn’t win another game it won’t lose as many games as the football team.

They’re used to that at Kentucky. Just as they’re used to winning the SEC.

Just not lately.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at And follow at

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