ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 13: Kenny Boynton #1 of the Florida Gators reacts during their game against the Kentucky Wildcats in the championship game of the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament at Georgia Dome on March 13, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Florida begins its 2011-2012 men's basketball season November 11 with against Jackson State. We'll be previewing the Gators almost every weekday from now until then. We'll call it 15 For 15, in honor of Billy Donovan's 15th season as Florida's head coach.
It's unfortunate, in a way, that the SEC voted to eliminate divisions in basketball this summer. After having the best division in college baseball in the spring (SEC East kings Florida, Vanderbilt, and South Carolina dominated the College World Series) and the best division in college football this fall (LSU and Alabama make it likely the SEC West will have at least a national title finalist, and Arkansas is no slouch), the conference could have had the best division in college basketball in the winter, with Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and Florida all poised to make the top 10 home all year long.
In any case, it seems clear that an "SEC East" team will claim the conference's crown this season. Will it be the Gators?
The question for Florida basketball, in any year of recent vintage, was whether the Gators would be the best team in the SEC East; with Kentucky (and, lately, Vanderbilt) in the division and the West lagging well behind even the middle of the East, claiming a top spot in the East was evidence of a good season, a springboard to the and a major benefit come the SEC Tournament. Florida has won the SEC outright twice under Donovan: In 2006-07, en route to a national championship, and in 2010-11, on the way to the Elite Eight, and was obviously the SEC East champion in each year.
But the Gators have gone to the NCAA Tournament in every season that they have come in at least second in the East under Billy Donovan, with their only miss from the top two in the East in the divisional era coming in 1991-92 under Lon Kruger. It's when Donovan's Gators aren't good enough to crack that top two in the East that they often aren't good enough to make the NCAA Tournament: Of six finishes below second in the division, only two were followed by NCAA Tournament appearances.
Furthermore, under Donovan, Florida's won 10 SEC games nine times; the Gators went on to win two NCAA Tournaments, play for another national title, make another Elite Eight, and make a Sweet Sixteen in five of those seasons.
If you haven't grasped that good Florida teams tend to play well in the SEC, I can't help you at this point.
Florida's got a roster that could certainly score 10 SEC wins, and a schedule that will help in that quest. Though the Gators do travel to Alabama and Arkansas, Mississippi State has to come to Gainesville, and the road trip to Tennessee is actually Florida's first SEC contest; if the Gators can win two of their three SEC West trips (think Arkansas and Mississippi), take all of their six home games against non-Kentucky and Vandy teams, and beat up on the rest of the SEC East on the road, that's 11-1 in the conference without factoring in the showdowns against the other East lions.
The problem is that Kentucky and Vanderbilt will probably go 11-1 against non-East lions, too, meaning that Florida will struggle to win or place second in the SEC without beating those two teams more often than not. And while Florida's got a deeper backcourt than it may have ever had, those two teams have two talented frontcourts that could give the Gators' shallow, shorter front line fits.
There's a blueprint for the Gators in there: Beat the teams you're supposed to beat, and score an upset or two against the top-10 teams with hot shooting. It's pretty simple to conceptualize.
It's going to be harder to actualize.