Posted by MATT JONES
Admit it, you haven't thought about Florida basketball at all this season. I can't blame you. Billy Donovan and the Gators have given college basketball fans little reason to care about their exploits not only this season, but really over the last few years. Following the perfect storm of chemistry and talent that led to the 2006 and 2007 NCAA titles, the Gators have become perpetual disappointments, going from the elite of college basketball to a team languishing in the netherworld of NIT berths and NCAA first-round flameouts.
This season started with little difference. The Gators followed up a thorough whipping by Ohio State with two losses to in-state rivals Central Florida and Jacksonville. The signal was clearly sent to the world that once again Donovan's group could be an afterthought, good for a couple of Tuesday night games versus Kentucky and Tennessee, but little else of interest. There was no reason to think that Florida would even win the SEC, much less matter nationally, so we could all go back to speculating whether Billy D should have followed his initial instinct and gone to coach the Orlando Magic.
But now Florida may be requiring us to pay them attention once again. After Thursday night's 71-62 victory over Georgia in Gainesville, the Gators moved to 11-2 in the SEC and 22-5 overall. While the rest of the SEC East's top contenders have fallen all over each other in a race towards mediocrity, Florida has won games in a very quiet, under-the-radar style. John Calipari and Bruce Pearl have gotten the headlines, but Billy Donovan has the wins. His team has one of the most balanced starting lineups in college basketball and now looks potentially undervalued at No. 13 in the polls.
Against Georgia, the Gators showcased what has fueled their latest run of success. Their dynamic "feast or famine" scoring guard Kenny Boynton scored 12 straight points in the middle of the second half to turn a tied game into a 10 point lead that the Gators would not relinquish. His ability to create points quickly is unmatched by all but a handful of guards in America and when he plays under control, he can be a thrill to watch. Teammate Chandler Parsons, returning after injury, added 16 points and found a way to contribute on both ends of the floor, despite being in the middle of a continued shooting slump. And former Gator centerpiece Alex Tyus continued his secondary role as the team's do-it-all big man, getting key late stops against Georgia star Trey Thompkins.
With the win, it is time to officially take Florida seriously. But are they simply a good team with a strong conference record, or are they a real March threat? The Gators have won most of their close games, but they are in involved in way too many of them against teams that true contenders would outclass. How can a team that I should take seriously be involved in a nip and tuck game against LSU, score only 45 points in a road victory versus Auburn and lose at home to South Carolina? Whereas the other top teams in America beat down their worst opponents, Florida is the SEC's generous soccer mom, giving everyone a chance to stay in the game, no matter how untalented.
The next three games will tell us a great deal about how good Florida really is relative to the other national contenders. Billy Donovan's team will go on the road to Kentucky and Vanderbilt with a game at home against Alabama for the regular season conference title sandwiched in between. While the Gators have won against the Wildcats and Commodores at home and swept Tennessee in Gainesville and Knoxville, this stretch represents the three toughest games on the Gators’ SEC schedule.
Whatever happens during the final stretch, what is clear is that quietly Billy Donovan has brought relevance back to Gainesville. Florida is situated in a position to win its first SEC title since 2007 and will be a dangerous lurker in a top seed’s bracket come Tournament time. We don’t yet know just how good this Florida team really is. But the Gators are finally back in the discussion. And that in and of itself represents great progress.