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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

If men's basketball coach Billy Donovan had left the program for Kentucky over the weekend, it would have been a devastating blow to UF basketball.

The team would have been without the identity that Donovan gives to the Gators. UF commit Kenny Boynton told the Alligator on Tuesday that he probably would have decommitted from UF without Donovan here. And the players left on the roster would be playing for someone who didn't recruit them.

Yes, that would have been terrible for a program in the middle of some serious rebuilding.

But something else happened over the weekend and into the first half of this week that drastically damaged the Gators' chances of winning in the next few years. Two huge coaching moves in the Southeastern Conference have brought stiff competition for years to come.

The first big announcement - one that came on Friday - was that former UF assistant coach Anthony Grant, who took Virginia Commonwealth to the NCAA Tournament the last two years, accepted the head job at Alabama.

Grant is the only SEC coach other than Donovan to have won a national title, and that came while he was assistant under Donovan.

Grant's hire by the Crimson Tide hurts the Gators because he knows all about recruiting in the state of Florida. His presence just eight hours away will hurt UF's recruiting in the future.

"I explained to (my son, Anthony Jr.) the opportunity that Alabama presented, the opportunity to be significant, to accomplish some things that had not been accomplished, to blaze your own trail," Grant said in his press conference earlier in the week.

He'll get his chance to blaze a trail with the Tide, but it will take a few years for him to get a program built.

The more immediate problem for Donovan and the Gators is the man who did accept the head coaching job in Lexington - former Memphis coach John Calipari.

Calipari has also never won a national championship, but he's come very close recently. The coach won the Conference USA regular-season and tournament titles the last four years (against admittedly weaker competition than in the SEC) and did the same with Massachusetts in the Atlantic 10 Conference for five straight years.

Sure, Kentucky is a program on the downturn right now. But Billy Gillispie, whom the Wildcats fired on Friday, was not the right fit. He was an up-and-coming coach from Texas A&M who had never advanced past the Sweet 16 as a head coach. He rose to a major job way too fast, and he burned out under the harsh scrutiny of the Wildcats faithful.

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Calipari has been there before, however, and his aura in the Bluegrass State spells more immediate problems for UF.

Calipari was modest at his press conference in Lexington on Wednesday.

"I do not walk on water," Calipari said. "I do not have a magic wand."

But he might as well have one. He had the No. 1-rated recruiting class this season at Memphis, but now that he's leaving, several of those players might come with him to Kentucky.

And with Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson returning next year, the Wildcats should be a lock for the Sweet 16.

The SEC was a laughingstock among college basketball fans last season. It was a disgrace of a major conference that had just two teams in the NCAA Tournament.

But all that has changed in one weekend. Alabama and Kentucky have made their moves to compete once again in the SEC and on a national scale.

Now it's UF's turn to stay relevant.

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