The Florida Gators haven’t been in the NCAA Tournament since 2014, when they went to the Final Four. In 2014, 2013, and 2012, they hadn’t been to the Tournament since the year prior, when they went to the Elite Eight.
This is different. This return after an absence — to face East Tennessee State at 3:10 p.m. on truTV or March Madness Live — somewhat novel for a program that rose to not just prominence but dominance under Billy Donovan.
Florida hasn’t spent the weeks of March Madness not dancing more than two years in a row since the span from 1990 to 1993, when Lon Kruger was rebuilding a program left in shambles by NCAA-applied probation penalties for violations committed by Norm Sloan in the late 1980s.
Since then, the Gators’ basketball history has been one of success: 16 NCAA Tournament trips, nine Sweet Sixteens, eight Elite Eights, five Final Fours, three appearances in the NCAA Tournament final, and the only back-to-back national championships in that span are the top-line accomplishments by a program led by Kruger and (mostly) Donovan that made Florida into a national brand in a sport in which it had never previously been relevant.
But this Thursday brings Mike White’s first NCAA Tournament appearance, and Florida’s first in the post-Donovan era — and this return trip is different from the two Florida has made since that first NCAA Tournament under Kruger.
In 1993, Florida was a No. 3 seed, possessed of a deep and talented roster, and made good on it, advancing to the first Final Four in school history. In 1999, though, Donovan’s team was a scrappy No. 6 seed stitched together by the then-indefatigable Donovan’s recruiting efforts, and surprised by making the Sweet Sixteen. In 2010, after two years in the NIT hinterlands, Florida just barely made the Big Dance as a(n overseeded) No. 10 seed, then fell to BYU in a double overtime shootout.
This year’s Gators, as currently constructed, are still mostly Donovan’s players — Canyon Barry and Justin Leon are the only rostered Gators likely to see the floor in Orlando that Donovan did not recruit to Gainesville, erstwhile Florida commit Schuyler Rimmer notwithstanding. This Florida team, though, is White’s, remade in his image after two years spent scuffling in Donovan’s final campaign for (Florida’s) orange and blue and White’s debut in Gainesville.
Florida presses, but not as much as White wanted to when he arrived; he learned how exhausted that left his players at the end of last season, when a fatigued roster got shredded time and again late in SEC play. Florida lets its guards do work, for better or worse — those guards are the mercurial Kasey Hill and the undersized Chris Chiozza, after all — and gets good shots when it can, but its best offense comes in transition, which is enabled by those guards pressuring opponents. Florida adjusts and scraps, and gets by despite lacking a true star or a consistent offensive force, something that reminds of the best Donovan teams — but something that was not true of this collection of players when they played for Donovan.
It’s all different, even if the seed is high and the expectations are lofty. This is not what Florida was, not what many — myself included — thought Florida could remain for many, many years to come.
It may not be better. It may not be worse. There’s still plenty of time yet for White to write his legacy and escape Donovan’s shadow, and it won’t be etched in anything after today.
But it’s different.
March Madness is back, and the Gators are in it again. Savor that, and let’s hope it lasts as long as it can.