LEXINGTON, KY — To storm the court or to remain traditionally dignified: that was the raging debate in both the print and broadcast media throughout this state Friday on the eve of the Florida-Kentucky game. That college basketball’s best fans are talking about rushing the floor after a win is a sign of how times have changed in the Big Blue Nation.
This is Florida and Kentucky, the Southeastern Conference’s two showcase basketball programs getting ready to square off (9 p.m., Saturday, ESPN) in a game that might be the last chance for anyone to derail the freight train that is the number one ranked Gators (22-2), 9-0 in the SEC and winners of 15 straight games. Kentucky isn’t bad. Not bad at all. In fact, the 20th-ranked Wildcats, with an infusion of very talented freshmen, are 18-5 overall and 7-2 in the SEC. Considering the amount of talent and the parity in the SEC, that’s a really good record but it tends to pale against the Gators who are the NCAA champions and threatening to run the table in the league.
And here is where this story becomes your proverbial sticky wicket.
You see, it’s the Florida Gators that are the burr under the saddle of Kentucky’s legions of fine, well-schooled fans. The Wildcats are college basketball’s all-time winningest program and owners of seven NCAA championships. Florida? Well, the Gators are the Johnny Come Latelys on the college basketball scene. While some might think it’s a great thing that the Gators have come along to challenge the perpetual superiority of the Wildcats in the Southeastern Conference, Kentucky fans tend to hold a much different view.
When you’ve dominated the SEC as long as Kentucky has — try this on for size: seven national championships, 43 SEC championships, 25 SEC Tournament titles, 11 30-win seasons, 51 20-win seasons, 47 NCAA Tournament appearances and 139 NCAA Tournament games — then a certain amount of arrogance can be tolerated and it’s easy to understand why the expectations here are always so great and anything less than upper tier finishes in the NCAA tournament are intolerable.
Florida, on the other hand, has one NCAA title, three SEC championships, two SEC Tournament titles, one 30-win season, 14 20-win seasons, 13 NCAA Tournament appearances and 23 NCAA Tournament games in its history. Kentucky already had five NCAA titles before the Gators had ever made the NCAA Tournament even one time.
Now, understand this: Kentucky fans are proud of what Florida has accomplished, particularly what’s gone on in Gainesville the last 11 years (one NCAA title, one NCAA runner-up, two SEC titles, two SEC Tournament titles, one 30-win season, nine straight 20-win seasons) with Billy Donovan coaching the Gators. Kentucky fans still consider Billy Donovan one of their own. They remember all too well that before Billy D struck out on his own as a head coach back in 1994, he was the energetic driving force in the Kentucky recruiting machine as Rick Pitino’s chief lieutenant. Pitino won a national championship with talent that Billy recruited, and don’t think for a second they aren’t firmly aware that Kentucky’s last national title back in 1997 — coached by Tubby Smith — was spearheaded by recruits that Donovan brought to Lexington.
And if the truth be told, deep down, Kentucky fans hope and pray that Billy Donovan will be Tubby Smith’s successor should Tubby ever decide to coach someplace else. All this brings us to tonight’s game and why it creates such turmoil among the Big Blue Nation.
No matter how proud Kentucky fans are of Billy Donovan’s success — once a Wildcat always a Wildcat they say so deep down in Kentucky-think Billy is a Wildcat — it’s the fact that he has elevated Florida to the national forefront that grates at their nerves. Because this is a what have you done for me lately society, the perception is that Florida has surpassed Kentucky as the Southeastern Conference’s best basketball program. The Gators have had a national runner-up (2000) and a national championship (2006) since the last time Kentucky even made the Final Four (1998).
Talk to Wildcat fans about the differences in Florida and Kentucky basketball and before long the conversation will drift to the passion of the fan base. Kentucky fans proudly point out that they scalp tickets for Midnight Madness and annually lead the nation in attendance at cavernous Rupp Arena, so big and so impressive that it’s been the site of the Final Four. Kentucky fans smugly point out that if the Gators are playing Stetson or Providence or even some of the lesser knowns of the SEC, the Stephen C. O’Connell Center will have plenty of empty seats. Let the Wildcats do a shirts and skins scrimmage in mid-July at 3 a.m. and Rupp would be filled.
How, they ask, can Florida be the premier basketball program in the SEC when its fans can’t consistently fill an arena that’s half the size of Rupp? And in the same breath, they’ll point out that Kentucky used to play in 12,000-seat Memorial Coliseum — it’s the home of their women’s team now — but it wasn’t big enough to accommodate all their fans so they built a palace worthy of a king in Rupp Arena.
Here at Kentucky they proudly point out the 39 Wildcats that have made first team All-America 57 times and the 89 Wildcats that have been drafted by the NBA. Adolph Rupp was long considered the greatest coach of all time and some of Kentucky’s teams were the stuff legends were made of.
This is a program built on pride and tradition that is unsurpassed in all of college basketball so quite naturally they’re miffed up here in Lexington that upstart Florida — even if it’s coached by one of their own — now has a team that folks think might be one of the best teams of all time. Every time you hear one of college basketball’s talking heads mention the Gators as a team for the ages, it is like raking a set of inch-long nails down a chalk board here in Lexington where names like Cliff Hagan, Frank Ramsey, Dan Issel, Pat Riley and Goose Givens are hallowed.
You’ve got the ESPN Game Day crew here for the Saturday night game and they’re all in agreement that the Gators are the best team in the country. You’ve got Dennis Felton, the Georgia coach who has beaten Kentucky and lost to the Gators twice, saying that if Florida shows up and plays like it has all season then Kentucky has no chance to win. You’ve got Mike Pratt, a former UK All-American and the color analyst on the Big Blue network, saying that unless Kentucky brings its Double A Plus Plus game and Florida has somewhat of an off night, then there is no chance for an upset. Pratt, who is as steeped in Kentucky tradition as anyone since he played for Rupp, said (on a sports talk show “The Afternoon Underdogs” Friday) that he wouldn’t mind it if the fans at Rupp Arena storm the court if the Wildcats pull off the upset Saturday night.
When Kentucky traditionalists are sanctioning a storm the court atmosphere, it’s a sign of just how much things have changed here in Lexington. The attitude has always been act like you’ve been there before. Other teams storm the court because they beat Kentucky. For Kentucky to knock off a top team? Well, that’s what Kentucky’s been doing since the peach basket and jump ball after every made basket days. For now, however, there is a pervading feeling that if Kentucky doesn’t do something quick to whack the Gators at their kneecaps that the Wildcats might be what Florida sees in the rear-view mirror for a long, long time.
In reality, the SEC needs Big Blue to be strong. Because of its traditions, because of its long winning history and all the banners that hang from the Rupp Arena rafters, the national perception of the SEC is that it can’t be all that hot of a league if Kentucky isn’t up there fighting for championships. Another reality is that no matter the present perception, the shadow that Kentucky casts is very long. As long as there is tradition and facilities like they have here in Lexington, UK is just a hop, skip and a jump from contention for the Final Four and that’s actually good for the conference.
What the conference needs and traditions aside, Kentucky needs to win this game and needs it badly. That’s why you can expect a sense of urgency in the way the Wildcats play Saturday night. They’re not used to being underdogs at Rupp. They’re not used to being considered second best. To change that, they need a zoo-like atmosphere at Rupp to spur their team on. Win and Big Blue is back in the national perception as a team to be reckoned with. There’s a lot at stake for Kentucky.
Don’t think for a second that Donovan and the Gators are taking this one lightly or that they are unaware of the implications. They understand completely what this game means to Kentucky and they know that a Florida win means the SEC championship is Florida’s for the taking. They also understand that if they are going to be truly considered one of the great teams of all time they have to show up big in big games on the national stage.
And if all those things aren’t enough to make this a game of real magnitude for the Gators, then consider what’s at stake on the recruiting front. Patrick Patterson is still out there, still considering the Gators along with Duke and Kentucky. With Duke fading (three straight losses) and Kentucky on the ropes, a Florida win could seal the deal for the 6-9 power forward deluxe out of Huntington, West Virginia. The Gators already have a top five recruiting class assured with Nick Calathes, Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus and Adam Allen. If Florida lands Patterson, the basketball Gators will certainly match Urban Meyer’s football Gators in landing the top recruiting class in the country.
So while the Big Blue Nation wonders how things ever got to the point that they’re resorting to calls to storm the court, don’t think for even a millisecond that this isn’t a big game for the Florida Gators. The Gators are the NCAA champs and they are staking a claim as the SEC’s best basketball program, but as always, being the best means you have to win in Lexington. It will be a long time before that changes.