Monday, February 17, 2014

Kentucky 59 - 69 Florida

The long-running basketball battle between the University of Kentucky and Billy Donovan's teams at the University of Florida is one of the great rivalries in college basketball history.  UK has faced challenges from within the SEC before -- there were long battles with Ray Mears and Don Devoe at Tennessee, with Dale Brown at LSU, and with Nolan Richardson at Arkansas -- but Donovan is the best coach in the history of the SEC who didn't coach at UK, and that has given his battles with the Wildcats a unique significance.

Appropriately, Donovan's coaching career started at UK.  Joining Rick Pitino (his old Providence coach) at UK in 1989, he stayed until the end of the 1993 season.  He not only helped to develop UK's 1992 and 1993 teams -- two of UK's most beloved teams -- he recruited several of the players who won the 1996 championship for the Big Blue.

After a few years at Marshall, Donovan took over at Florida for the 1996-97 season.  In his first year he went 13-17.  At the end of that season, Rick Pitino left UK for Boston, and the Cats decided to give the job to Tubby Smith (who had already been to the NCAA's with Georgia).  This proved to be a mistake, as the job should have gone to Donovan.

Tubby started off very well, of course, taking UK to the 1998 National Championship, while Florida went 14-15.  But Donovan announced his presence to the UK fans, as his Gators stunned UK 86-77 in Lexington.

Two years later, UK fans were sitting at home watching Donovan's Gators play for the National Championship against Michigan State.  The Gators didn't make it, but it was clear that a new and serious rival had entered the SEC.

Florida and UK were both good in 2001 and 2002, but neither went very far in the NCAA's.  By this time, I was convinced that Donovan was a better coach than Tubby.  But Tubby had another card up his sleeve.  While Donovan was a better recruiter, his teams had a tendency to be somewhat loosey-goosey in big moments.  When Donovan brought a number-one ranked team to Lexington in 2003, Tubby was ready with a relentless defense that just obliterated the Gators.  At the half UK led 45-22, and the Cats cruised to a 70-55 victory.  That win sparked a series of victories for the Big Blue:

02/04/03:  Kentucky 70, Florida 55 (at Lexington)
03/08/03:  Kentucky 69, Florida 67 (at Gainesville)
02/03/04:  Kentucky 68, Florida 65 (at Gainesville)
03/07/04:  Kentucky 82, Florida 62 (at Lexington)

03/14/04:  Kentucky 89, Florida 73 (at Atlanta -- SEC Tournament Final)
02/08/05:  Kentucky 69, Florida 66 (at Lexington)

At this point I was feeling much better about Tubby's ability to deal with Florida -- but little did a realize the roof was about to collapse.  On the last day of the 2005 regular season, Florida squeaked out a 53-52 win over UK in Gainesville -- and then the Gators pounded UK 70-53 a week later in the final of the SEC tournament.

The 2005 season was one of the most important ever in what was now a three-cornered rivalry between UK and two of its former heroes -- Pitino and Donovan.  Donovan's victories over UK showed that he had learned his lesson, and his teams were starting to combine talent and discipline.  Meanwhile both Tubby's UK team and Pitino's Louisville team reached the Elite Eight.  On Saturday, March 26, 2005 Pitino's team trailed by 13 at the half -- but fought back to beat West Virginia in overtime for its first trip to the Final Four in almost 20 years.  The next day, with Tubby facing huge pressure to match Pitino, the Cats lost to Michigan State in double overtime.  If those results had been reversed, the events of the next few years would have been very different -- certainly I don't think UK would have let Tubby go after 2007 if he had gone to the Final Four in 2005.

But Tubby lost Chuck Hayes after the 2005 season, and he no longer had the rock-solid defense that had caused Florida so much trouble in the past.  Now Donovan had more talent and a disciplined squad, and he rolled to back-to-back national titles.  He also beat UK over and over.  I have never felt more helpless watching UK play an SEC opponent:

02/04/06:  Florida 95, Kentucky 80 (at Gainesville)
03/05/06:  Florida 79, Kentucky 64 (at Lexington)
02/10/07:  Florida 64, Kentucky 61 (at Lexington)
03/04/07:  Florida 85, Kentucky 72 (at Gainesville)

And that was it for Tubby.  The fans no longer believed that he was capable of standing up to Donovan.  Pitino said that UK risked doing real damage to its program -- and I'm sure Donovan agreed -- but UK fans weren't listening.

As it turned out, Pitino was right.  Tubby's last UK team was the 14th best team in the country, according to Ken Pomeroy.  Billy Gillespie's first UK team was ranked 67th.  For this, the SEC named Gillespie its co-coach of the year.  But Gillespie couldn't fool everyone for long -- his 2009 team finished 56th in the country and missed the NCAA's.  After only two years, Gillespie was gone.

Meanwhile, Donovan was left, like Alexander the Great, with no worlds to conquer.  He had won back-to-back national championships, ended Tubby Smith's career, and established himself as the top dog in the SEC.  He seemed to take the next two years off.  After going to the NCAA's in every year from 1999 to 2007, he missed the tournament in both of the Gillespie seasons:  2008 and 2009.  There were reports he would leave Florida -- maybe for UK, maybe for the NBA.

But while Donovan relaxed, UK acted.  Having been abandoned by Pitino and Donovan, the Cats hired someone who had thought long and hard about how to beat them.  John Calipari's UMass teams had been eliminated by Pitino and Donovan in 1992, and by Pitino (with players Donovan had recruited) in 1996.  Calipari went to the NBA for awhile, and then returned to coaching in Memphis.  He seemed to have drawn the conclusion that he had lost to Pitino due to a lack of big-time talent, and he had apparently decided not to let that happen again.  Taking advantage of the one-and-done rule, Calipari had developed the ability to bring in extraordinary recruiting classes, giving him the edge in talent over Pitino and Donovan.  The result was three years of very pleasant results for UK fans:

01/12/10:  Kentucky 89, Florida 77 (UK's first win in Gainesville since 2004)
03/07/10:  Kentucky 74, Florida 66 (at Lexington)
02/05/11:  Florida 70, Kentucky 68 (at Gainesville)
02/26/11:  Kentucky 76, Florida 68 (at Lexington)
03/13/11:  Kentucky 70, Florida 54 (at Atlanta -- SEC Tournament Final)
02/07/12:  Kentucky 78, Florida 58 (at Lexington)
03/04/12:  Kentucky 74, Florida 59 (at Gainesville)
03/10/12:  Kentucky 74, Florida 71 (at New Orleans -- SEC Tournament Semi-Final)

Calipari's UK team went 5-0 against Louisville and Florida in 2012, and won the national title.  UK fans felt that order had been restored.

But Pitino and Donovan weren't finished.  In fact, they were apparently revitalized by UK's challenge.  In 2012, U of L reached the Final Four for the first time since 2005.  Florida made the Elite Eight in both 2011 and 2012.  Even more significantly, Pitino and Donovan had settled on a new strategy to deal with Calipari.  Unlike Duke, UNC, and Kansas, they wouldn't chase the one-and-done types that were vital to Calipari's plan.  Instead, they would rely on rugged, experienced players.  Older players have two huge advantages over even very talented freshmen:  (1) they are usually heavier and stronger, and (2) they have a lot more experience.

In 2013, UK rolled out another talented group of freshmen, but now Pitino and Donovan were ready.  U of L beat UK and won the national title.  Florida ran away with the SEC title and went to the Elite Eight for the third straight year before falling to a barrage of three-pointers from Michigan.

Calipari responded with an even better freshman class -- and this was enough to beat Louisville, which had lost some key players from its 2013 squad.  But by this time, Donovan had forged his senior-laden Florida team into a Big East type meat grinder.  The flashy three-pointers and beautiful play of the old 1990's Pitino team was gone -- in its place was a brutal, physical style, played by a bunch of guys who know exactly what the officials will and will not call.

For a month and a half, the Gators and Wildcats lit up the rest of the SEC.  Finally, on Saturday night, the 11-0 Gators came to Lexington for a showdown with the 9-2 Wildcats.  UK needed the game to have any chance at the SEC title, as the Cats were highly unlikely to win down in Gainesville in a few weeks.  ESPN was there.  Rupp Arena was rocking.  And for most of the night, it looked as though Florida would lose.

With 11:12 left in the game, UK led 45-38.  Florida's vets were playing hard, but it was clear they lacked the raw talent of UK players like James Young and Julius Randle, who had scored some spectacular buckets.  At this point, I assumed that Florida would keep missing their jump shots and that UK would win the game.  But Donovan had built his team for exactly this type of situation.  Down the stretch, Florida played with all the subtlety of a punch in the mouth.  The Gators attacked the basket over and over, using their stronger bodies to shove UK's wispier players aside.  When the Gators were fouled -- which was often -- they made their free throws.  When the Gators missed a shot, they simply grabbed the rebound and started over.

UK never stopped trying, and I didn't think they ever played really poorly, but they were simply overwhelmed by Florida's strength and determination.  Look at the score by quarters:

1st:  Kentucky 14, Florida 14
2d:  Kentucky 17, Florida 14 (UK led 31-28 at the half)
3d:  Kentucky 14, Florida 13 (UK led 45-41 with 10 minutes to go)
4th:  Florida 28, Kentucky 14 (Florida won 69-59)

Notice that UK's offense was about as productive down the stretch as it had been throughout the game.  (In fact, the Cats scored 59 points in only 58 possessions -- not embarrassing, given the strength of Florida's defense).  But in the last 10 minutes of the game, Florida was on pace to score 112 points -- an unheard of figure, especially in such a slow-paced game.)  And the Gators did this with almost no help from the outside -- they went 3-13 from three-point range in the game.  Instead, they just kept attacking the basket, and UK didn't have enough strength to hold them off.

So, for the second straight year, Donovan's plan has worked better than Calipari's plan.  There's no shame in this -- Billy Donovan is one of the greatest coaches in the history of college basketball, and he may very well win the national championship this year.  We can only tip our cap and congratulate him.  But he should know that UK neither gives up nor forgets, and we will be back.


  1. I knew to expect Florida to be very good, because I'd been reading the SEC Updates at the HP all season, and they were, in fact, as good as advertised. It felt to me, too, though, that Coach Calipari's technical foul hurt UK a great deal in the second half. There was 8:31 to go, and UK--having been up as much, I think, as seven just a couple of minutes earlier--went from ahead one to down three on that possession. And Florida never again trailed.

    I can't back it up with numbers, but--even with this home loss to Florida so late in the season--I still sense that UK is pretty good and still getting better pretty fast.

  2. I don't think the technical made that much of a difference. I'm pretty sure that Florida scored on almost every possession it had in the last 10 minutes of the game, and the technical didn't change that one way or the other.

    I'm going with Pomeroy, who says that UK is pretty good but is not actually getting better relative to the rest of the country. He had the Cats ranked # 13 when conference play started, and he has them ranked # 17 now.