Don’t look now, but Florida Gators men’s basketball might be on the cusp of turning things around after a very difficult final year under Billy Donovan. Oh, and the Florida women’s basketball team? It’s in the process of what could potentially be the best season in program history.
Before the 2015-16 season began, new Gators coach Mike White was careful not to predict much success for his team, especially considering he’d only spent so much time with his players during offseason practices.
During a Gator Gathering speaking engagement in Delray Beach, Florida, White said he anticipated that it would take some time for UF to come together due to all the new players and an entirely different coaching staff. It would take at least until Southeastern Conference play – if not longer – for Florida to realize its potential and make some strides.
After starting the season 6-1 beating up on mostly weak nonconference competition, the Gators lost five of their next nine games, going 0-5 against the best teams they faced (0-4 versus ranked opponents). That rebound that White predicted? Oh, it’s happening with Florida going 5-1 since Jan. 16. The Gators have pulled out close victories and obliterated opponents, including a tremendous 88-71 win over No. 9 West Virginia last Saturday.
In between was an embarrassing effort from UF in a 60-59 road loss to Vanderbilt; don’t let the score fool you, hot shooting by Florida inside the final minute is the only reason the score was close. (That same Commodores team blew out No. 8 Texas A&M 77-60 on Thursday, which eases some of that sting.)
The defeat was also the only time in this six-game span that the Gators scored fewer than 80 points. Somehow, a Florida team that just two-plus weeks ago ranked as one of the worst teams in the nation shooting the three and hitting free throws is averaging 86.2 points per game in those five victories.
“Somehow” may seem like an open-ended question. It’s not. The Gators have hit 43.4 percent of their threes and 73.3 percent of their free throws since Jan. 16.
Redshirt senior forward Dorian Finney-Smith is a big reason for Florida’s recent success with five double-doubles in his last nine games and four 20+ point contests in his last five. The straw that stirs the Gators’ drink is not alone, though, as freshman guard KeVaughn Allen has posted double-digit point totals in his last six games, continuing his emergence.
But if what Florida’s men’s team has accomplished is impressive, what’s going on in a separate locker room inside the Stephen C. O’Connell Center is other-worldly.
No one would have blinked if athletic director Jeremy Foley had decided to fire women’s head basketball coach Amanda Butler in the offseason. Her teams have underwhelmed and underachieved throughout her tenure, and off-court problems have led to diminished rosters that stood in the way of success.
But Foley believed in Butler, and to her credit, she took his advice to clear our most of her coaching staff and start fresh. That, coupled with her strong recruiting, has the Gators’ women’s team on the verge of a potentially unprecedented season in Gainesville, Florida.
Florida has not advanced to the Sweet 16 since 1998 or Elite Eight since 1997; the Gators have only made it to the second round a total of eight times in the 22 seasons since they first participated in an NCAA Tournament play-in game. The reason? Aside from a miraculous upset, UF has historically been a middle-of-the-pack team that won games it was supposed to but failed to measure up against top competition.
That is just not the case in 2015-16. Florida started the season 12-1, following up an opening-night loss at Temple with a huge victory over No. 6 Florida State. The Gators hit a bump against No. 8 Mississippi State on Jan. 3 but have gone 7-3 overall since the calendar changed and now stand 4-2 against top 25 opponents following consecutive victories over No. 12 Kentucky (85-79 on Sunday) and No. 12 Texas A&M (83-81 on Thursday).
And just like that, a Feb. 11 showdown at No. 2 South Carolina – a game that most would shrug off any other season – becomes one of the most important regular-seasons contests in program history. Florida at 19-4 is ranked No. 22 in the nation but will most certainly be higher when the new polls are released Monday. The Gamecocks are 21-0 with a game Monday … against unanimously No. 1-ranked UConn. UF will travel to Columbia, South Carolina, fully rested fresh off a rare week without a game.
The men certainly have it tougher, too, with a showdown against reeling but still ranked and relevant No. 20 Kentucky in Lexington on Saturday. The Wildcats would like nothing more to sink their collective teeth into the Gators to get over back-to-back losses.
There appears to be something special happening on the hardwood in Gainesville. The only question that remains is how long it will continue.