Allow me to vent before we get back to our regularly scheduled programming.
This year, the Florida Gators finished in ninth place (out of 14 teams) in the Southeastern Conference. While they finished the regular season one win shy of twenty, the measuring stick for any successful, college basketball team, they finished 9-9 in conference. They were also 2-7 against ranked teams. For any major program with aspirations of something better, this was another disappointing season.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you I watched a bunch of Gator basketball this season. I didn’t.
And that’s part of the problem. Perhaps it’s because I’m older. Perhaps it’s that I work too much or that I’m long gone from Gainesville but there’s been growing disinterest in the program even before Billy Donovan left town, which is maybe one of the reasons why he left in the first place.
Mike White was Donovan’s replacement. He has been the coach in Gainesville for seven sub-standard seasons, at least by comparison. I’m not going to sit here and call for Mike White’s head. I’ll leave that to the other pundits trolling the slew of Gator basketball text groups I belong to. That sentiment is consistent throughout.
I’m sure White is a fine leader of young men, but that is not, nor has it ever been how college basketball programs are measured. Leading and winning basketball games are not mutually exclusive. These days, the Florida Gators are rarely ranked, and they are barely competitive. This season, they tallied two quality wins, one a buzzer-beater against Ohio State in a game they had no business winning, the other against a probably overrated, second-ranked Auburn team.
They closed their regular season with yet another lackluster loss to Kentucky. Florida-Kentucky was always a big deal. Kentucky Basketball is the benchmark for how other teams measure up in the Southeastern Conference. For the longest time, Florida competed against the Wildcats. For a short while, they even surpassed that program in relevance, which is no easy task. Trust me, they weren’t happy about it. We laughed when Kentucky gave the eternally slick John Calipari a lifetime contract but in retrospect, that’s one of the smartest deals the school could have ever made. When you find something that you like, you keep it and that’s just what Kentucky did. Calipari will guarantee you top-five talent even if his recruits are one-and-done. They always have a chance to win the NCAA Tournament. In fact, they expect it. Florida barely has a shot of getting in.
Mike White has now been at the University of Florida seven full seasons and trust me when I tell you, fans are getting the itch. Over that time, his teams have finished the season ranked no higher than 20th. The highest one of his teams has ever been ranked was 5th. White’s teams have made the tournament four times (this year not included) and have compiled a 6-4 record in March. He has a .620 winning percentage while at Florida. By comparison, in 19 seasons at Florida, Billy Donovan compiled a .715 win percentage, while also racking up accolades too numerous to mention.
Every college program thinks they should compete with the greats but putting all biases aside, Florida has a case. The NCAA looks favorably on major programs and wants nothing more than to allow schools with huge alma maters into its tournament. Doing so guarantees that much more viewership, a.k.a., advertising revenue. If you keep major programs out, fans will still watch (c’mon, it’s March Madness) but they’ll do so with less fervor.
All I can tell you from a straw poll of one is that these last few seasons of Gator Basketball have left a lot to be desired, especially when it comes to their biggest conference rival. Mike White’s Gators have beaten Kentucky four times in 17 tries. To put things in perspective, there was a time from 2005-8 where Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators beat Kentucky seven straight times! Donovan coached at Kentucky. His hiring put that rivalry on the map. Back then, those games meant more. Not only did the Gators have a chance, but they were confident that they’d win. And they did.
That is no longer the case, which is back to the norm and comforting for anyone residing within Lexington, Kentucky. More power to the Wildcats. They continue to take their program more seriously than Florida takes theirs, which is unfortunate for anyone residing anywhere near Gainesville, Florida.
I’m not sure what the future holds for Mike White. As far as I can tell, he’s not on the hot seat. We also understand he had big shoes to fill. The court he coaches on bears the name of the man he replaced. But I don’t know how much longer the program can sit idly by and accept ho-hum, borderline 20-win seasons with fewer and fewer quality wins on the slate.
Recruiting talent in the NCAA is no easy task. Schools like Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, and North Carolina have the upper hand. But that doesn’t mean they hand them titles. After Donovan and Florida’s back-to-back championships, one of those four schools was crowned champs five of the next eight seasons. Since 2016, only UNC has won which means blue bloods winning is not a forgone conclusion.
The door is wide open. Parity has taken over men’s college basketball. Florida has a chance to be in the conversation every year. It just hasn’t translated onto the court the last seven seasons. And we’re starting to get the itch.