Have the Gators grabbed the SEC baton?
With Saturday's 95-80 win over UK, Florida has now beaten its hated rival three straight times. But as Andy Katz explains, the heart of the Gators' success lies nowhere near the court. Story
• Florida runs past Kentucky
• Tennessee moves to 7-1 in SEC play
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida coach Billy Donovan admittedly didn't know what he had with this sophomore class.
Sure, he knew he had talent in Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green. But he had no idea how this crew was wired. He couldn't have imagined that this group would be so selfless, so free of the baggage that he has had to deal with on his past teams. Three of the four had famous fathers, not dominating summer-league coaches that would rule their world.
And, so, as we rush into February on our way to March, Florida is starting to shine. The Gators' second-half dismantling of Kentucky on Saturday night in which they took a two-point halftime deficit and spun it into a 95-80 rout was a sign of things to come.
Sure, the Gators are still a game behind Tennessee in the SEC East standings. And, yes, they have lost two road games in conference -- at Tennessee and at South Carolina. But the reality is that the Gators are on to something special with this group. Donovan knows it. The players sense it. And if this crew doesn't get wooed in the offseason by agent-runner vultures, then this program is set for at least another season.
"I can't sit here and say that Al Horford would be like this or Noah would be like this," Donovan said. "I knew the talent level, but they don't play as well right now if they don't have the right frame of mind, the makeup mentally. These guys are a throwback. Most kids are wrapped up in themselves. But when these guys lose they are sincerely devastated.
"They've been able to keep a level of humility and don't think they're better than they are," Donovan said.
We can wax on about the particulars of Florida's win over Kentucky. And there are some facts that need to be mentioned, like the balance from Green's 29 points at the point (nine assists, four turnovers and three steals); Noah's 26 points, eight boards and three blocks; Brewer (who hadn't started the past two games because of a bum ankle) scoring 16, dishing out four assists and collecting two steals; Horford putting up a double-double (11 and 11); and then forward Chris Richard adding 10 off the bench.
But there's a bigger story here. The reality is that Florida clutched the baton from Kentucky and is beginning to run. Sure, Tennessee is atop the standings but the Vols haven't visited Kentucky (that's Tuesday) or Florida (Feb. 22).
LSU is in a similar situation to Florida on the other side of the conference, with a loaded stable of underclassmen. But the Tigers lost their first game of the conference season Saturday at Alabama, and they still have to go to Florida (Feb. 11). But a Tigers-Gators SEC hierarchy for the next month, and season, isn't a reach.
Kentucky coach Tubby Smith called this Gators team the most talented of any he has faced with Donovan as coach. That's saying something considering the pros that have come through here, or rather the ones who thought they were pros well before they probably were ready to make the jump (Mr. Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh).
"We're aspiring to be what Kentucky is in college basketball," Donovan said. "I love coaching these guys. We played against a team that has all the tradition. We're striving to get to that point and you've always got to start somewhere."
Donovan is being too kind and playing the political game. Florida has won three straight in the series.
"When we got here everyone said you can't beat Kentucky, Kentucky always wins," Brewer said. "But we were like, 'Come on. It's just another team.' We knew we could win and we're 3-1 against them. It's hard to be better than that. This feels good but we're supposed to win. We're seventh in the nation."
And Kentucky isn't ranked. That alone should speak volumes to where the programs are at this juncture.
"This is a great feeling, to beat Kentucky," Noah said. "But I know we have to play them again in their building [March 5] and I realized that as soon as I was winding down on the court. They're going to remember that, just like if they did that in their building [blow out Florida] I would see that and use that as motivation. Right now it's a great feeling but you've got to put it in perspective."
Noah, Horford, Brewer and Richard are all long and cause plenty of matchup problems. That was apparent in the second half as the Wildcats struggled to take care of the ball (nine of their 17 turnovers were in the second half). Florida said it was the aggressor in the second half. And that's true. But once again there is more here. This Gator team understands how to play together, and clearly wants to stay together. Will they beyond this season with only one major minute player -- forward Adrian Moss -- a senior? Who knows? But if they do, then it's obvious that Donovan has a team, a program that is paving quite a path. Sure, the Gators have been a top 10 team since he went to the title game in 2000. But the teams have often faded in February and March and they lacked the feeling that there was something unique about them. This squad has a different feel, look and overall vibe that could make this program the spot for the next two seasons.
"It's funny," Noah said. "Yesterday Taurean woke me up and said, 'Hey man, I love you, you're like a brother to me.' I said that's kind of weird for a dude to come up to you and say 'I love you,' but hey, we're like a family here. It always feels good when you win and we're like brothers. We love each other."
Love? Who knows? All we do know is that something special is going on down here that Donovan hasn't had since he arrived in Gainesville 10 years ago. And we're including the national runnerup team of 2000. This team might not get as far, but it's clearly a more unique group, one that Donovan is saying has been his favorite to coach.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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