UF MEN'S BASKETBALL
Gators close in on history-making SEC campaign
Published: Friday, March 7, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 9:13 p.m.
Florida is knocking on the door of a historic achievement.
If the No. 1 Gators beat Kentucky in the regular-season finale at the O'Connell Center on Saturday, Florida (29-2, 17-0 Southeastern Conference) would become the first team to make it through an 18-game SEC schedule unblemished.
LSU radio personality Jordy Hultberg knows firsthand the challenge of trying to win all 18 league games. Hultberg was an assistant coach on an LSU team that went 17-0 in the SEC before falling to Kentucky at Rupp Arena in the final conference game of the 1980-81 season.
“Just like Florida-Kentucky (now), LSU-Kentucky back then was a heckuva rivalry that had been developed over the years,” said Hultberg, who played shooting guard at LSU from 1976-80 before joining head coach Dale Brown's staff. “It was special. It was very, very hard because you got everybody's best shot because they wanted to be the team that stopped you.”
LSU lost 73-71 when Kentucky center Sam Bowie blocked LSU forward Howard Carter's shot from the baseline in the closing seconds.
“We thought he got fouled on the follow-through after the shot, but they didn't call it,” Hultberg said.
Hultberg recalled Kentucky pulling out all the stops for the game.
“Kentucky changed their seating arrangements for that game and they went all out,” Hultberg said. “Their student body was dressed in blue-and-white tuxedos, and they put the band right behind our bench. So for every timeout they were blaring, just trying to do whatever they could.”
LSU went on to finish the season 31-5, reaching the Final Four before losing to eventual national champion Indiana.
“We didn't think about it early,” Hultberg said. “That wasn't a goal of ours. We wanted to win every game, but we didn't say let's go undefeated in the league. But once you get closer, you get 10 wins in a row, you are going, 'OK, let's look at the schedule, let's see who we have.'
“It was disappointing when we lost, but we, just like (Florida), we had much bigger goals in mind than to just go undefeated in the league. It was all about getting to the tournament and winning the whole thing. But it was hard, it really was.”
Hultberg said he sees several similarities between the current UF team and the LSU 1981 team. Like Florida, LSU was a veteran group that relied on scoring balance. Like Florida's Scottie Wilbekin, LSU 1981 point guard Ethan Martin, was a defensive ballhawk who played with poise and made big shots in clutch moments.
“I hope Florida gets it,” Hultberg said. “I hope they go undefeated. That would be great. I'm a big Billy Donovan fan. I think he does a tremendous job. Again, it's hard to do, but there are so many similarities between the two teams.”
It's far from an easy feat. The SEC played 18-game schedules in men's basketball from 1966-67 to 1990-91, before cutting back to 16 league games when it expanded to 12 teams. When the SEC expanded to 14 teams in 2012, it resumed an 18-game schedule in the 2012-13 season.
During that span (26 seasons), only two other teams besides LSU went 17-1, Kentucky in 1970 and Kentucky again in 1986.
Kentucky went unbeaten three times through a 16-game SEC schedule (1996, 2003, 2012). In two of those seasons (1996, 2012) the Wildcats moved on to win national championships.
Following UF's 72-46 win over South Carolina, Florida coach Billy Donovan downplayed the chance for a historic achievement. Donovan was more concerned about how his four senior starters will react following emotional pregame Senior Day ceremonies.
“The biggest thing that I'm focused on right now is us being emotionally ready to play on Saturday,” Donovan said.
Florida senior center Patric Young said the chance to go 18-0 in the SEC has been a byproduct of hard work during the course of the season.
“Coach has pushed us from Day 1, laid down the foundation for us to achieve what we're doing today,” Young said. “We've all bought into it. We all love each other. We all push each other. We all compete every single day in practice.
“We do everything it takes to become great, and just the fact that we're seeing the fruit of that and have the opportunity to go 18-0 in conference is just a blessing. And hopefully we keep our heads on straight, humble, go into the game and get it done.”