Mark Story: Should Florida be considered the best SEC men's hoops program?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 13, 2014 

  • Coaches vs. Cats

    Coaches with the most wins against Kentucky:

    Coach Record vs. UK

    Dale Brown 18-33

    Ray Mears 15-15

    Bobby Knight 15-18

    Roy Skinner 14-18

    Billy Donovan 14-26

    Dean Smith 13-3

In terms of the best SEC men's basketball program of the 20th century, there was as much debate as there is over the question 'Name the greatest rock band from Liverpool, England?'

There was only one answer. It was the Kentucky Wildcats.

To the great credit of Billy Donovan and the coaching job he's done at Florida, however, there is very much an argument over which men's hoops program — UF or UK? — has been the SEC's best in the current century.

Donovan's No. 3 Gators (22-2, 11-0 SEC) will be in Rupp Arena on Saturday night to face No. 14 Kentucky (19-5, 9-2 SEC). The game is apt to determine whether Florida will face a competitive race as it bids for its third Southeastern Conference regular-season title in the past four seasons or claims it in a walk.

If the Gators win in Rupp for the first time since 2007, Mike Slive may as well send the league championship to Gainesville now. If Florida loses, it will still be in the catbird's seat to win the SEC title but might have to sweat it out through Kentucky's visit to the O'Connell Center for the March 8 season finale.

What has separated Donovan at Florida from other SEC coaches who challenged UK for SEC superiority — think Babe McCarthy at Mississippi State, Ray Mears at Tennessee, Dale Brown at LSU, Nolan Richardson at Arkansas — is that Florida has been able to sustain its bid over the long haul.

In fact, since the 1999-2000 season, there is a compelling argument that Florida, not UK, has been the SEC's marquee men's hoops program. Let's break down how the two programs have fared in the 2000s in three substantial areas:

March Madness success

Since 2000, there have been 14 NCAA Tournaments. Florida has played in 12 of them; Kentucky, too, has played in 12.

Over the time frame, Florida has 29 NCAA tourney wins (29-10). It has advanced to the round of eight six times, made three Final Fours and won two NCAA titles (2006 and 2007).

Kentucky has 27 NCAA tournament victories (27-11). It has made the round of eight five times, advanced to two Final Fours and won the 2012 national championship.

SEC performance

In the 2000s, Florida has won 164 regular-season SEC games (164-73). It has won outright or shared five regular-season SEC championships. The Gators have claimed three Southeastern Conference Tournament titles.

UK has 176 SEC regular-season victories (176-61) and has won outright or shared six regular-season league titles. The Cats have won the SEC Tournament five times.

Head-to-head

Since the 1999-2000 season, Kentucky and Florida have played 32 times, and the series has been characterized by extreme pendulum swings.

Tubby Smith-coached UK teams beat Florida eight in a row from 2001 through the first of three meetings in 2005. However, buoyed by the nucleus of Joakim Noah, Al Horford etc. ..., the Gators then ripped off seven consecutive victories over UK.

Since Donovan turned down, for a second time, the chance to be Kentucky's head coach in 2009 and the Wildcats turned to John Calipari, Cal has won eight of his 10 meetings against Billy D.

In the 2000s, Kentucky is 5-9 against Florida in Gainesville, 12-2 versus the Gators in Lexington and 3-1 against UF in SEC Tournament contests. That adds up to a 20-12 Kentucky record head-to-head against Florida.

The verdict

So, Kentucky or Florida, which has been the SEC's best men's basketball program so far in the current century?

Overall, one can make a credible case that more NCAA tourney victories, more Final Four appearances and a 2-1 edge in NCAA titles argues for Florida. However, UK has the upper hand in terms of SEC success and a fairly decisive edge on the Gators in the head-to-head.

With that, and because the NCAA Tournament comparison between the two is so close, I'd give an ever-so-slight edge to Kentucky for the title of best SEC men's hoops program of the 21st century so far.

Given the overwhelming historical dominance of men's basketball in the SEC by Kentucky, the fact that Donovan has made this debate into such a close call is, in a big-picture sense, already a win for Florida.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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