At one point this season, South Carolina was threatening to be the clear-cut best team in the SEC.
Any hope of that materializing has long since vanished.
No. 13 Florida, which is short-handed, had no problem with the befuddled Gamecocks on Tuesday night, extending the Gators’ win streak to nine with an 81-66 victory. South Carolina has dropped three straight and four of its last five.
But the story is Florida, which has beaten opponents across this nine-game winning streak by an average of 20 points, and now the Gators look like the clear-cut best team in the SEC. I don’t write this for effect. UF is clicking, and did you see how Kentucky looked at Mizzou on Tuesday night? It seems clear that Mike White’s team is the most reliable in the league.
Canyon Barry, who on certain nights is Florida’s best offensive weapon, only played nine minutes off the bench (nursing an injury) and did not score. It did not matter. Florida, are you really for real? It seems so.
Quite a plot twist in the SEC. The Gators are now 23-5 with a 13-2 record in the league, and this is all coming to a glorious head on Saturday. UF can turn to the weekend and have confidence in the face of a tall challenge.
Kentucky. At Rupp Arena. Remember, Florida beat UK by 22 points in early February in Gainesville. UF hasn’t swept Kentucky since 2014, which is also the last time Florida had a nine-game winning streak. Billy Donovan was on the sideline then, of course, and Florida won the SEC en route to a No. 1 seed. This team isn’t as good as that one, but White is showing that these players, at the very least, are good enough to be top-10 quality team. It’s hard to accept that because Barry, Kasey Hill and KeVaughn Allen (26 points on seven field goal attempts on Tuesday night; WHAT?) aren’t household names.
But Hill and Allen are as hard to guard as almost any backcourt in the country now. I can’t wait to see them go up against Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox again.
The SEC doesn’t give casual college hoops fans a lot of reasons to watch, but Saturday’s game absolutely qualifies. It will essentially decide the league’s regular-season title, and if Florida wins it will still have a chance at a No. 2 seed. Florida doesn’t have stars, but remember, this team is now carrying on -- without dropping a beat -- despite also losing for the season its best backline defender in John Egbunu. What we saw Florida do to South Carolina on Tuesday night was imposing. The Gators can win in a variety of ways, but check out the most important number: 81. To put up 80-plus on one of the best defensive teams in the country is a massive piece of evidence for you team’s valuation.
Florida has been the most consistent team in the league, and it’s not a debate, not after Kentucky was sluggish against Mizzou. The Gators can win in a variety of ways, and because White has been able to coach his guys to be dependable from a backcourt-first approach, the guard play can give Florida fans true reason to believe a Sweet 16 should happen this season.
Back in October, UF fans would’ve just taken a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Now the league title is within reach. Now Florida is officially a year ahead of schedule.
We’re getting to the point where UF can no longer be labeled underrated even if the crew is overlooked. The Gators are ranked fourth in KenPom and have firmly established themselves to be a Final Four contender. But in the big picture, a sweep of Kentucky would announce an unconditional arrival of the Mike White Era, and prove to the sport that the Gators are capable of playing with anyone, anywhere.