Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Staying in the Elite Isn't Easy; Even the Best Hoops Programs Hit Potholes, UF's Donovan Says

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Staying in the Elite Isn't Easy; Even the Best Hoops Programs Hit Potholes, UF's Donovan Says

Article excerpt

Byline: MICHAEL DIROCCO

GAINESVILLE - Florida has fielded one of the nation's top men's basketball programs over the past decade.

The Gators have nine consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, three Final Fours and two national championships since 1999. Only one other school has made more Final Fours, and only five others have made more NCAA Tournaments in that span.

Those accomplishments are what makes this season so surprising. With a new starting lineup, UF (21-9, 8-7 Southeastern Conference) is struggling in its bid to reach the NCAA Tournament, and barring a victory over Kentucky on Sunday and at least one victory - and possibly two - in next week's SEC Tournament, the Gators could end up in the National Invitation Tournament for the first time since 1998.

As disappointing as that might be, it doesn't necessarily mean the program is headed for a return to the pre-Billy Donovan days, when the Gators only had pockets of success among stretches of mediocrity and worse. Many of the nation's elite programs have experienced similar dips for various reasons.

"Kentucky has always had incredible success. UCLA has always had incredible success," Donovan said. "Now there have been some dips along the way, or there have been some bumps in the road. I don't think it's been smooth sailing for every program."

Not at all. UCLA, which owns more NCAA titles (11) than any school, won 10 of them in a 12-year span (1964 to 1975) and later went 15 years between Final Four appearances (1980 to 1995).

Kentucky, which has more NCAA Tournament appearances (48) and wins (98) than any school, missed the Big Dance in the late 1980s and early 1990s because of the effects of NCAA violations.

Arizona has made an NCAA-record 23 consecutive tournaments, but that streak might end this season. With coach Lute Olson on leave for personal reasons, the Wildcats are 17-12 and 7-9 in Pac-10.

But taking a program from a decade of significance to the level at which its name is immediately connected to the perennial powers means weathering rough years and rebounding to consistently contend for NCAA championships. Kentucky, UCLA, North Carolina, Duke and Kansas have done that.

This is the first time in Donovan's tenure that the Gators are facing the challenge.

"To [measure the sustained] success of a program, it would probably be that when a person enters this world and is born, until the time they get middle-aged and their whole entire lifetime, they can sit there and say, 'You know what, they have always been really good,'" Donovan said. "Since I have been born, Kentucky has always had incredible success. UCLA has always had incredible success.

"Over the last 10 years, I think we could be considered one of the best programs in the country. I think that would be a fair assessment. …

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