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UF has come a long way on the court

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2000


In times of conquest, you reflect. Basketball has been played since 1915 at the University of Florida, but the Gators didn't make the Final Four until 1994.

Now, for the second time in seven seasons, Florida is there, priming for a national semifinal Saturday night in downtown Indianapolis against uptown North Carolina.

Indy.

UNC.

That's hoops.

My mind rebounds to Alligator Alley, a brick shoebox in Gainesville where 1950-80 Gators played basketball, in semi-secrecy, never even considering NCAA Tournament possibilities. That was Kentucky's job. Plow horses don't think much about catching thoroughbreds.

In the '50s, Johnny Mauer coached UF basketball. Not quite full time. Mauer moonlighted with Bob Woodruff's football team, working with defensive backs.

photo
[AP photo]
Florida head coach Billy Donovan holds up the net after defeating Oklahoma State 77-65.

Not an uncommon double in the old SEC. I once heard a deep-in-Dixie athletic department official declare, "We have two major sports down here, football and spring football."

In the '50s, an SEC school announced that a guy had resigned as basketball boss to accept a promotion to football defensive line coach.

Believe it, Billy Donovan.

Adolph Rupp still managed to loathe Alligator Alley, where a rare 7,000 sellout could rupture eardrums with noise. Although the Kentucky coaching legend saw the Gators as nothing tastier than 'Cat food, the Baron still openly worried that one of his deep, gifted teams might suddenly snooze with Alachua County boredom.

Even then, SEC schools from Starkville to Athens to G-ville were willing to take one night off from football thought. Triggering a few hours of excitement when the UK colossus came to town. Hoping their own flyweight, not-so-respected basketball bunch might be temporarily prodded to uncharacteristic excellence.

Maybe catch 'Cats napping.

"Someday, that dump in Gainesville will get us," Rupp told me 40 years ago. "Everywhere we go, they paint targets on our backs."

Apropos.

For generations, outdoing the Wildcats in SEC basketball was nearly as difficult as overscoring Castro in a Cuban election. It was a league known as "Kentucky and the 11 Dwarfs."

It finally happened.

UK came to Gainesville, figuring Jan. 23, 1965, would deliver another rout. Florida hadn't beaten the 'Cats since 1934, a dry spell deeper than Death Valley (0-18). Still, the Baron hated being there. For an evening, football would be shoved to the UF campus back burner. Like a heavy metal musician spending a night at the opera.

Gators did it. Kentucky was shocked. Not even close (84-68). From there until Rupp retired in 1972, the Gators went 7-9 against Kentucky. Massive upswing for Florida but still not nearly enough to get the Gators into the NCAA Tournament.

Even so, stuff was changing.

Fourteen months after Adolph's little dose of Gainesville humility, the coach of four national championship teams took his Wildcats to one last Final Four. Kentucky met Texas Western for the 1966 trophy.

Historical ramifications.

In a game that forever remolded college hoops, an all-black lineup from a school now known as University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), put a 72-65 smack on Kentucky, a legendary program Rupp had refused to integrate.

So much has evolved. Today SEC basketball is beautifully balanced. Rivaling the Big Ten as America's toughest conference.

This season the SEC was stronger and deeper than the ACC, where hoops have forever dominated. In 1994, the other time Florida reached the Final Four, conference mate Arkansas became champion.

Football roots are deep and powerful as ever. As always, the uncontested jock king at Florida. Which is good news. Sweet deal for all Gators. Steve Spurrier's show packs the Swamp, generating colossal attention/money. They were national champs in 1996. But, unlike in Alligator Alley times, there's plenty of room, effort and hope for Little Brother Basketball.

Norm Sloan hoisted UF hoops well beyond the undernourished Johnny Mauer situation, coaching in split terms, in the '60s and in the '80s. Lon Kruger brought new impact in the early to mid-90s, including the Final Four that ended with a loss to Duke in the semis.

Now it's Donovan. So removed from the Alley. He's whipped Duke, plus Kruger of Illinois, and is about to take on North Carolina. Legends being overcome. Kentucky is gone. These guys from G-ville have a legitimate shot. I mean, at winning it all. At their fullest, the Billy D Gators of now can take UNC or Michigan State or Wisconsin or the world.

Far more than Adolph Rupp has died.

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