In the 2008 SEC Tournament, an underwhelming Gators team had a chance to win a few games and claim a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Instead, they slept walked through their first round game against Alabama. Billy Donovan dropped a line that may be forever associated with this class, "They're not committed to it," and Florida was sent to the NIT graveyard.
Florida (22-9, 9-7) finds themselves in the same position this season in the 2009 SEC Tournament. The scene has changed; instead of six hours north on I-75 to Atlanta, it is two hours south on I-75 to Tampa. The players remain the same, with the stakes just as high. The Gators cannot make up for last year's epic fail by claiming a NCAA spot this year. But, a decent SEC run will get them to the dance, rather than setting the program back another year.
Arkansas (14-15, 2-14) stands in the Gators' way Thursday. The Razorbacks are typical of any rebuilding team; very young, breaking down (started season 12-1 with wins over Oklahoma and Texas), and very bad defensively (only UF is worse in SEC field goal percentage allowed). If Arkansas shows the flashes of brilliance that they had to start the season, Florida will be taking another early trip back to Gainesville.
Two freshmen for Arky, Rotnei Clarke and Courtney Fortson, have had to grow up fast by taking on a large role for the Razorbacks. When combined with juniors Michael Washington and Stefan Welsh, Arkansas can score. All four of those players are in the top-30 for SEC scoring. In comparison, only Nick Calathes and Alex Tyus are in the top-30 for UF.
If Arkansas can score, UF will struggle with the Razorbacks. That's seems painfully simple, but since both teams are awful defensively, having four scorers will be an advantage for Arkansas.
It is easy for Florida to look beyond a team they defeated in January, 80-65. But Arkansas has the ability to sneak up on UF, just as UF has the ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The Gators have to clear out the memories of last year's disaster and winning Thursday night is just the first step.