It was laid out plainly for all to see back in November. Florida hosted a strong Ohio State team, a pair of Top 10 outfits meeting in an early-season showdown. Only problem was one team put on a show and the other was simply beat down.
Ohio State mashed Florida 93-75 in the second game of the season and sometimes, in games like these, you can offer up that the final score was "deceiving." Not this time. There was no deception. An Ohio State club that eventually spent the good portion of the season as the nation's top team humbled the Gators, offering a clear demonstration of how far the home side had to go before it could be considered a true national contender.
"As a veteran team, there's got to be more discipline," UF head coach Billy Donovan said after that loss nearly four months ago. "There's got to be more responsibility to take care of the ball and execute. That's the steps that this team has to make now for us to become a very good team. Last year, there were some size issues and some depth issues. We've got depth. We've got size. Our part we're trying to deal with is the execution part of it."
Fast-forward to the initial few days of March and the vast improvement Florida has made this season is plainly evident. Say what you want about the lack of firepower in the SEC, that's undeniable. But the fact remains this Florida team has picked up its collective game step by step and is now executing at an extremely high level, playing its best ball of the season.
It's a coach's blueprint in just about every sport, to build as the season progresses so the team is reaching its peak come playoff time. It certainly hasn't always been the case for Florida basketball, despite all the success under Donovan. Yet it appears that heading into this week's SEC Tournament in Atlanta, the Gators have approached the summit. And there is still room for progress.
"I couldn't be more pleased with a group of older guys in terms of their attention in trying to address what we all agreed were the issues for us becoming a better basketball team," Donovan said. "They have done that. I thought in the last two years we've been moving in the right direction."
There is no question the Gators have taken giant leaps past the two-year NIT malaise that followed the pair of consecutive national championships. This team may not have the acumen of the '04s, but it appears to be on the threshold of maximizing its ability, which is all anyone can ask.
There are a number of factors involved in Florida's steady renaissance this season. Donovan mentioned size and depth, and you could add experience and maturity to that equation. On the court, there are a couple of salient elements behind the Gators' rise.
The first is on the offensive end, which I've always maintained separates Donovan's best teams from his decent ones. The Gators struggled on the offensive end for much of the season, and in an earlier piece in this space back in late January, we pointed out how unusual it was to see a Donovan-coached team struggle so much offensively. His trademark was players who flourished with the ball in their possession.
Well as the season cascades toward madness, Florida has found its offensive mojo. The Gators were terrific last week in securing a pair of huge victories - at home against Alabama and at Vanderbilt - that netted just the third outright SEC championship in school history. And it was centered on the offense.
In the critical victory over the Tide, the Gators came out smoking in the second half and poured in 48 points against the SEC's best statistical defensive team. The Gators shot 69 percent from the field and it was a brilliant mix of perimeter shooting and inside play predicated on sharing the ball.
"We're capable of doing that, as long as we keep playing unselfish and move the ball like we did in the second half, we can score against anybody," senior forward Chandler Parsons said. "We just have to get good shots and not force anything."
The Gators duplicated their offensive prowess in Nashville, again ripping off 48 second-half points on a Commodores team that generally plays better in its funky gym. The Gators took down an NCAA-bound Vandy squad due to its ruthless efficiency on offense.
While the entire starting five has combined to form an effective offensive unit, much of the credit for the surge belongs to Parsons. The 6-10 forward presents a nightmare for opposing defenses with his varied ability to handle the ball, shoot from the outside, score inside and crash the boards against smaller defenders. He has been simply outstanding in conference play and is the piston that makes the Florida engine hum.
But another guy whose overall play has lifted as March approached is senior forward Alex Tyus. Center Vernon Macklin has been a consistent presence inside, and guards Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton have provided scoring and much-improved ball-handling. Freshmen Patric Young and Scottie Wilbekin supply positive minutes off the bench.
But Tyus has come alive and been much more aggressive down the stretch, witness his two near double-doubles (12 points and 9 rebounds against Alabama followed by 13 points and 10 rebounds against Vandy) in the pair of SEC title-clinching affairs. His total of 10 offensive rebounds in those two games speaks volumes about his aggressiveness.
Individually the Gators have settled into roles that fit, becoming a unit that's efficient as a whole. Donovan and his staff deserve a lot of credit for making this happen, and certainly the players also merit recognition for pushing past the hurdles of the previous few seasons.
From getting run over by Ohio State in November to winning the SEC and claiming a deserved No. 12 national ranking heading into the postseason, it's been a comforting climb back into the national panorama for Florida basketball.
An Amazing Stat
OK so we talked about offense, but how about Florida's toughness on the defensive end? There is no doubt the Gators are vastly improved defensively and part of it comes from an amazing capacity to defend without fouling.
The numbers are simply beyond belief. Florida has committed the fewest fouls (426) of any Division I team in the nation. As a result, the Gators have shot 190 more free throws than their opponents and made 134 more foul shots, an average of 4.5 per game. The ability to keep the opposition off the free throw line is a primary reason the Gators numbers look so strong defensively.
And here comes the incredible stat - in 30 games, Florida has yet to have a player foul out this season. Not only are the Gators the only Division I team in the country to own that distinction (Creighton is closest with two disqualifications), but in the 15 years Donovan has been head coach at Florida, there has not been a single Division I team that has gone an entire season without have a player foul out of a game, according to the folks at statsheet.com.
Let me repeat - no team in 15 seasons has gone an entire season without having a player disqualified via fouls at least once. It got a little shaky when both Macklin and Young had four fouls late against Vandy, but both avoided the dreaded walk to the bench with a fifth.
In 14 prior seasons, Florida players have fouled out 148 times, an average of 10.6 per season. The fewest was 2002-03 (3) and the most came in Donovan's second year, 1997-98, a whopping 25. The '04s fouled out a combined 16 times in their back-to-back national title runs.
That is simply a remarkable statistic, and reflects how disciplined this team has been defensively. Of course, like talking to a pitcher who's in the midst of throwing a no-hitter, I probably just jinxed it.