GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It’s easy to overlook basketball in the Southeastern Conference.
Outside Kentucky, that is.
And yes, that apparently includes the Florida Gators, who right now are the best team in an underachieving league and do not have lottery picks in waiting or superstar freshmen flashing highlights on SportsCenter. They do have a really balanced roster, highlighted by four very good seniors who have blossomed in the program, but how sexy is that?
Yet after falling all the way to No. 19 after that Dec. 2 buzzer-beating loss at Connecticut, the Gators (15-2, 4-0) have won nine straight and slowly inched their way back up the polls. UF checked in at No. 6 this week and has two challenging games upcoming:
* Thursday at defense-minded Alabama (8-9, 2-2). Will not be an artistic game.
* Saturday at home against Tennessee (11-6, 2-2), which has beaten the Gators 13 of the last 21 times, including three straight.
But some folks are starting to take closer notice of the Gators -- Yahoo’s Pat Forde included Casey Prather among his "Most Improved Team" in this week’s “Forde MInutes” installment -- with ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman checking in Monday with a nice Insider piece headlined, “Florida a quiet title contender.”
Goodman mentioned how UF entered the season with Scottie Wilbekin and Dorian Finney-Smith suspended at Wisconsin and later with their situations influx (Wilbekin hurt, Finney-Smith out of position) at Connecticutm and how those two losses -- and circumstances -- likely helped move the Gators under the radar.
That and the lack of a star power along the lines of those at Kentucky, Kansas and Duke, to name a few. For what it’s worth, Florida plays Kentucky in three weeks and already has beaten Kansas and all those freshmen phenoms.
Here’s a a couple chunks of his text:
No team has been as incomplete as Florida. No national title contender has managed to slide under the radar like [Coach Billy] Donovan’s group.
Perhaps the two early-season losses are a factor in how the Gators aren't included in most conversations that center on the top teams in the country, but it’s more than that. The other issue is there’s no face of this season's team, no superstar.
“I think on any given night, we can play with anyone,” Donovan said. “But we don’t have a Julius Randle, a Jabari Parker, a Doug McDermott or a Marcus Smart.
“We don’t have a star,” he added. “Our team is based on being a team.”
But Donovan has enough pieces, even if heralded and talented 6-foot-10 freshman Chris Walker doesn’t make his presence felt this season in Gainesville (still awaiting word from the NCAA on his eligibility while he is able to practice with the Gators).
Goodman writes about Wilbekin being one of the top “two-way players in the country” and freshman point guard Kasey Hill adapting to point guard responsibilities in Donovan’s system, the reliability of senior center Patric Young (who will “never live up to the lottery expectations”), the shooting of Michael Frazier II, and sharing of low-post duties from “blue-collar” Will Yeguete and “the more athletic and versatile” Finney-Smith.
No. 1 Arizona looks terrific so far, and fellow unbeatens Syracuse and Wichita State definitely warrant praise for their seasons to date. Michigan State, also.
Villanova did, then welcomed Creighton Monday night. Ugh. I think the Bluejays just made another 3.
Anyway, the Gators figure to be in the thick of the conversations soon enough. That’s Goodman’s point.
“There’s a lot of parity,” Donovan said. “I don’t look at anyone and say, 'Wow.'”
And few have looked at his team similarly. While the Gators are hardly overwhelming, the two setbacks have built-in excuses -- even if Donovan has no interest in using them.
There are a couple of noteworthy wins, at home against Kansas and in New York over a talented yet enigmatic Memphis squad. And the Gators are 4-0 in the SEC but haven’t exactly beaten anyone of note. Then again, who is there to beat of note in the league besides Kentucky?
They might lack a name to draw national attention, but the Gators are finally healthy and are a legitimate national title contender.