On April 2, 2007, Billy Donovan and his Florida Gators cut down the nets at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta after defeating Ohio State 84-75, and celebrated their second consecutive national championship. A team led by Al Horford, Joakim Noah, and Corey Brewer was able to bring back-to-back titles to Gainesville. It was and remains to this day the most impressive feat recorded by any program in the still-young 21st century. The Gators were at the very pinnacle of success.
In the almost four years that have passed since that night in Atlanta, however, Florida has gone just 0-1 in the NCAA tournament. Building on the success of those national championship teams has proven to be a tough task.
Until now. The Gators are 21-5 overall and 10-2 in the SEC heading into tonight's game against Georgia in Gainesville. In the latest bracket projection by ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi, Donovan's team is shown as a 3-seed. Florida is now so far removed from those national championships that it's no longer a question of building on previous success. The Gators are creating their own buzz. Here's how.
Florida is scoring points, as always
Donovan has to rank as one of the top offensive coaches in the country. Just look at his track record. This season the Gators are scoring 1.09 points per possession in SEC play, second only to Kentucky in terms of offensive efficiency. It marks the sixth consecutive season that Donovan's offense has been significantly better than the SEC average. Success in the NCAA tournament has fluctuated, but year in and year out Florida consistently has a dangerous offense. That's been a constant in Gainesville, and it is again in 2011.
Donovan has a balanced and efficient attack.
Between Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton, Vernon Macklin, and Chandler Parsons, opposing teams are presented with a phalanx of scorers to defend. Nominally a point guard, the 5-8 Walker additionally functions as perhaps the nation's most diminutive dual-threat wing. Last year that job description was the recipe for a two-point shooting percentage too shocking to repeat here, but this year Walker's improved his accuracy from both sides of the arc while also drawing more fouls. Speaking of improved, the 6-10 Macklin is shouldering a much larger role in the offense as a senior and doing quite well, cleaning the offensive glass and sinking 57 percent of his twos. And the 6-9 Parsons, who's currently battling a deep thigh bruise, has proven to be a versatile and valuable performer, making shots from both sides of the three-point line and recording a higher assist rate than Walker. Donovan has weapons.
If Florida keeps winning, going slow will seem really cool.
Quietly yet unmistakably, the Gators have been decelerating the past few seasons, to the point where they now play at far and away the slowest tempo in the SEC. Florida's averaging just 63 possessions per 40 minutes in conference play, and in a league that averages 66 trips per game that qualifies as extreme. What's interesting about this stylistic shift is that Donovan earned his reputation, and indeed is often still portrayed as, a Rick Pitino disciple who prefers a pressing up-tempo style. Apparently that is no longer the case, at least not with this group of players. These are some slow-moving but dangerous Gators.
Defense! For the first time in a while there is one.
We've seen that Florida has been consistently good on offense, even in years where they didn't make the NCAA tournament. So it doesn't take too much imagination to anticipate what I'm about to say: after the national championships were won, defense was often a scarce commodity in Gainesville. In 2008-09 the Gators played D at a level that was close to the SEC average, but otherwise fans at the O'Connell Center have grown accustomed to seeing opposing teams score a lot of points. But that has changed this season. No SEC team can come close to the level of defense that Alabama is playing, of course, but for Florida fans the only thing that matters is that their defense is vastly improved over last year's. Donovan's team is limiting conference opponents to less than a point per trip, thanks to better field-goal defense in the paint and more rebounds at that end of the court. Teams playing against Florida don't get to the line very often, and they're usually limited to just one shot. It's not real glamorous to watch in real time but it is effective.
Not that Florida doesn't have some question marks, mind you. Their remaining schedule is, shall we say, robust: home against Georgia tonight, at Kentucky on Saturday, home against Alabama on Tuesday, and a regular season finale at Vanderbilt next Saturday. We've already seen that Parsons is hobbled, and, anyway, Gator fans grow visibly nervous if they see him or Macklin at the line in late-game situations. This season the pair are shooting a combined 49 percent from the charity stripe. Lastly, note that computers have long memories and tend to be highly skeptical of any team that lost at home to Jacksonville in December.
All true enough. But I suspect Florida fans will take those question marks. Even with the proper disclaimers, this is clearly the best team Gainesville has seen since 2007. With a slower pace, stronger D, and an offense that's excellent as always, the Gators have at last regained at least some of their bite.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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