ARLINGTON, Texas — Now that the Gators’ season is officially over, let’s put their 30-game winning streak in perspective.
It is the 10th-longest winning streak in college basketball history, the longest of Billy Donovan’s coaching career and the longest in program history. Most teams struggle to win 30 games in a season, let alone 30 straight.
But it’s more than the number 30 itself that makes this streak so special. It goes much deeper than that.
Following No. 1 overall seed UF’s disappointing 63-53 defeat to 7-seed UConn in the NCAA Tournament semifinals on Saturday, Billy Donovan expressed that sentiment. The 18-year Florida coach, who masterfully transformed a Gators team riddled by injuries and suspensions at the beginning of the year into a Final Four squad by late March, delivered a telling answer to a reporter’s question.
“Every coach sits up here and is so proud of my guys, I’m so proud of my guys,” Donovan said. “Me being proud of them is from a totally different perspective, because for me personally, I saw how dysfunctional we were in September. Didn’t even know what we would look like.”
The Gators looked like an unconstructed jigsaw puzzle in the preseason and first month of the regular season.
Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin remained suspended after months in Donovan’s doghouse, and it was a giant question mark whether he would play this season. Many thought Wilbekin might transfer, and the Gainesville native contemplated it briefly.
Versatile forward Dorian Finney-Smith and center Damontre Harris also served suspensions for violating team rules. Donovan dismissed Harris from UF in December, but the South Carolina transfer would soon rejoin the team during practices.
Regardless, it left UF down a big man.
Before the start of the regular season, Michael Frazier II battled mononucleosis, and Will Yeguete was still not at 100 percent coming off arthroscopic debridement on his right knee in May. Rutgers transfer Eli Carter (broken leg) and Dillon Graham (bone spurs in hips) had their seasons shut down.
Freshman point guard Kasey Hill suffered a high-ankle sprain not even two weeks into the regular season and missed four games. Wilbekin returned after a five-game suspension on Nov. 25 only to suffer a sprained ankle a week later against the Huskies.
Every day, it was a new setback. Donovan’s group could not catch a break.
Due to its shifting parts, Florida lacked sound defense to kick off the year. After UF surrendered 69 points to North Florida of all teams in its season opener on Nov. 8, Donovan ripped his shorthanded unit.
“We are light years away from even being remotely a good defensive team and light years away from even being a ranked team,” he said after the game with a crisp tone.
But after the UConn loss, things began working in the Gators’ favor. Wilbekin was back in the mix. Hill returned and provided sufficient relief as a backup for Wilbekin. Senior forward Casey Prather continued to build on his breakout year. Patric Young began to harness his physical attributes as UF’s starting center.
In February, a once academically ineligible Chris Walker finally made his debut after serving a 12-game suspension handed by the NCAA for receiving impermissible benefits from agents. The freshman forward soon found his role, providing athleticism and another body for UF off the bench.
The Gators were clicking. Over a few months, a team of just parts gradually became a well-oiled machine.
During its historic streak, Florida grinded out quality wins against Kansas, Memphis, Kentucky and Tennessee — the latter two three times each. Donovan’s group cut down the nets on three separate occasions, the final time in celebration of his program’s first trip to the Final Four since 2007.
There’s no way the Gators would have achieved these milestones if it weren’t for how well they overcame adversity — a popular but relevant cliché.
“Everyone’s just grown so much,” Young said. “You just have to look at that and remember that.”
Anyone who looks at a record book 10 years from now might not realize that, but a simple number cannot measure how remarkable 2013-14 was for Florida.
Follow Landon Watnick on Twitter @LandonWatnick
Florida’s starters huddle prior to the start of Florida’s win over Dayton on March 29 in FedExForum in Memphis, Tenn.