Florida showing signs of life in post-Billy Donovan era

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Of the 10-15 programs that have had the greatest impact on college basketball over the past couple of decades, none entered the 2016-17 season with a more uncertain long-term future than Florida.

On a football-crazy campus, Gator basketball was never going to demand complete focus until after December, but before Billy Donovan arrived in Gainesville in 1996, the sport wasn’t even a post-holiday hobby. Despite playing in a power conference since the inception of the SEC in 1932, Florida had played in just five NCAA Tournaments and advanced past the opening weekend just twice before Donovan was hired.

That move ushered in an era of success that no one saw coming. Florida made 14 trips to the Big Dance, won six SEC championships, advanced to the Final Four four times, and is still the most recent program to repeat as national champion, winning back-to-back titles in 2005-06 and 2006-07.

As it tends to do, all that success came hand-in-hand with rumors of bigger and better things for the man responsible. Openings at programs like Kentucky and UCLA and a brief commitment to become the new head coach of the Orlando Magic forced Florida fans to come face-to-face with the question of what their national powerhouse of a basketball program would look like without the man responsible.

Two years after Donovan was finally lured away from the college game by the Oklahoma City Thunder, Gators fans are getting their first real reinforcement that the program isn’t going to fall off the college basketball map without its architect.

Mike White, like Donovan, came to Florida with some impressive numbers but zero NCAA Tournament appearances, and exceeded most people’s expectations in year one by winning 21 games, flirting briefly with an at-large bid to the dance, and ultimately advancing to the quarterfinals of the NIT. White lost leading scorer and rebounder Dorian Finney-Smith from that team, but added highly sought-after graduate transfer Canyon Barry from the College of Charleston, leaving the hoops world unsure of what to expect in year two.

If the first three weeks of the season are any indication, White appears poised to get Florida into the NCAA Tournament a year earlier than Donovan was able to after he took over.

As they prepare to turn the calendar to December, Florida already has two wins over teams currently ranked in Ken Pomeroy’s top 50 (Miami and Seton Hall), and four over teams in the top 100. The Gators’ only loss came at the hands of a top-10 opponent, Gonzaga, in a game UF led for a majority of the second half. They’ve already defeated as many non-SEC power conference opponents as they did all last season, and are an early No. 6 in the all-important RPI rankings.

The improved play from the uber-talented KeVaughn Allen and Devin Robinson, the production from Barry, and the flashes of brilliance from point guard Kasey Hill have all been great, but the biggest cause for optimism when it comes to this Florida team came near the end of its most recent performance.

With the team off to a lackluster start against rival Miami in the third-place game at the AdvoCare Invitational, White pulled all five of his starters just 2:10 into the game. Those starters remained upbeat and into the game from the sidelines as redshirt freshman Keith Stone, who had scored just six total points in the team’s first six games, put the first touches on a 15-point, eight-rebound performance that would carry the Gators to a 65-56 win over a likely NCAA Tournament team.

Questions about chemistry hovered around Florida at times last season, and even through a few of the final years of the Donovan era, but it doesn’t appear as if that will be an issue in 2016-17.

“I credit our guys with the culture they’ve created with this team right now,” White said after the Miami win. “It’s a very healthy culture … in that when five guys get taken out of a game, there is no drama. You’re not dealing with any drama right now.”

The talent was always there, and if the chemistry is going to follow, then there’s no reason for White’s Gators not to assume the spots Donovan’s teams always had reserved in March: one with Kentucky at the top of the SEC standings and one with a respectable seed on Selection Sunday.

The Gators have a pair of prime opportunities to prove that those two goals are just a few months away from coming to fruition. They’ll host No. 6 Duke on Dec. 6 with an opportunity to score a win that will look even more impressive if the Blue Devils are able to get fully healthy before the end of the season, and they’ll hit the road to take on talented in-state rival Florida State five days later.

This Florida team might not evoke memories of the repeat national champions or the overall No. 1-seed team from 2014, but it has the potential to give Gators fans comfort that those days didn’t leave forever when Billy Donovan did.