LEXINGTON, Ky. — Patric Young entered Rupp Arena Saturday zeroed in and focused. A few hours later, he left in a daze.
As his teammates galloped toward the locker room to celebrate, the Florida forward stood at midcourt after his squad’s tilt with Kentucky, staring at the scoreboard to grasp the magnitude of what had just unfolded.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Young said. “It was surreal.”
Maybe to Young, a senior who had lost to Kentucky in each of his previous three visits to Lexington. But the rest of the college basketball world is quickly learning that no accomplishment by Billy Donovan’s Gators should come as a surprise.
Not a victory at Kentucky, where Wildcats coach John Calipari was 81-2 before Saturday. Not an undefeated record in the SEC, which seems like a strong possibility with just six games remaining. And not a berth in the Final Four after three straight years of losing in the Elite Eight.
With the NCAA tournament just one month away, Florida is the best team in college basketball.
The latest college hoops AP poll still has Syracuse at No. 1, but what the No. 2 Gators did Saturday—beating a team full of future pros in one of the country’s most daunting environments—was far more impressive than the Orange’s one-point home win over unranked North Carolina State.
Three days earlier, Syracuse needed a 40-foot buzzer-beater to squeak by a mediocre Pittsburgh squad.
Donovan shrugged when asked Saturday if his squad deserved to be ranked No. 1.
“I really don’t care,” Donovan said. “I don’t get wrapped up in that kind of stuff.”
That’s what makes Donovan so great. Moreover, that’s what makes his team so great.
Fueled by upperclassmen who have been hardened over the years by adversity and enlightened by the mistakes made in gut-wrenching losses, the Gators are as focused and poised as any team in America.
Not just off the court, but on it, too.
That’s why Florida didn’t panic when trailing by seven points with 11 minutes remaining Saturday. Instead of floundering when things got tough, the Gators flourished. When Kentucky’s freshmen eased up or made mistakes, Florida’s seniors were there to capitalize.
“They were just a little too experienced for us down the stretch,” Calipari said.
No Gator exhibited more moxie than senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, who scored 18 of his 23 points after intermission while going 11-of-12 from the foul stripe. Two other seniors—wing Casey Prather (24 points) and Young (10 points)—also came up big for Florida when it mattered most.
The Gators probably don’t have a single first-round NBA draft pick on their roster. Kentucky has as many as five players who could go in the first round this year. But three of them are freshmen and two are sophomores.
That made a difference Saturday. Even Calipari got rattled in the second half when officials whistled him for a technical foul for arguing with them.
“Two free points,” Prather said.
Kentucky didn’t play all that poorly Saturday, shooting 47.6 percent from the field compared to 44 percent by Florida. Still, it was the Gators’ relentlessness in the game’s final moments that made the biggest difference against their younger, greener foes.
Florida outscored Kentucky 31-14 over the last 11 minutes.
“Florida deserved to win the game,” Calipari said. “(Donovan) has had a bunch of good teams, but this is a veteran team that has a lot of things going for it. They’re really, really good.”
Indeed, no one is better.
At least not at this point.
Syracuse is undefeated but has won four of its last five contests by six points or fewer. With road games looming against Duke, Virginia and Florida State, the Orange are destined to drop a game or two before the end of the regular season.
Second-ranked Arizona will drop in the polls after losing to unranked Arizona State on Friday. The Wildcats aren’t the same without injured forward Brandon Ashley.
Duke barely beat Maryland at home Saturday, and Kansas, while ultra-talented, is still erratic.
Florida, meanwhile, has now won 17 straight games and is 23-2 overall and 12-0 in the SEC.
The Gators’ two losses both occurred on the road. They fell at Wisconsin Nov. 12 without Wilbekin, who was suspended. They also lost to Connecticut on Dec. 2 when Shabazz Napier hit a buzzer-beater as Wilbekin (Florida’s top perimeter defender) watched from the bench with an injured ankle.
Even though the Gators hadn’t received many tough tests in the SEC before Saturday, Donovan is confident his team will be prepared for March. He noted that Florida owns nonconference wins over Kansas, Memphis and Florida State.
“We’ve lined up against good teams,” Donovan said. “I’m not saying, ‘Jeez, I don’t really know my team.’
“I like the direction we’re moving, but I’m also very guarded, because I know things can change. Different things can happen inside your team to break that flow. Right now I think we’re moving in the right direction, but we’ve got to continue moving in that direction.”
If they do, the Gators could wind up in the Final Four for the first time since 2007, when they won their second straight NCAA title.
Donovan was asked Saturday how this squad compares to his championship teams, led by lottery picks Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer.
“Our talent level on that team was at a totally different level,” Donovan said. “The comparison I would make is the way that those guys tried to play for each other, the way they cared for each other...there are some similarities that way.”
In a season defined by parity, that may be enough—especially if Donovan’s prediction holds true.
“As well as we’re playing,” he said, “I still think we can get a lot better.”
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.