No Florida men’s basketball team had ever beaten a Kentucky men’s basketball team by 20 points before — the previous largest margin of victory for the Gators over the Wildcats was 19, by those Forever Gators of 2013-14 on Senior Day, and that team won its 23rd consecutive game and completed its 18-0 campaign in SEC play on that day. No Florida team had ever worked Kentucky as thoroughly as these Gators did, leading for all but 23 seconds of the game clock and never allowing Kentucky to get closer than four points after the 13:24 mark of the first half.
But Florida did earn the same sort of resounding victory over an elite team in a Saturday showcase game just last year.
Those Gators took down West Virginia at home, 88-71, in a Saturday nooner that did not feel anything like the showdown this Saturday’s primetime clash was hyped to be, but nevertheless featured the No. 6 team in KenPom getting drubbed by double digits in the O’Connell Center.
Florida played significantly better offense in that game, racking up 1.26 points per possession — these Gators netted 1.14 PPP against the Wildcats — by shredding West Virginia’s vaunted press and making 12 of 20 threes. Dorian Finney-Smith had 24 points, KeVaughn Allen had 19, and Brandone Francis-Ramirez — yep! — had nine points on a stunning 3-for-3 performance from three that ultimately accounted for 30 percent of the threes made in his Florida career.
West Virginia would drop to No. 10 in KenPom after that loss, but would never fall further than No. 13 that year, and finished No. 8 in the year-end rankings even with a loss to Stephen F. Austin in its first NCAA Tournament game. Florida comprehensively defeated an excellent team on that Saturday — but that vanquished team was West Virginia, and the victor was not so good at handling success.
Florida had the same capabilities last year as it does this year, more or less, but the Gators were inconsistent in 2015-16, and it cost them down the stretch. That win over West Virginia came after a road loss to Vanderbilt and before a closer-than-it-needed-to-be win over Arkansas. The next Saturday, Kentucky blasted Florida by 19 in Rupp Arena, beginning a 3-6 stretch in which those Gators lost five games by single digits, dropping them from 15-7 and likely NCAA Tournament participant to 18-13 and likely NIT top seed.
This Florida team is now 18-5, with four of its five losses — Gonzaga, Duke, Florida State, and South Carolina — all but locks to be single-digit seeds in the NCAA Tournament. The Gators are No. 12 in the NCAA’s most recent RPI, despite earning just six home wins to date — fewer than any other team in the RPI’s top 90 — and likely to be part of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee’s top 16 teams when those rankings are released next Saturday if they can get past Georgia on Tuesday.
It would take a truly epic collapse for Florida to not make the NCAA Tournament from here, and it seems much more likely that the Gators will compete for a top-four seed — and the very short trip to Orlando for subregional play that would come with it.
Beating Kentucky did a lot of good for this team’s reputation and résumé, and for those of its players and coach. Kasey Hill played a brilliant game last night, one that is likely to serve as one of the first memories for Gators fans who will eventually reminisce about him. Mike White got his first win over the program destined to be his biggest nemesis in emphatic fashion, and it’s a result so good that it could be used to demonstrate any number of positives about White’s tenure. Florida, the program, once again looks like a strong No. 2 in the SEC behind perennial ruler Kentucky — at least — and Jeremy Foley looks vindicated for picking a relative unknown who still has yet to make an NCAA Tournament to follow in the footsteps of Billy Donovan’s Hall of Fame tenure.
But this win doesn’t really change what I think about this team and its potential.
I have written, here and on Twitter, about how I think this Florida team’s peak could get it to the Final Four. When shots are falling and steals are generating offense for these Gators, they are absurdly hard to beat; when those things aren’t happening, Florida is still exceedingly unlikely to be out of any game, thanks to a smothering defense that makes nothing easy. (Florida has not lost a game by double digits this year, something that top-10 teams Baylor, West Virginia, Virginia, and now Kentucky cannot claim.)
What did we see last night that we had not already seen, though? We know this team’s strengths and weaknesses because we have known this team for the better part of three years.
Sure, Hill throws dumb passes every so often, but he also has blazing speed, and puts it to use as a defender. Yes, Chris Chiozza is hampered by any defender with length and prone to taking bad threes, but he’s also got great court vision, and a knack for killer passes. Devin Robinson doesn’t take over games, but he is superb at putting up a silent 15 points. KeVaughn Allen doesn’t take over games often enough, but when he does, look out. Canyon Barry isn’t a great perimeter shooter, but he may be the best at creating his own shot on the roster. John Egbunu, Kevarrius Hayes, and Justin Leon are all limited offensively, but tend to compensate on the defensive end, and play their roles beautifully. Florida bogs down at times in the half court when Hill and Chiozza freelance, but White has a deep playbook that gets an uncanny number of open looks on inbounds passes.
These things are as true now as they were in November, or last March. The basic difference between this year’s Gators and last — other than Robinson playing the role once occupied by Dorian Finney-Smith, and Barry sliding up to Robinson’s former slot — is that this team does its good things more often than its bad things, both over the course of a string of possessions and the course of a month.
Against Kentucky, it did so many of those good things that it blotted out the bad — 17 turnovers, Hill going 4-for-8 at the line — entirely.
Consistent and incremental improvement isn’t a particularly exciting thing to talk about, but it’s what White has gotten out of this team. And given its baseline of play over the last two years, Florida truly needed only those incremental improvements to go from the fringe of the NCAA Tournament to a spot solidly within the field.
Should that lead us to re-examine those teams? Perhaps. But it doesn’t change the way I’m going to see this one, save for the fact that it has actually done what I knew it could do.
The Gators saw the orange-and-blue dawn this morning from a different vantage than they had at the same time Saturday, and a better one — one that allows them to see higher and farther than they could prior to their best win of the year.
Yet they are seeing it through the same eyes they have always had. And we should see them as fully as they clearly see their goals at this moment.