There is no better example of the arrival of parity in college basketball than the stale of affairs in the SEC, where the most important matchup of last week was...Florida versus Mississippi State? While Arkansas and Kentucky have both spent time as the No. 1 team in the nation this season, they both found themselves staring up at the Gators in the SEC. Going into Saturday's game, Florida (17-3 overall) led the Eastern Division of the SEC with the conference's best record, 7-1. Included in that mark was a 59-57 stunner over Kentucky on Jan. 18. Surprising Mississippi State was 13-4 overall, 6-2 in the league and tied with Arkansas and Alabama atop the Western Division, thanks largely to a 72-71 upset of the Razorbacks on Jan. 19.
Neither Florida nor Mississippi State was picked to finish higher than fourth in its division, and neither seems accustomed to the heady atmosphere atop the league. "Sometimes," Florida coach Lon Kruger said on Friday, "I look up at the end of a game and wonder how we won."
At the raucous O'Connell Center in Gainesville on Saturday, the Gators once again relied on their dandy backcourt of junior Dan Cross and senior Craig Brown. (Another contributor to Florida's success has been 6'7", 286-pound sophomore center Dametri Hill, who has lost 60 pounds in the last two years and suddenly learned last summer that he could dunk.)
Cross, who finished with 26 points, was particularly devastating from the perimeter. With 1:06 left, Florida nursing a tenuous two-point lead and the shot clock down to :02, he made a leaning three-pointer that effectively sealed the 84-75 win. "You [reporters] have a tendency to underrate some players," said Mississippi State coach Richard Williams afterward. "Don't underrate Florida." Just for the record, Coach, the writers had Florida in their Top 25 last week; the Gators were nowhere to be found in the coaches' poll.
Florida's success comes four years after the Gators were hit with NCAA probation for violations committed during coach Norm Sloan's watch. In the long run, though, Florida's NCAA troubles may have been the best thing that ever happened to the program. Without them, the Gators might never have hired Kruger, who led Kansas State to an improbable final-eight appearance in 1988.
"Coach Kruger has taught us to get that meanness, like Kentucky," says Cross. "He always says, 'You've got to learn to set your jaw.' We're learning." Gone are the flaky, if talented, enigmas of the Vernon Maxwell and Dwayne Schintzius variety from years past. In their place are a bunch of relentless no-names who didn't exactly have college recruiters camped outside their high schools. "I don't like the word overachievers," says Kruger. "If players get good results, they're a good team."
Florida and Mississippi State are examples of how quickly teams can ascend these days. Between them, they have only three seniors and should be tough next year too. It's also promising that both schools are cultivating support on their football-obsessed campuses. "For the first time," says Gator forward Andrew DeClercq, fairly stunned, "we walk around town and people recognize us."
Having shed 60 pounds, man-mountain Hill has helped Florida's surprising climb in the SEC.