Whether or not the Florida Gators are the best team in the country remains to be seen. For now, though, the Gators will settle for being the best in the SEC.
And they proved that in a vein similar to how they proved to be better than their last several opponents- by hanging in there for most of the game, and then dominating the end.
On the other hand, there’s Kentucky. Every year, John Calipari brings in a highly touted recruiting class. And every year, the feeling among Kentucky fans is, “THIS one is the best ever, THIS one will win a championship”, and this class, highlighted by Julius Randle, was no exception. The problem is, that sentiment is rarely played out on the court. Calipari has brought in five recruiting classes, and so far, only one has won the national championship (though it’s mathematically possible this one will also win it all). That’s a percentage the realistic UK fans will take any day of the week- one national championship every five years- but for every one class that proves to be worth its hype, there are four more that, at some point or another, will get shown up by a better team, and this is one of them. Whether that’s in the Final Four or round one of the NIT is another question, but the bottom line is, at some point, the youth will show against some team- a team with more experience, depth, firepower and hunger.
This year, Florida is that team.
Kentucky seemed to be cruising along midway through the second half. Down 36-34 with 16 minutes to play, the Wildcats responded with an 11-2 run that included James Young and Andrew Harrison going off, and several minutes of suffocating defense. With 11 minutes to go, Kentucky led 45-38… exactly the point in the game where Florida teams of years past would make a bad situation worse by thinking they could snap a cold streak by putting up some bad shots, and ultimately wind up going scoreless for long periods of time, just like they did last year against Kentucky.
Not this team.
Instead of folding in a winnable situation, this team maintained its composure despite Kentucky leading by 7 at home. The Gators outscored Kentucky 31-14 from that point on, including the final five points in the last 1:57. Florida gradually chiseled away at the 7 point deficit until it became a lead. After giving it back briefly to Kentucky at 48-47, John Calipari got called for a technical foul (excessive whining, probably) and Scottie Wilbekin made the two free throws to give the Gators a lead they would not relinquish- and the senior class the first, and only, victory they’ll ever get at Rupp Arena.
Think about that fact, now. Coming into this game, Calipari’s UK teams were 81-2 at home, including 11-0 against ranked opponents and 4-0 against the Gators. And Florida’s had some pretty good teams over the past three seasons- each team went to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, and two of them won the SEC regular season championship. Yet for all their accomplishments, one thing these seniors (Will Yeguette, Casey Prather, Patric Young and Scottie Wilbekin) could never do was get a victory in Lexington. So cue the sound of Mario snatching up his 100th gold coin- they’ve got one now.
Kentucky needed a win more, because of its inferior positioning in the national rankings and SEC standings. But Florida wanted it more, because they’d much rather not make the return game in Gainesville mean anything in terms of the SEC standings, and a UK win would have made the rematch a de facto SEC Championship Game if the two teams had won out. The Gators’ victory all but ensured Florida the SEC Championship, with six games to go and a three game lead (and with Auburn, Vanderbilt and South Carolina still to play).
And because they wanted it more, they got it.
Florida didn’t even win all the effort stats. They just won the last eight minutes. But in those eight minutes, the Gators went 12-14 from the free throw line, outrebounded Kentucky 6-4 (including a monster board from Casey Prather), stole a pass and last but not least, scored on every single offensive possession.
That last part is due in part to a new presence of patience in the offense- a patience that younger versions of this team did not have. Scottie Wilbekin, if he has a weakness, is his tendency to sometimes scrap the offense and just try to make something happen, playground style. Not last night. His moves were calculated, and precise, and it reflected on the rest of the offense. Florida swung the ball around very well when they wanted to, and the entry passes inside were never lazy like they sometimes are. Wilbekin did miss several jumpers, but he got fouled on each one of them- and hit every single free throw until the very end when the game was clearly over.
If there’s one thing above all others to take away from this game, it’s that this may be Billy Donovan’s best team ever, and I say that with the utmost respect to the 04’s. But think: this team hasn’t lost a single game when healthy, and hasn’t lost to a team it shouldn’t have, EVER. This team beat Kansas, Tennessee (twice) and Florida State- none of which the 06-07 team (the better of the two) can say. And then there’s the eyeball test, which this team wins, too. This team is in every game it plays, while that 06-07 team got blown out several times down the stretch in SEC play.
There’s still plenty of basketball to play, of course, and this is about the point in time that the 06-07 team began losing games they shouldn’t have. But as of right now, this team inspires a feeling in the audience that no Florida team before it has. When it comes to crunch time, this team will pull it out. No matter how good or bad Florida plays, they have proven themselves to be absolutely money in the basketball equivalent of the money quarter- the last ~10 minutes of the game or so belong to the Gators.