Kentucky men face savvy, lucky Florida team

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 6, 2014 

  • Conference perfection

    Division I teams that have finished conference play undefeated with 18 or more games:

    Season Team Conference Record

    2013-14 Wichita State Missouri Valley 18-0

    2009-10 Butler Horizon 18-0

    2007-08 Davidson Southern 20-0

    2004-05 Pacific Big West 18-0

    1992-93 New Orleans Sun Belt 18-0

    1991-92 UNLV Big West 18-0

    1990-91 UNLV Big West 18-0

    1987-88 Temple Atlantic 10 18-0

    1986-87 UNLV Big West 18-0

    1983-84 Temple Atlantic 10 18-0

    1974-75 Indiana Big Ten 18-0

    1975-76 Indiana Big Ten 18-0

    1938-39 Long Island U. Metro New York 21-0

    1937-38 New Mexico St. Border Intercollegiate 18-0

    1927-28 Oklahoma Missouri Valley 18-0

    1923-24 Texas Southwest 20-0

  • Comparing unbeatens

    How this year's Florida team compares to the most recent four SEC teams to post an undefeated conference record:

    Season Team Record Avg. margin Single-digit wins

    1955-56 Alabama 14-0 18.6 ppg Three

    1995-96 Kentucky 16-0 24.2 ppg One

    2002-03 Kentucky 16-0 15.9 ppg Five

    2011-12 Kentucky 16-0 16.4 ppg Five

    2013-14 Florida 17-0 12.8 ppg Eight

  • Undefeated SEC seasons

    1932-33 Kentucky 8-0

    1933-34 Kentucky 11-0

    1934-35 LSU 12-0

    Kentucky 11-0

    1936-37 Georgia Tech 10-0

    1937-38 Kentucky 6-0

    1943-44 Tulane 4-0

    Georgia Tech 2-0

    1945-46 LSU 8-0

    Kentucky 6-0

    1946-47 Kentucky 11-0

    1947-48 Kentucky 9-0

    1948-49 Kentucky 13-0

    1950-51 Kentucky 14-0

    1951-52 Kentucky 14-0

    1952-53 LSU 13-0

    1953-54 Kentucky 14-0

    1953-54 LSU 14-0

    1955-56 Alabama 14-0

    1995-96 Kentucky 16-0

    2002-03 Kentucky 16-0

    2011-12 Kentucky 16-0

Before playing at Kentucky last month, Patric Young noted Florida's historical ambitions this season. "This team is really striving for greatness," he said.

Now, the Gators stand on the threshold of something remarkable.

Florida is one victory from the first 18-0 regular-season record in the history of Southeastern Conference. Ironically, the last team standing in the way is Kentucky, which began this season amid talk of achieving college basketball's first 40-0 overall record.

Of course, Kentucky lost its third game of the season and hasn't come close to reaching such lofty heights.

Despite the possibility of historic achievement, those who have watched SEC basketball for decades do not consider Florida as the league's greatest team of all time. They don't even consider these Gators the best Florida team ever. That distinction goes to the national championship teams of 2006 and 2007.

"They certainly aren't one of the (SEC's) very best," said former UK Coach Joe B. Hall, who's played, coached and watched SEC basketball for more than half century. "They probably rank somewhere in the top 10."

The diplomatic, almost qualified salutes to Florida evoke a line often spoken by Hall of Fame sportswriter Bob Ryan: "On an island full of blind people, the one-eyed man is king."

By any measure, SEC basketball this season is not highly regarded. Aside from Florida, the only other ranked team — and the only other team receiving a vote — in The Associated Press top 25 in recent weeks is Kentucky, barely holding on now at No. 25 and seemingly deep-sixed as a national contender.

In the non-conference portion of the schedule, SEC teams had a 4-15 record against top 25 competition.

"I don't think those guys are great," former Georgia Coach Hugh Durham said of the Gators. "But what they've accomplished is great."

No team in a BCS conference has compiled an 18-0 regular-season record within its league since Indiana in 1976. Of course, that's partly a reflection of teams not playing that many conference games many seasons.

But no matter the number of games, the list of unbeaten champions in the top leagues in the last 60 years is not long: four in the SEC, five in the Atlantic Coast Conference, five in the Big Ten and four in the Big 8/Big 12. The Pacific 10/Pacific 12 has not had an unbeaten regular-season champion since UCLA went 14-0 in 1977-78.

So what to make of Florida possibly running the table this season in the SEC?

Wimp Sanderson, who coached Alabama for 12 seasons and prior to that served as an assistant for 20 years, suggested the SEC's weakness actually enhances what Florida has done.

"The reason it does is because it's more difficult to get your basketball team ready to play against teams your team thinks isn't any good," he said. "That's where coaching comes in. Where you sell your team on this (opposing) team can beat you. If we're struck on ourselves and we think we're hot stuff, that's when you get your fannies beat."

Florida's fannies remain untouched.

But of the SEC's last four unbeaten champions, Florida has exhibited the least dominance. The Gators have the smallest average margin of victory (12.8 ppg). By comparison, Kentucky's national championship team of 1995-96 had an average margin of victory of 24.2 points while posting a 16-0 regular-season SEC record.

Tubby Smith's Kentucky team of 2002-03, which holds an unofficial record of some sort by going 19-0 against league teams (16-0 in the regular season and 3-0 in the SEC Tournament), won by an average of 15.9 points.

John Calipari's national championship team of two seasons ago beat all 16 SEC opponents by an average margin of 16.4 points.

"I don't think (Florida is) the best team ever," said Sonny Smith, who coached at Auburn for 11 seasons and now works as a color commentator on the radio broadcast of Tiger games. "The record might indicate that. But I don't think they are."

Some of the SEC's most accomplished coaches — C.M. Newton, Nolan Richardson, Eddie Fogler, Hall, Sanderson, Durham and Smith — all credited Billy Donovan for fashioning an efficient and productive team.

"I think Billy Donovan is one of the absolutely best coaches in the country," Fogler said. "He does a great job. Wow!"

Sanderson noted how Donovan will play man-to-man or zone defense, press, trap and otherwise vary strategies.

"To me, that's a sign he has a lot of confidence in everything he does," the former Alabama coach said.

Added Richardson: "Florida is good, but Billy Donovan is better."Richardson, like Donovan a transformative figure in SEC basketball, noted how the Gators have been consistently efficient while comfortable playing a full-court style at a fast pace.

"To me, that's harder to teach than half-court offense and half-court defense," the former Arkansas coach said. "It's a different game when you play Billy's team. ... It's not all about 'A' goes to 'B' and 'B' goes to 'C.' It's about decisions.

"To me, the game is about decision-making. If you make good decisions ... you're going to be a pretty good damn team, and Billy's been able to do that."

Florida, which is led by four seniors, has won eight SEC games by a single-digit margin. By comparison, the league's last four unbeaten champions won five (UK in 2011-12), five (UK in 2002-03), one (UK in 1995-96) and three (Alabama in 1955-56) such games en route to perfection.

Florida's ability to win so many close games shows "they're well disciplined," Hall said. "They are a team that respects ball possession, and they don't beat themselves. In close games, they fall back on that experience. And they remain calm, yet very efficient. That's what experienced teams do."

Good fortune also helps. The Gators could have — maybe should have — lost at home to lowly Auburn. But with the game tied inside the final 30 seconds, Auburn inexplicably fouled Young, who made both free throws, and then threw away the inbounds (and the last chance to win).

"That shows you how tough it is to go undefeated," Fogler said of Florida's escape. "Florida got lucky."

Smith acknowledged doubts about Florida as this season began. The former Auburn coach did not think the Gators shot the three-pointer well enough to do something like an 18-0 record.

"They've proven me wrong," he said. "Mostly, Michael Frazier has proven me wrong."

Frazier made a school record 11 three-pointers on Tuesday to help Florida explode past upset-minded South Carolina 72-46.

"I watched the game at South Carolina," Newton said, "and I thought this could go the way of Kentucky."

South Carolina upset Kentucky three nights earlier.

"Then all of a sudden, those seniors just willed it," Newton said. "They know how to play basketball."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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