When you watch the Florida Gators this year, even without knowing they have been ranked in the top 10 throughout the year, you know you are watching something special. A special team with a special opportunity. Florida has been playing at a very high level and but for a couple of brief, though costly, spells of sloppiness, have maintained that high level against strong competition this year. I thought as the SEC schedule gets into full swing, it was a good time to try to find the proper perspective with which to view their current streak.
Streak? They are on a streak? Many may not have even realized that the Gators basketball team is on a big win streak. After all, seems like we just lost a couple of contests. But that was eight games ago. At the national elite level of Billy Ball, is a mere seven-game win streak really a significant achievement? Whether it is or not, the margins of victory over this streak surely have caught many eyes across the nation, prompting some to put Florida squarely in the conversation as possibly the best team in the country or at least one with a very strong case for the Final Four and national title possibilities. Seven straight beat downs against quality foes. Does it mean anything at this point in the season?
Now, the keys to reaching the Final Four and winning the whole bucket o’ brackets include favorable matchups, an easier path set up by upsets on other branches of the bracket tree, injuries, the luck of the bouncing ball, etc. Seven-game win streaks in January do not factor heavily into national championship runs.
However there are certain artifacts throughout a season that can signal potential for deep tourney runs. One of those artifacts is the ability to play consistently every game, at every venue, no matter the injury situation, the turnaround time between games, or the quality of opponent (and sometimes it is the lesser opponents that provide the bigger challenge in being emotionally prepared for battle). Florida has overcome and played through all of those obstacles this year. And provided there are no tectonic changes for the team before March, a long impressive early or mid-season win streak can serve as a bellwether for March Merriment.
First let’s look at how often we’ve even had a seven-game win streak. After all, seven games doesn’t seem like a terribly long streak, and given how successful the Gators have been under Donovan, looking over the past seasons you’d expect there to be a bevy of them. But to dig through the evidence, that actually is not the case.
In the 17 seasons that began in the campaign that ended in 1997, the Modern Age of Florida basketball the Billy Ball Era (and heretofore, I will dispense with clarifying this distinction each time) — the Gators have had win streaks of at least seven games in 11 seasons. So nearly 70 percent of the seasons under Donovan. You would have thought there would be more, but that’s still a pretty large portion of the basketball seasons.
However, the Gators are now in their second seven-game win streak of the season. How often have Billy’s teams had more than one winning streak of at least seven games? That is far more select company. Only four times prior to the current season have Donovan teams had multiple win streaks of seven or more games. Were they significant indicators of success in the NCAA tournament? Here are those three seasons:
Streaks: a seven-game streak and an eight-game streak
March Result: Second round loss to Temple
Streaks: a 17-game streak and an 11-game streak
March Result: National title with win over UCLA.
Streaks: an eight-game streak, a 17-game streak and a 10-game streak
March Result: National title with win over Ohio State.
So, in the only three other seasons in which the Gators had multiple win streaks of seven games or more, two of them resulted in national titles and the other was a season one game away from the Sweet 16, that followed the national title game appearance in 2000 and which was a team that was expected to go much deeper into the tournament if not for a March phenomenon that took over the program for the next five seasons. That is the window in which the Gators entered the NCAA tournament highly seeded and were upset in the first weekend. Across that stretch, the Gators were seeded No. 2, 3, 4 and 5 twice, and lost to teams seeded fifth (when Florida was fourth), seventh, 11th, 12th and another 12th. Donovan had begun to garner a tag of not being a good tournament coach, despite bringing a very young team to the title game in 2000. However, the next two seasons netted him national championships and that briefly held reputation was flipped on its ear.
Now there have certainly been longer streaks than seven, as evidenced by the streaks listed above in the other three years. However, it is not just the length, but the impressive average margin of victory that helps to set this streak apart. In the two streaks this year, the Gators have amassed collective margins of victory of 177 and 162 points, equaling 25.3 and 23.1 per game, respectively. In the 11 seasons in which the program has logged win streaks this long or longer, only five times have those streaks achieved an average margin of victory of equal or greater than 23.1. Those years again share elite distinction, as they include all three seasons that ended in national title game appearances, as well as 2001 and 2002 — outstanding teams that were caught in the vortex of shocking early NCAA exits.
So the streaks are in very good company, but there is another level to which this year’s streaks distinguish this team: level of competition. When you compare the seven-game streaks where Gator teams have averaged at least the 23.1 point margin of victory of the current streak, here are the “quality wins” over either SEC opponents or tournament-quality teams that were recorded during the streaks:
2007: Zero (more than eight games)
2000: Gonzaga (more than nine games)
2001: Georgia (more than 7 games)
2002: Michigan State, FSU, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt (more than 13 games)
2006: Miami (FL), Georgia, Mississippi State, Auburn (more than 12 games)
It bears repeating that this list only considers the streaks with the huge average winning streaks. Obviously both national title winners had at least six tournament teams in their final streaks of the season (i.e., the opponents in the tourney), but the average margin of victory in those and other years was not as large as the MOVs in this year’s two streaks.
In the two seven-game win streaks this year, the Gators have brought down the following SEC or tournament-quality opponents:
Wisconsin, Marquette, FSU, Missouri, Texas A&M, LSU, Georgia and Georgia again.
Three of those came in the first streak, while five of them were beaten in the current streak. The second streak alone matches the total quality wins of any of the other five seasons, and the two streaks combined nearly double the number of combined quality opponents taken down in all streaks of the other seasons with the high MOVs. And to elevate this year’s streak over that of 2002, the five quality wins in 2002 were spread out over a 13-game span; all five quality wins in the current streak were consecutive.
It also bears noting that all of the long winning streaks that matched or eclipsed the current streak’s 23.1 point average margin of victory came in the first half of the season, either fully before the SEC schedule started or they were ended very soon after the SEC slate began. The current streak is farther into the SEC schedule than any of the other five seasons. The 2000, 2001 and 2007 season streaks did not extend into the conference slate, while the 2002 and 2006 streaks reached three games deep before coming to an end by either a loss (2006) or a close win that dropped the win streak below the 23.1 margin of victory standard (2002). The current streak is now five games deep into conference play, where blowout wins become scarce (as do any assured wins, no matter who the opponent — just ask Duke).
This may not scientifically portend a deep tournament run, but it certainly does highlight a perspective that puts this season’s team in a very special light compared to the best seasons in Gator history — which by definition during the years of Billy Ball puts it among the best college seasons in the nation over the last 17 years. It will be very interesting and I predict a ton of fun to see how long the Gators can maintain the current streak, and if the gaudy margins of victory will continue to hold up through the grueling grind of the SEC slate. And of course when the regular season is over, it will be extremely interesting to see if it once again foreshadowed a trip to the national title game as it has the majority of the time in the past. Until then, remember that every day is a gift, that’s why they call it the present.