Last March, Florida entered the Southeastern Conference tournament as the crown jewel of college basketball.
Led by four seniors, the Gators — undefeated in conference play — swept the tournament and became the first team in league history to go 21-0.
A year later, UF is desperate to simply extend a disappointing season.
The Gators landed the No. 8 seed in this week’s SEC tournament in Nashville, Tennessee, with a 1 p.m. tipoff Thursday against ninth-seeded Alabama (18-13, 8-10 SEC).
The winner earns the ill-fated honor of facing unbeaten Kentucky in the quarterfinals on Friday afternoon.
“All we’re trying to do right now is get prepared for Alabama,” UF coach Billy Donovan said.
“If we’re fortunate enough to advance, we would play Kentucky and we obviously would be inside of a week playing against them, so at least on a quick turnaround like that, there is some preparation that we will understand playing against them. … I think hopefully our guys are excited to play and excited to practice and continue to try to get better.”
It has been a long, miserable season for Donovan, whose Gators (15-16, 8-10) lost 67-50 at No. 1 Kentucky last weekend to finish conference play with a losing record for the first time since 1997-98.
Florida is likely to miss the postseason for the first time since Donovan’s inaugural campaign in Gainesville (1996-97).
“Everything that has happened this year for these guys is an incredible foundation for learning,” Donovan said.
“I would tell you that going into this year, their expectation level of how they thought they were individually, [and] how good they thought we were as a team was so far from reality.”
UF opened the season ranked No. 7 nationally, but it was a group without a defined leader, a post presence, general chemistry or any real commitment to winning. A year after reaching a fourth consecutive Elite Eight, Donovan was concerned with this team’s mental fortitude and ability to overcome adversity.
His misgivings were confirmed.
The Gators slogged through a brutal nonconference schedule, and when SEC play started, they still hadn’t solved their issues shooting free throws, scoring consistently and avoiding turnovers.
“I look at it as, while they’re here, after this year is over with, how do they actually learn and grow?” Donovan said.
“I don’t believe that just because you go through an experience that the next year makes you better. I don’t believe that happens. I think next year we could be right back in the same situation that we are now. That would not surprise me one bit with where our team’s mentality is. It’s not like they’re bad guys or they’re not coachable or they are not anything else like that. They are going to have to figure out how to compete and play and be consistent and disciplined at a much, much higher level. And until they get committed to those things, you’re going to kind of end up having the same kind of group of guys with the same kind of results.”
Although next season could prove just as trying, Florida hopes to avoid a quick exit this year.
UF slipped past Alabama 52-50 in Tuscaloosa in late January, and Donovan is 9-0 all-time against Tide coach Anthony Grant, a longtime lieutenant under Donovan at Florida.
“We don’t want to lose and then be done with the rest of your season this early,” Gators point guard Kasey Hill said.