The SEC's changed a lot in the last 20 years, but one thing has remained more or less consistent: Florida and Kentucky are the only two flagship SEC basketball programs, and they measure themselves by each other.
Since 1993, when Kentucky made its first Final Four appearance under Rick Pitino, who rebuilt a program hit hard by NCAA sanctions after Eddie Sutton's time in Lexington, Kentucky (six) and Florida (four) have combined for 10 Final Four appearances and five national titles. The rest of the SEC has four Final Four appearances: Two from Nolan Richardson's "40 Minutes of Hell" Arkansas team that won it all in 1994 and lost in the final in 1995 (and went to the Final Four in 1990, too); one from Mississippi State in 1996 (when four SEC teams made the Sweet Sixteen); and one from LSU in 2006 (when the Tigers and Florida both made the Final Four).
Either Kentucky or Florida is more accomplished on its own than the rest of the SEC combined; both together have done more than the rest of the conference many times over, and they've done it with a variety of coaches and styles, while each of the other three teams caught lightning (Richardson's press, Erick Dampier at Mississippi State, Glen Davis and Tyrus Thomas at LSU) and rode it.
Florida went to a Final Four under Lon Kruger and an NCAA Tournament final with Teddy Dupay; it won titles with the most balanced starting five in modern college basketball history. Kentucky made three straight NCAA Tournament finals with Pitino-constructed teams coached by Pitino and Tubby Smith, and made it back to consecutive Final Fours with John Calipari's rent-a-contender approach.
If you want to compare the approaches to determine which is better, I'd concede that Kentucky's accomplished more, and I'd award points to Florida for degree of difficulty, as the Gators had just one SEC title in history prior to 2000 — and it came in 1989 — and had still matched Kentucky's accomplishments since 1993 by the time the nets came down in 2007. The Wildcats did more, but they should always do more than any other college basketball team, with the history and money that flow through their program; Florida struck silver with Kruger and platinum with Billy Donovan, and wrote a history on largely blank pages.
And along the way, the two programs became the only adequate measuring sticks for each other, and the best ones for the rest of the SEC. What was once Kentucky and the 11 Dwarves is now Kentucky and Florida and a Dozen Dwarves, more or less, and when either team is clearly the best in the SEC, it foretells title contention: Kentucky has made the Elite Eight in all but one of its 10 seasons with 13 or more SEC wins since 1993, and Florida's won a title and been to the Elite Eight in its two seasons with 13 wins. (Florida won just 10 SEC games in both its 2006 title season and in 2012; Florida won 12 in 1994 and 2000 en route to the Final Four.)
Florida and Kentucky have each ebbed at points in these last two decades — Kruger couldn't match 1994 in 1995 and 1996 (combined record: 29-29), and Donovan took two years to get Florida to the 20-win plateau it has been on every year since 1999, and Kentucky had three 10-loss seasons from 1999 to 2001 and four straight 10-loss seasons from 2006 to 2009 in Smith's last two years and Billy Gillespie's only two.
But those ebbs generally coincided with tremendous success for the other team: Kentucky won titles in 1996 and 1998, while Florida was getting its bearings under Donovan; Florida went to the Final Four in 2000 as Smith piloted Kentucky's first team to end its season before the Elite Eight in six years, then won the SEC and got to No. 1 in 2001 and 2002; Florida won its two titles in 10-loss Smith years.
Kentucky and Florida went from ships passing in the night to boats racing in 2008, when Florida missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997 and Kentucky broke a string of 20-win seasons dating back to 1990; in 2009, both teams missed the NCAA Tournament, and came within a win apiece of playing in the NIT Semifinals.
2010 was a rebound year for both squads, as Kentucky made it back to the Elite Eight with John Wall and Demarcus Cousins and Florida made it back to the NCAA Tournament despite Dan Werner. (Sorry, Dan.) 2011 and 2012 saw both finish among the nation's best teams for the first time in a long time: Florida in the Elite Eight, and Kentucky in the Final Four and the winner's circle, and they felt like the revival of the rivalry, as Florida won the SEC in 2011 and Kentucky responded with an unbeaten romp in 2012 that featured three victories over Florida by successively smaller margins.
On the day of 2013's first meeting between the two teams, Florida looks like by far the SEC's best team, and Kentucky looks like its only contender for No. 2. But while Florida's the better team, and the only SEC team primed for a Final Four run, Kentucky's still probably "more talented," with height — Kentucky is third in Ken Pomeroy's Effective Height statistic — that will trouble Florida and any other team, and athletes up and down its roster that aren't quite great basketball players. This Kentucky team is Florida's greatest SEC challenge; Florida is every other SEC team's greatest challenge.
This is how things have been, how they are, and how they will be in the SEC: Depending on which players become NBA defections and where Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle choose to spend their one-year NBA waiting periods, Kentucky could have the most talented roster in college basketball history in 2014; at the same time, Florida will have perhaps its most talented roster in program history with Kasey Hill, Dorian Finney-Smith, Chris Walker, and Damontre Harris all joining a core that will include Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete, Michael Frazier, and Casey Prather, and might well include Patric Young.
This is one of college basketball's best recent rivalries, one with more recent history — the five titles since 1993 is more than any other rivalry can boast — and a brighter future (Donovan is 47, and Calipari is 54; it would take an incredible offer for either to leave his perch) than virtually any other one.
There's just one thing it needs to cement it as a great rivalry: More Florida wins.
In 47 meetings since 1993, Florida is 14-33 against Kentucky, with all but one of those wins coming under Donovan. And yet Donovan doesn't have a winning record against any Kentucky coach he's seen — including Gillespie, who took two of four from Florida in his two seasons and whose Wildcats forced the Gators to work overtime for one of their two wins. Florida had a seven-game winning streak in the series that included four wins in national title seasons; Kentucky's had three strings of five or more straight wins, including the one it's currently on.
This is Donovan's last hurdle, and, frankly, it's one that was set too high early on for him to ever clear for good. Florida got its first win at Rupp Arena in a decade in Donovan's second year, but Florida went 11-13 against Smith's Kentucky under Donovan, and has started 1-7 against Calipari's 'Cats; Florida would need to sweep the next four years of meetings with Kentucky to get him back on level pegging.
But that's the best any Florida coach has ever done against Kentucky.
Florida is a woeful 33-93 against the Wildcats all time, and started 1-21 against them. Florida's winning percentage against Kentucky is .262, and, to put that in perspective, a 8-22 team has a .267 winning percentage.
Donovan has a .361 winning percentage against Kentucky.
I don't think Florida winning a little less than out of five against Kentucky is evidence that Florida is underperforming against Kentucky, or that Donovan can't beat Kentucky, or, in truth, a huge negative for Florida: If we're being honest, Kentucky's had better teams at least 60 percent of the time it's seen the Gators since 1997, and Donovan has still gone 13-23 against Kentucky.
But it is evidence that Florida's best basketball rivalry is still more hammer and nail than tooth and nail.
And, with titles in the program's trophy case and nearly every accolade on Donovan's résumé, there's just not much else for Florida to do and prove as a basketball program while Donovan is coaching it, except for yearly SEC dominance. The path to that dominance will always, always run through Kentucky.
Evening the all-time scoreboard against Kentucky is impossible for Florida to do before Joakim Noah's grandson suits up for Billy Donovan's son. The Florida-Kentucky rivalry is a more modern contrivance, though, and a mark favoring Florida under Donovan is in range.
Beginning tonight, these Gators can help erase the Wildcats' edge, and make this rivalry truly great.