USA TODAY Sports
Florida duels with another top-10 team in the desert tonight, and no matter the result, the Gators will be better for it.
Basketball scheduling isn't like football scheduling, but one thing has been common to the Gators of the gridiron and the (men's) Gators of the hardwood in recent years: Never tipping off out west.
Florida's 10 p.m. Eastern game with Arizona (ESPN/WatchESPN) is the Gators' first to take place in the Pacific Time Zone since the final of the 2006 Las Vegas Invitational, a game that Florida lost 82-80 to Kansas in what was widely considered a possible national championship game preview.
Prior to that, I believe Florida's last non-conference road trip west of the Mississippi during the regular season came in 1997-98, when the Gators went to Texas and lost 85-82. Those Gators finished 14-15, and were both the last losing Florida team and the last one not to get to 20 wins ... and they beat eventual national champion Kentucky at Rupp. Florida also went to Texas and lost and played in a tournament in Hawai'i in 1993-94, went to Texas A&M in 1992-93, played at Wichita State in 1991-92, and played at Alaska-Anchorage in the 1980s (I'm assuming in the Great Alaska Shootout), but the point should be clear: Florida doesn't go west with its young men very often at all.
So tonight is special on that count alone. But Florida's also taking the rare step of playing a true road game at a top team's place. Only two other teams in the KenPom top 15, No. 6 Ohio State and No. 12 Wisconsin, have played away games against fellow top-15 teams: Ohio State faltered in the second half and lost at Duke, and Florida saddled Wisconsin (No. 12 for some truly bizarre efficiency reasons) with its first loss of the year.
It's actually old hat for these Gators, though: They played two top-six KenPom teams on the road in 2011-12, falling at Ohio State and Syracuse.
Billy Donovan's guys responded well to those losses, ripping off four- and five-game winning streaks after them, and Florida's NCAA Tournament resume was helped, not hurt, by the rigorous scheduling. That's in keeping with something Donovan learned after the 2007-08 season, spelled out this week by ESPN's Jason King: Adversity is good.
Those Gators were the first ones I saw in person, and they were pretty unimpressive: Marreese Speights got his numbers quietly and efficiently without ever threatening to dominate, Nick Calathes was a brilliant offensive point guard with no clue how to play defense, Alex Tyus was a skinny dude with pogo-stick ups, Chandler Parsons was even skinnier, Walter Hodge and Jai Lucas were like a backcourt of two Erving Walkers, and Dan Werner started. I wasn't exactly surprised or disappointed by their inability to get back to the NCAA Tournament.
I don't think Donovan was, either, not after watching them all year. And the 2008-09 team just drove home the point that Florida cannot rely on talent alone. But it made Donovan wiser and his teams better.
"It took two years of our guys being humbled," Donovan said. "That period we went through, I look at it differently than a lot of people do. That enabled us to get to the Elite Eight. That enabled us to put ourselves in a position to get to the Final Four, because it forced those guys to look at themselves realistically.
"There's not a magic potion. I don't have dust I sprinkle on guys. It happens through hard work."
I don't think Kenny Boynton and Erik Murphy and Patric Young and so on would be as good as they are, and as committed to adding new things to their repertoires, had Donovan not tasted the disappointment of being in the 2008 and 2009 Postseason NIT.
Donovan figured out he needed to do something different, so he did, and made headlines for his coaching for one of the very few times in his career. But Donovan's also gotten players like Tyus and Parsons, both on that 2007-08 team, to blossom over four-year careers, and go from mediocre SEC players to guys who are making significant money playing professional basketball: Parsons is becoming a very good NBA player for the Houston Rockets, and Tyus is playing in Italy.
And I don't think the Florida teams of 2010-11 and 2011-12, surprise Elite Eight squads both — they also surprised in the Elite Eight, but that's really another story or two — would have been as good at the end of the year without measuring themselves against good teams in November and December. That decision, to add more rigor to the Gators'
The 2007-08 and 2008-09 teams both came into SEC play at 13-2, then missed the NCAA Tournament, and the best non-conference win between the two teams was an 86-84 squeaker over Washington in a tournament in 2008.
The 2009-10 Gators beat Michigan State, Florida State, and North Carolina State and lost to Syracuse and Richmond en route to an 11-3 record heading into SEC play. The 2010-11 Gators were 11-3 entering SEC play, but had topped Florida State, Kansas State, and Xavier and lost to Ohio State. 2011-12 saw the Gators go 12-3 before conference games began, with wins over FSU and Arizona and losses to Ohio State and Syracuse. (Screw Ohio State and Syracuse, really.)
All three of those better-tested Florida teams ended up in the NCAA Tournament.
One early win can't ruin a season in college basketball like it can in college football, and one loss to a good team can help a lot more than a win over a bad team does. Adversity is good — and Billy Donovan knows it.
"This Arizona game is going to be a great test for us," Donovan said. "We're traveling across the country and we're going to play a game at 10 Eastern time against a top-10 team, just like we are. We haven't seen a team like this.
"We'll be facing some adversity out there, but that's OK. Adversity is good. In the long run, it only makes you stronger."
Remember that as we watch what should be a great game tonight.