It’s not the same as it was 295 days ago, when Florida fell to Kentucky, 88-79. Much has changed about the Florida Gators’ home arena since that game — and even more has changed about Florida since the renovation of the O’Connell Center was officially announced, back in June 2014, or since the project entered the unofficial planning phases earlier in the decade.
The legendary coach is gone, and the drumbeat to put his name on the court has quieted. The legendary athletic director is retired, though he’s still around in some senses. All but one player from the 2014 Final Four team has left the program, and the one who remains has been pilloried so much in the interim that his contributions to that season are mostly consigned to history.
But on Wednesday night, against Arkansas-Little Rock (7 p.m., SEC Network or WatchESPN), Florida’s men’s basketball team is finally home.
The Gators’ home opener — their first to happen in December since 1992, when their season started in December, and their latest by calendar date since 1980, when construction on the O’Connell Center was completed in December prior to a December 30 home opener — comes against a Little Rock team that attempted to drop its state’s name and the ungainly UALR branding that it carried for decades in 2015.
The Trojans picked a timely offseason to do so: Last year’s team earned just the second NCAA Tournament win in program history, knocking off Purdue in double overtime as a No. 12 seed before getting hammered by Iowa State in the second round.
But that team — and its architect, coach Chris Beard, who decamped for Texas Tech after a single year in Little Rock — is not this phalanx of Trojans. Wes Flanigan, a Beard assistant promoted to head coach, has piloted this group to a respectable 9-3 record, and the No. 174 position in KenPom — but after Beard led Little Rock to one of seven 30-win seasons in Division I in 2015-16 and No. 56 in the final KenPom rankings.
This one has a fine win, over the same St. Bonaventure team that Florida held off in Lakeland, but that is its only exceptional result. It also dropped a home game to Idaho, lost in Texas to Pepperdine, and fell to Oral Roberts by 15 on the road.
And it hasn’t seen a team like Florida yet. The Gators’ defense has been smothering to date, acquitting itself well against even the elite offensive teams it has seen, and Florida’s best defensive performance of the year came last Saturday, as it held Charlotte to just 0.63 points per possession, a truly miserly figure.
Florida will be without John Egbunu again on this Wednesday night — but it didn’t have him in Sunrise against the 49ers, and throttled them anyway.
Here’s hoping the Gators can make the new O’Dome feel like the old house of horrors tonight, and so many more times in the new year.