It really doesn’t matter what happens. Whether it is this year, next year, ten years from now or ten years ago. The SEC basketball game of the year is always going to be the season-ending clash between the Gators and Wildcats. The game of the midseason is always going to be the first Florida-Kentucky matchup. It doesn’t matter how things change – they will always stay the same.
When it Began
The SEC game of the year was not always Florida-Kentucky, of course. This is because over most of the history of SEC basketball, Florida was a non-entity. Frankly, before UF-UK became the premier rivalry in the conference, there really wasn’t one. In the 81 seasons that the Southeastern Conference has played the sport, Kentucky has won 46 titles. That’s a 57% clip. Some of them were shared, so the entire rest of the conference combined was won 51 titles. Two of them were won by Georgia Tech. One was claimed by Tulane. The only team outside of the ‘Cats that have won more than ten titles is LSU, with eleven. One reason LSU-Kentucky never became the SEC game of the year is that the Tigers averaged six years between titles. No consistency. It was close in the 1980s, when LSU won three titles from 1979 to 1985 while Kentucky won four. LSU lacked the star power that puts a stamp on a top conference rivalry. The teams of Shaquille O’Niel and the erstwhile Mark Jackson (known to the younger generation as Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf), did not occur until the 1989 and 1990 seasons. And the two of them combined to win only a single SEC title, and it was shared with the mighty Mississippi State Bulldogs. Additionally, from 1985 to 2006, they went 20 years between outright SEC crowns.
There is no doubt however about which SEC matchup claims the game of the year title now, and for a long time. When did it begin? One might think it began when the Florida program rose to prominence, but that was certainly not the case. Florida basketball really hit the scene in 1987 in the last year of the Andrew Moten-Vernon Maxwell combo in Gainesville, with a Dwayne Shintzius kicker, when they led the team to its first-ever Sweet Sixteen, in fact its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance. But in the four years of the M&M boys, the Gators finished second, third, fourth and fifth in the league. Still not even a factor. Two years later, the Gators finally broke through with their first SEC title. But Kentucky wasn’t even in the picture that year. The ‘Cats were 13-game winners after cheating their way to a retroactively vacated title the year before. The biggest game of the year that season was the famous/infamous tennis ball game between Vanderbilt and Florida which gave the title to the Gators over the Commodores.
In the offseason, madness hit Gainesville, in the form of that Brit ska band’s hit song “Shame and Scandal in the Family.” Out with Stromin’ Norman Sloan, in with probation and even worse: Don DeVoe. “Oh….misery!”
The next time Florida hit the SEC and national radar was in 1994, when journeyman Lon Kruger led the Gators to their first-ever Final Four appearance. This is when the first hints of the future rivalry with Kentucky were dropped. The Gators served notice in a midseason tilt with Kentucky that they wanted to be part of the SEC in-crowd. On a then-rare ESPN appearance for the Gators, the Florida band urged the network to play their highlights that night by playing the Sports Center theme song early and often. Florida earned their spot on the air with Dan Cross, Craig Brown, Andrew DeClercq, Dametri Hill and company slugging out a 1-bucket win over the Wildcats. Although they dropped the rematch in Lexington at the end of the season to fall to a shared Eastern division title (and then again in the SEC tournament title game), the game of the year that season was whatever game featured the Arkansas Razorbacks. They not only won the SEC title by two games over UF and UK, they out-shined the Gators’ Final Four appearance by winning the national title. Nolan Richardson’s Forty Minutes of Hell was the new big thing in the conference, winning the second title in three years for the Hogs. But just as the “Arkentucky” Tangle appeared primed to be the premier rivalry in the league, the Razorbacks faded into the SEC mist.
Enter Billy Donovan. 1996-97. Billy the Kid made the Florida-Kentucky rivalry happen. After a modest rookie year featuring two typically bad losses to the ‘Cats, the phenom that Donovan brought with him from Marshall, White Chocolate, the Vanilla Gorilla, J-Will, J-Dub, and probably fifty other nicknames, Jason Williams went off on the Wildcats, leading the Gators to a big 86-78 upset of UK. It did not seem to be a statement game in this respect, but in time it would stand as the true origin of the rivalry. The fact that Donovan once coached at Kentucky as an assistant and played and coached under then-Wildcat coach Rick Pitino certainly helped to build the mystique of the rivalry. So did the fact that Billy’s name was mentioned as the next Kentucky coach more often than Dick Vitale shouting “Baby!” Even more so was the fact that over the next 15 years, Kentucky would win six SEC titles and Florida would win five. Twice they shared the crown. Over the same time, Florida advanced to three national title games, five Elite Eights, and won a pair of national titles, while Kentucky – the fabled and storied program of the league – went twelve years without a Final Four appearance before finally making the last two, winning it all last season.
What used to be a potential big game that was prevented by Florida’s inability to reach Kentucky’s level has become a rivalry forged by Florida supplanting Kentucky and taking their spot as the league’s premier program. Even so, the games have swung in streaks to either side over that time, and the rivalry has only been boosted by Kentucky’s return to the elite ranks on the court.
This Year Was (Supposed to be) Different
This year, though Florida-Kentucky remained the league’s biggest rivalry, it would not be the biggest game. Kentucky’s team of one-and-dones has been drained like a Mike Frazier three-pointer by the NBA and they were not expected to be a big factor in the SEC race, let alone challenge Florida this year. Missouri was the new kid on the block, ranked in the top ten and poised to set a new tone in the conference. The preseason projections had the Tigers and Gators circled as the probable games of the year. A 31-point beat down by Florida knocked that mythology on its ear. By the time Missouri got Florida in their own gym and a couple men down to injury, they were already out of the national and SEC picture. Early on, Ole Miss was on a hot streak and their game with Florida was thought to possibly be an early conference-deciding clash. The Gators toyed with the Bears before sending them home double-digit losers and that theory was crushed as well. Then Alabama came to town with a chance to draw even with the Gators for the conference lead and ownership of the tie-breaker by virtue of a head-to-head win. The Gators laid down another double-digit dismissal and the Tide’s season, and any hint of a game-of-the-season, was doused.
And so the season that was supposed to be something different – Florida against some other challenger from the pack – has come down to this once again. A week ago, it appeared to be a life-and-death struggle looming, with the Gators looking to some to be dead in the water and Kentucky primed to take the title again. Now Florida has clinched the outright league crown and Kentucky has lost not one, but two more games and taken itself out of the NCAA field.
But the SEC game of the year still comes down to these two teams. Florida is looking to win out and make one last bid for a Number 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Kentucky is looking for a signature win – any signature win – to give it the momentum it would need to win the SEC tournament and punch its ticket to March Madness with an automatic bid. And just like that, the game that was not supposed to be that important, the game that is now irrelevant to the SEC race or the Kentucky NCAA bubble, is still going to be the SEC regular season game of the year.
Because no matter what the circumstances, no matter what other programs submit their bid, the dye has been cast and the foundation built over the last sixteen years that makes this game special. More times than not, it will define the SEC season, even when it does not decide the SEC title. It is the kind of game and rivalry that gives a conference predominance and gravitas, even when it has a down year. It is what enriches the seasons of both programs and holds the interest of fans of other schools across the nation. It is what makes college basketball great. And it is just one more thing that makes it great to be a Florida Gator.