Heading into the Big 12/SEC Challenge, Florida had quietly managed to put together a solid NCAA Tournament-quality resume. It may not have contained any wins over top-50 opponents, but the loss column was also largely limited to teams ranked among the top 50. After getting thrashed by Tennessee in early January in Knoxville, the Gators narrowly lost at Texas A&M and Vanderbilt in working their way to a good-not-great 5-3 SEC record. That profile changed on Saturday, however, as Florida enhanced its resume significantly with a resounding 88-71 home win over #9 West Virginia. It’s the kind of win that will pay significant dividends on Selection Sunday, and one that head coach Michael White hopes will become a springboard to even more success in the second half of conference play.
Florida has lived in the NCAA Tournament for nearly all of the last two decades, missing the Big Dance only twice in the prior 17 seasons. Small note: All that was accomplished with a Hall of Fame coach pacing the sidelines. When Billy Donovan fled Gainesville last spring for the bright lights of the NBA, athletic director Jeremy Foley turned to a coach who was about as accomplished as Donovan when he arrived at the school in 1996. While the early returns on White’s tenure are mixed – the Gators’ pre-conference losses came to Purdue, Michigan State, Miami (FL) and Florida State, prior to the ugly loss at Tennessee — the new head man in Gainesville has since steadily righted the ship. Some questioned his hiring around the holidays, but Florida would easily be in the field of 68 if the season ended today. Most of the focus in the SEC has centered on the rise of Texas A&M, the fall of Kentucky, and the superstardom of Ben Simmons, allowing the Gators to fly well under the radar for the first time in a long while.