The instant Ramel Bradley’s three-pointer clanked on the rim Saturday night in Lexington, it was like the mute button had been hit on Rupp Arena. A jumping joint only two seconds before turned into a funeral wake as 24,465 fans watched and could only shake their heads in disbelief as the Florida Gators celebrated their 16th straight win of the season and their fifth in a row over Kentucky.
It’s hard to imagine that the Gators have won five in a row over the Wildcats. Actually, it’s hard to imagine that any team has ever won five in a row over Kentucky, the winningest and most storied program in the history of college basketball. UCLA may have more national championship banners hanging from its rafters, but you would be foolish to think that the Bruins have more tradition and mean more to college basketball than Kentucky.
By beating Kentucky five games in a row, the Gators are in elite company and they are threatening to become the signature program in the Southeastern Conference which has long been the domain of the Wildcats. When Lee Humphrey came to Florida, he thought it’s possible to beat the Wildcats but he never dreamed the Gators would own them.
“I always thought it was possible to beat them even though they did beat us pretty good my freshman year,” said Humphrey Monday afternoon.
He thought it was possible. Emphasis on possible.
The look on his face told you that Florida has definitely exceeded his expectations. Now that he’s been part of five straight wins over the fabled Wildcats, he doesn’t just think Florida can win. He KNOWS the Gators are going to win even if the lettering on the front of the opponent’s jersey says Kentucky.
“We go into every game now feeling that if we play well we’ve got a good chance to win,” said Humphrey. “I think our team is very confident.”
The Gators are confident and they play that way. They played one of their worst games of the season Saturday night at Rupp and they still won against a very good basketball team. The Wildcats may not be at the top of the SEC these days, but that’s not to say they aren’t really, really good. They are a lock for the NCAA Tournament and they’ll probably be no worse than a number four seed.
The Gators won Saturday because on a night when at times they couldn’t have found the ocean if their shots couldn’t have found the ocean from the end of the pier they still played tough defense, especially on the perimeter. Kentucky missed 19 of its 22 three-point shots including the one that Bradley tried at the end of the game to try to send it into overtime.
On post game radio analysis and Sunday morning shows devoted to the Wildcats, one analyst after another lamented Kentucky’s rotten shooting. Well, Florida didn’t exactly burn it up from three-point land, either. The Gators went 5-17 for the same reason Kentucky went 3-22.
“We had a little bit to do with that,” said Corey Brewer. “We had hands in their faces.”
The Gators had hands in their faces. They also came up with just enough loose balls and clutch rebounds and they made just enough tough plays down the stretch to walk away with a win in Rupp. It was the first time that any number one team has come to Rupp and beaten the Wildcats, which not only tells you how great the Kentucky mystique but also just how good the Cats have been all these years.
Right now, Florida is the best team in the SEC and probably the best team in the nation. The Gators have won the last two SEC Tournaments, which Brewer knew as “The Wildcat Invitational” when he signed with Florida. Now the Gators are on the verge of the regular season SEC championship — they’re 10-0 with a three-game lead on their closest competitor, Kentucky, with six games to go — and the oddsmakers say Florida is a sure thing to make the Final Four and a probability to win the whole thing a second straight year.
Since the arrival of Brewer, Taurean Green, Al Horford and Joakim Noah on the Florida campus, the Gators are 80-16. They’re 56-8 in the last two years and it will take an upset of rather large proportions for them to lose the rest of the way this season. Should the Gators repeat as the national champions, they will go down in history as one of college basketball’s best teams of all time.
And still, even if the Gators accomplish that, there will be plenty of folks that cling to Kentucky as the best basketball program in the SEC. They’ll do that because Kentucky has the best facilities in the league, the best and biggest fan base, the most tradition and a cadre of powerful, monied boosters who tell the powers that be in the UK administration to spend beyond what’s necessary and they’ll cover the checks.
That’s powerful, but all the money in the world — and if you see some of the horse farms that surround Lexington you might be inclined to think that all the money in the world is within a two-hour radius of Lexington — can’t buy the one thing that Florida has, which is chemistry. The Gators have it and that’s why they’re at the top.
The chemistry the Gators have among their five starters is well documented. Every time Florida plays on television or the basketball team is talked about on Sports Center or some call-in show, that’s the word you’re going to hear, but the chemistry extends far beyond the five starters. It’s there with the guys on the bench and it’s there with the guys wearing the suits at the front end of the bench. Donovan has chemistry with his assistant coaches Donnie Jones, Larry Shyatt and Lewis Preston. Their chemistry extends through the support staff and down to the players.
You could call them one big happy family and you wouldn’t be wrong because these guys are the closest thing to family that you will find anywhere. That has everything to do with chemistry.
But chemistry is a fragile thing. So much of it depends on timing and Florida’s chemistry would be drastically altered if not for good timing.
Humphrey, the nation’s most feared three-point bomber, grew up a Tennessee fan. He’s from Maryville, spitting distance from Thompson-Boling Arena and Neyland Stadium. If you see him on the Florida campus, you’re liable to see him sporting an Indianapolis Colts cap. He’s a Colts fan because his hero growing up was Peyton Manning, the ex-UT quarterback.
When Humphrey was setting shooting and scoring records at Maryville, Buzz Peterson was the coach at Tennessee. He wasn’t interested. He didn’t think Humphrey fit his style.
“That kid can play for me any day,” Bruce Pearl told me this summer in Augusta. Pearl will never understand why Peterson didn’t offer Humphrey. Pearl succeeded Peterson and he’s made the Vols a success by spreading the court and launching three-balls unconsciously. Humpers long range jump shot would be a perfect fit in that system.
Bad timing for Bruce. Good timing for the Gators. Good chemistry is the result for Florida.
Kentucky’s coaches had seen Corey Brewer play one game in high school. They scheduled a visit to Portland, Tennessee to watch him work out. Tubby Smith was there and by the time the workout was over, he wasn’t so impressed. There would be no scholarship offer for Corey Brewer.
“He [Smith] saw me play once and I had like 35,” said Brewer, “but he came to see me work out and I had just come from track practice.”
A couple hours of high jump, long jump and triple jump practice had sapped him of his energy and taken all the spring that was in his legs. Brewer admits he couldn’t get off the ground like he normally does. Billy Donovan had seen Brewer play so many times that he didn’t have to see a workout to know “The Spiderman” could play. Tubby may not have offered but Billy did. Kentucky’s loss was Florida’s gain.
After watching Brewer take over the game in the last minute Saturday, and seeing how he’s been an integral part of five straight wins over the Wildcats, it’s a safe bet that Smith and the Kentucky coaches are wondering what the heck they were thinking.
“They had a good recruiting class that year,” said Brewer.
Kentucky got Randolph Morris, Ramel Bradley, Joe Crawford and Rajon Rondo in that class. Florida got Brewer, Horford, Green and Noah. Kentucky’s class was supposed to lead the Wildcats to the promised land but let’s face it, Kentucky isn’t exactly wilderness when it comes to the NCAA Tournament and these guys haven’t led the Wildcats anywhere.
Florida’s class was supposed to be good, but no one thought they would ever lead the Gators to the promised land. But then again, no one ever thought Moses would do what he did about four thousand years ago, either. He came out of the desert and did his thing and history was changed.
The Oh-Fours (Noah, Horford, Brewer and Green) Plus One (Humphrey) have done their part to lead the Gators out of basketball’s wilderness and into the promised land. They may not have had the kind of talent that jumped off the pages at you when it all began, but they had the chemistry.
And just as important, they had the timing. They were in the right place at the right time and everything fit perfectly.
Florida is sitting on top of the SEC and has a chance to set the nation on its ear a second straight year. It really is all about the chemistry and the timing and right now, nobody has those two elements working better than the Gators.