The University of Florida is a prevalent sports school. Programs perform across the board from football to baseball and on the hardwood at the O’Connell Center. The Gators are featured in the NCAA Final Four again with intentions of writing history once more.
Florida’s resume includes seven SEC regular season championships, four conference tournament championships, 10 Sweet 16s, eight Elite Eights, five Final Fours, one NCAA tournament runner up and two NCAA national championships.
Florida basketball was the ugly cousin to the football program until Billy Donovan arrived. Donovan was hired as head coach before the 1996-97 season following the exit of Lon Kruger. Donovan was a mere 31 years old when hired, and must have crushed the interview with athletic director Jeremy Foley to win the head coaching job.
Donovan handled the head coach turnover in an efficient manner. By the 1998-99 season he propelled the No. 6 Gators to a Sweet 16 appearance before losing to No. 10 Gonzaga. The Florida-Gonzaga matchup was symbolic as the beginning of the national impression these two schools basketball programs would create over the next decade.
In 1999-00, UF was led by two of the greatest three-point specialists in Florida history, Matt Bonner, the Red Mamba, and Mike Miller. Reference a Bonner highlight tape to get the blood flowing and the only solution is a barrage of distance shooting with minimum vertical effort. Miller, Bonner and Miami Heat’s Udonis Haslem carried the No. 5 Gators to the NCAA Final Four for the second time in school history. The Gators swamped North Carolina 71-59, but were left chomping for more in the NCAA national championship losing to Michigan State 89-76.
After a string of early exits between 2001-05, the 2005-06 season featured Florida once again in the historic NCAA Final Four. Donovan recruited a group of NBA caliber players, most notably Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer, to captain the team. These three future NBA lottery picks cruised to a national championship by knocking off No. 11 George Mason, tied for the lowest seed ever to reach the Final Four, then impressively defeating UCLA to bring the first ever men’s basketball national championship to Gainesville.
Bringing home the trophy was not enough for the Gators as the UF Athletic Association also purchased the floor used in the Final Four to replace the existing O’Connell Center floor. Some people display their men’s league basketball trophy on an assembled Ikea desk others show off their national championship by installing an entire hardwood floor, pretty much the same, right?
The Gators also won the 2007 national championship becoming the first team to repeat the achievement since the 1991-92 Duke Blue Devils and the first ever to accomplish the feat with an identical starting line-up.
Thus concludes today’s history lesson. Now enter the present as the 2013-14 Gators find themselves featured in another NCAA Final Four. An April 5 matchup vs UConn will determine if this season ends at the Final Four or if the Gators will be one step closer to bringing a third banner back to the O’Connell Center. Maybe another floor, too.
Commentary by Niles Olson