Florida's journey back to the upper echelon of the college basketball world began four years ago, when Billy Donovan purchased a padlock.
It was March 2008 when Donovan's team arrived at its $12 million practice facility and found the doors chained shut. The coach directed the Gators to an auxiliary gym, where they dressed in a rundown locker room once used by the school's swim team.
Donovan instructed his players not to wear any Florida attire. A team that loses eight of its final 11 games has no business donning school colors, he said. When the NCAA tournament selection show aired that evening, the Gators were still on the court.
There was no reason to watch.
Less than a year after winning its second straight NCAA title, Florida was shut out, marking the first time since 1989 that the defending national champion didn't make it back to the tournament the following year.
"I knew we were going to take a dip," Donovan said Tuesday. "No one stays on top all of the time. At some point, everyone has to start over."
That's what makes Florida's 7-0 record and top-5 national ranking so impressive as the Gators prepare for Saturday's showdown at No. 8 Arizona.
Florida won national championships in 2006 and 2007, lost three NBA lottery picks, tumbled into the NIT the following two seasons, then returned to college basketball's elite. Most coaches dream of building an NCAA title contender just once during their careers. Donovan's done it twice, from scratch, in less than a decade.
Florida is one of just four schools -- Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky are the others -- to advance to the Elite Eight in each of the past two seasons. This squad could be even better, as its seven victories have come by an average of 25.3 points, and its three best wins (Wisconsin, Marquette, at Florida State) were by a combined 76 points.
"As good as they were last year," Marquette coach Buzz Williams said Tuesday, "the chemistry and execution of this year's team far eclipses last year's Elite Eight team."
For Donovan, the most gratifying element about the Gators' most recent success is how it was achieved.
The assumption after Florida won the 2006 NCAA title was that standout sophomores Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer would enter the NBA draft. Instead, they returned to school and led the Gators to their second straight championship.
Excited as he was to have the eventual lottery picks back, Donovan said their decisions ended up hurting the Gators on the recruiting trail.
"We really had trouble getting some of the top high school players," Donovan said. "A lot of them were like, 'Jeez, these guys just won a championship and decided to come back. What if they decide to come back again?' "
That didn't happen, as Noah, Horford and Brewer became lottery picks after their junior seasons, leaving Donovan to rebuild with a young roster that often felt entitled.
The Gators' coaching staff also experienced turnover. Former Donovan assistants such as Anthony Grant, Larry Shyatt, Shaka Smart and John Pelphrey all went on to become head coaches. Donovan, though, was happy for the success of his former players and aides and never developed a "woe-is-me" attitude.
"With success comes a price," Donovan said. "When you have success, people are awarded opportunities. The one mainstay here has been me.
"I read a quote from Kobe Bryant that really resonated with me. The Lakers won three straight NBA championships, and then Shaq [Shaquille O'Neal] left for Miami, and their team got dismantled. Kobe said one of the hardest things for him was going all the way down to the bottom of the ladder and having to work his way back up. That's how I felt. I looked at it as more of a challenge instead of saying, 'I'm frustrated, I'm down, why is this happening?' "
Three years after winning the 2007 championship, Florida returned to the NCAA tournament and lost in the first round to Jimmer Fredettte and BYU. The next season, the Gators won the SEC title and reached the Elite Eight with players such as Erving Walker and Chandler Parsons, who had experienced the disappointment of having to settle for the NIT.
"It took two years of our guys being humbled," Donovan said. "That period we went through, I look at it differently than a lot of people do. That enabled us to get to the Elite Eight. That enabled us to put ourselves in a position to get to the Final Four, because it forced those guys to look at themselves realistically.
"There's not a magic potion. I don't have dust I sprinkle on guys. It happens through hard work."
Florida advanced to the Elite Eight for the second straight season this past spring. Instead of taking a dip, the Gators are only getting stronger and are considered the consensus pick to win the SEC.
But as pleased as he is with its record, Donovan said "the jury is still out" on this season's team. Victories over Marquette, Wisconsin and Florida State may sound good, but none of those is ranked in the top 25, whereas last season by this time, the Gators already had played road games at Syracuse and Ohio State.
Opponents are averaging just 48.3 points against Donovan's squad, but he said teams will figure out how to better attack his zone defense as the season progresses.
"It's too early to tell how good we can be," Donovan said.
One thing the coach loves, however, is the Gators' toughness and fight. Other than four-year starter Kenny Boynton, every significant Florida player spent a season or two on the bench and had to battle to earn his starting position. The Gators relish and appreciate where they are -- mainly because of where they've been.
No matter what happens Saturday at McKale Center, Donovan is confident his team will continue to improve and that it will be in the mix for the NCAA title this spring.
"This Arizona game is going to be a great test for us," Donovan said. "We're traveling across the country and we're going to play a game at 10 Eastern time against a top-10 team, just like we are. We haven't seen a team like this.
"We'll be facing some adversity out there, but that's OK. Adversity is good. In the long run, it only makes you stronger."
A: Illinois' backcourt -- Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson have been one of the best -- if not the best -- guard duos in the country. They combine to average 31.7 points for the 10th-ranked Illini, who improved to 10-0 following Saturday's 85-74 victory at Gonzaga. Paul had 35 points in the win. Guard Tracy Abrams (11.6 points) ranks third on the team in scoring.
B: Mark Turgeon -- Maryland fans have to feel good about the direction of their program under Turgeon, who is 8-1 in his second season. Even though the Terrapins have played only one high-level opponent -- they lost to Kentucky in the season-opener -- it's clear this team has enough pieces to compete for its first NCAA tournament berth since 2010. Center Alex Len and guard Dez Wells are All-ACC-caliber players. "Our chemistry is good," Turgeon said by phone Tuesday. "We're getting better, but I was hoping we'd get better faster. I'm not seeing an everyday 'bring it' attitude in our guys yet. That gets a little frustrating."
C: Gonzaga -- For the first month of the season, I was as excited about this Gonzaga squad as any in recent memory. My enthusiasm was tempered last week when the Zags needed a last-second shot to beat Washington State. And it all but disappeared following Saturday's home loss to Illinois. Gonzaga is still a very good team that's completely deserving of its No. 14 national ranking. But labeling the Zags as "elite" may be a stretch.
D: The Big 12 -- I've covered the league since its inception, and I can't remember the conference ever having this bad of a season. Only two teams (Kansas and Oklahoma State) are ranked. And when it comes to quality wins, well ... there are hardly any. The Big 12 is 2-8 versus top 25 teams and only 4-9 against opponents ranked in the RPI top 50. "Once January gets here, our league will be as good as it's been," KU coach Bill Self said. I'm not so sure. Baylor, Kansas State and Iowa State have the personnel to be strong, but have been far from impressive.
F: Football stadiums -- Venues such as Houston's Reliant Stadium should not be hosting regular-season basketball games. Especially in December, and especially in Texas, where folks simply don't give a hoot about hoops until bowl season is over. The announced attendance at Saturday's Texas-UCLA game was 2,797. My guess is that it was about half that figure. The game would've been better suited for a high school gym.
THIS WEEK'S POLL
Ranking the best coaches from a non-Big Six school, in order of total points, with number of first-place votes in parentheses (voters: Eamonn Brennan, Andy Katz, Dana O'Neil, Myron Medcalf and myself):
1. Brad Stevens, Butler (2) -- 46
2. Shaka Smart, VCU (2) -- 37
3. Mark Few, Gonzaga (1) -- 35
4. Gregg Marshall, Wichita State -- 24
5. Fran Dunphy, Temple -- 21
6. Steve Fisher, San Diego State -- 20
7. Stew Morrill, Utah State -- 15
8. Dave Rose, BYU -- 12
8. Bob McKillop, Davidson -- 12
10. Greg McDermott, Creighton -- 10
Also receiving votes: Steve Alford, New Mexico 9; Phil Martelli, Saint Joseph's 9; Randy Bennett, Saint Mary's 7; Dan Monson, Long Beach State 5; Kermit Davis, Middle Tennessee State, 4; Rick Byrd, Belmont, 3; Steve Prohm, Murray State 2; Dave Rice, UNLV 1; Ben Jacobson, Northern Iowa 1; Josh Pastner, Memphis, 1.
THOUGHTS FROM PRESS ROW
1. Missouri coach Frank Haith told me Sunday that the addition of Oregon transfer Jabari Brown could change the entire feel of his team's backcourt. Brown will give the Tigers the outside shooting threat they currently lack. For the past few weeks, point guard Phil Pressey has forced shots he normally wouldn't take -- simply because he didn't have any other options on the perimeter.
"He doesn't have to do that," Haith said of Pressey. "We want Phil to be Phil. The greatest quality he has is making people around him better. He needs to get back to doing that in order for our team to be really, really good."
Brown's presence will certainly help. Although he was ranked as the seventh-best shooting guard in the 2011 class, Brown's talents extend far beyond his ability to score from beyond the arc.
"He's just a great scorer," Haith said, "and he can handle [the ball], too. That means he can score off the bounce, on pull-up jumpers or in the lane. And he's got a high basketball IQ. He can really give us something."
Brown played in just two games at Oregon last fall before transferring.
2. Had a chance to catch up with former Indiana and UAB coach Mike Davis in Houston on Sunday. Davis is in his first year as coach at Texas Southern, which is off to a 1-8 start. Three of the Tigers' losses were by single digits, and two of them (against Colorado and Houston) came in overtime.
Davis, though, is hardly discouraged. Texas Southern -- which also lost to Michigan State, San Diego State, Northwestern and Boise State -- has played one of the nation's toughest schedules. And Davis didn't even join the program until August.
"It's a great situation for me," Davis said. "I get a chance to try to do something that's never been done at Texas Southern: win consistently in the nonconference and put ourselves in a situation to go deep in the tournament. I think we can do something really, really special here. You really don't have to leave Houston to get players. This is a basketball mecca. I'm in the right city."
Davis, who was fired by UAB in March after six seasons, said living in Houston is also benefiting his son, Antone, a seventh-grader who has aspirations of playing in college. "I need to send UAB a thank-you letter," said Davis, who led Indiana to the 2002 NCAA title game. "He's playing against the best competition out here, and he's learning from the best coach."
3. The "best coach" to whom Davis is referring is former NBA star John Lucas, who trains players of all ages five days a week in a Houston gym. I watched Davis' 14-year-old son work out Sunday against some of the top high school prospects in the country. Also taking part in Lucas' training session was South Plains (Texas) Community College center Yanick Moreira, who has signed with SMU. I couldn't have been more impressed with the overall athleticism of the 6-foot-11 Moreira, who also considered Pittsburgh, Baylor, Oregon and Texas A&M. I asked him why he picked the Mustangs.
"It was pretty easy," Moreira said. "I had my coach helping me, as well as a few guys back home. All of them told me Larry Brown was the right guy to coach me and make me better."
What was Brown's recruiting pitch?
"He said, 'If you promise me you're going to work and play hard every single day, I'm going to make sure you're going to become a pro,' " Moreira said. "I think we can be pretty good at SMU. We can make big schools scared to play us."
4. With the NCAA still dragging its feet on the Myck Kabongo situation -- and seriously, this is getting ridiculous -- Texas freshman Javan Felix has been thrust into a difficult situation. The point guard is averaging a little less than four turnovers a game while shooting a paltry 30 percent from the field. Felix played 38 minutes in last weekend's 65-63 loss to UCLA in Houston.
"That's about 23 more minutes than we expected when the season started," Texas coach Rick Barnes said. "He's done a pretty good job. There's been a lot put on him. At the end of the game, that's where he's got to get better."
Felix had two turnovers in the final three minutes against UCLA and also fired up some ill-advised shots.
"More is expected of me than we originally planned," Felix said as he left the locker room, "but I'm ready to take that challenge on. I feel like I'm getting better every game. I'm just going to keep listening to Coach Barnes and stay positive about everything."
5. Last Saturday was my first chance to see UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson in person. Both freshmen were incredibly impressive, but they'd be even better if they each dropped about 10 pounds, especially in the lower body. Neither seemed to have much burst off the dribble.
6. At 8-1, Virginia Tech ranks as one of the biggest surprises of the season. The Hokies are averaging 82.2 points per game, a mark that ranks 11th in the country.
"We're playing my style of basketball: up-tempo," first-year coach James Johnson said by phone last week. "We're in good condition, so we can really run the floor. I want our guys to beat the defense up the floor and take good shots early in the possession so they don't have to grind it out 5-on-5 all the time."
Johnson, who has just eight scholarship players, eventually wants to employ the same frenetic style on defense, too.
"The way I envision the future is us attacking on the defensive end," he said. "But with our numbers right now, I feel the only place we can do it is the offensive end. As time moves on, we'll get more players in here, and I'll extend the defense and press."
7. Oklahoma State booster T. Boone Pickens kicked off his Christmas shopping this week by purchasing the remaining 4,000 tickets for the Cowboys' New Year's Eve showdown with No. 14 Gonzaga. Pickens, who will give away the tickets to OSU fans beginning today, said he hopes the gesture will "put a great exclamation point on a promising OSU basketball season." The 24th-ranked Cowboys are 7-1.
8. Add Washington State's Ken Bone to your "Coaches Doing a Heck of Job" list. The Cougars look like a totally different team than the one I saw get crushed Nov. 19 by Kansas in the CBE Classic before falling in the final seconds to Texas A&M the following night.
Washington State put on an incredible performance against then-No. 10 Gonzaga last week but fell 71-69 on Kevin Pangos' last-second layup. Four nights later, it beat Fresno State 59-50.
"Our kids have done a nice job dealing with adversity," Bone told me Tuesday. "When things have gone bad, they've bounced back. They're a group of high-character guys."
Bone kicked Reggie Moore -- who was considered one of the Pac-12's top point guards -- off the team during the offseason for a violation of team rules. The Cougars were dealt another blow when DaVonte Lacy went down with a knee injury early in the loss to Kansas. Lacy is Wazzou's second-best offensive player, behind forward Brock Motum.
"The ligaments pulled away from the capsule that covers his kneecap," Bone said. "There was a lot of fluid in his knee. The old-fashioned solution would be to get in there and drain it. But they felt it would be better to get that thing to drain naturally."
Bone praised team doctors for using hydrotherapy to help Lacy maintain his stamina while his knee healed. He made his return against Gonzaga and scored 22 points in 28 minutes.
Best on top: Big Ten (Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan State)
Best at the bottom: Pac-12 (Arizona State, Utah, Washington State, Washington, USC)
Where'd they come from: Illinois-Chicago
Where have they been: Villanova
What in tarnation has happened to: Colorado
Call me when you play someone: Syracuse
Take the day off: Duke
Too much credit: Connecticut
Deserves more credit: Russ Smith, Louisville
Brilliant: Champions Classic and Crossroads Classic
Are you bananas: Four basketball games at one time at Jerry World
Needs to retire: Jim Burr (official)
Time to give up on: West Virginia
Don't lose faith in: Illinois State
Son that deserves a pat on the back: Tyler Self (scored first career basket for Kansas)
Son that deserves a swat (or three) on the butt: Mike Anderson Jr. (received third DUI)
Each week, I'll pick the top five players -- and three reserves -- to play for a high-profile coach at his current school. Disagree with my selections? Let me hear about it.
Michigan State's All-Tom Izzo team
G -- Mateen Cleaves: Three-time All-American led Spartans to 2000 NCAA title
G -- Charlie Bell: Defensive standout led Spartans to three Final Fours
G/F -- Jason Richardson: Scored 14.7 points as a sophomore on 2001 Final Four team
G/F -- Morris Peterson: Scoring leader for 2000 NCAA championship team
F -- Draymond Green: Played in two Final Fours; 2012 NABC National Player of the Year
G -- Kalin Lucas: Led Michigan State to 2009 NCAA title game
G -- Drew Neitzel: One of the top 3-point shooters in school history
F -- Zach Randolph: Sixth man for 2001 Final Four squad became a star in the NBA
Wichita State 60, at Tennessee 52: The Vols are averaging 37 points in their past two games.
Florida 74, at Arizona 62: The Wildcats' first game against a quality opponent ends in a loss, but the setback won't define their season.
Indiana 75, vs. Butler 58: The Hoosiers are too quick and athletic in transition for Butler. Then again, so was North Carolina, and we all know how that turned out.
Notre Dame 72, vs. Purdue 61: Two teams headed in opposite directions. The Fighting Irish are rolling and the Boilermakers are reeling.
Louisville 72, at Memphis 61: The Tigers have no chance if Joe Jackson doesn't come to play.
Gonzaga 74, vs. Kansas State 59: The Wildcats have trouble scoring, which isn't good against a ticked-off team looking to bounce back in front of a pro-Zags crowd in Seattle.
Creighton 70, at Cal 65: This could be one of the more competitive games of the weekend. Both teams are extremely well-coached.
Last week: 6-1
Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar & Grill, Las Vegas: I can't stand sushi. Actually, let me rephrase that. I've never had sushi. But if I did, I'm guessing I'd hate it. Not real big on raw meat. But I still had an incredible meal at this upscale eatery in the Cosmopolitan hotel, thanks to some advice from our friendly waiter. "Order the fried chicken," he said. "It's the best thing on the menu." I would later learn that the battered bird at Blue Ribbon was regarded as some of the best in the country. I can certainly see why. The crust is seasoned with shichimi pepper, which makes it a tad spicy. A ramekin filled with wasabi honey comes on the side and the portions are huge. I think you'll love it -- and if you don't, you can always stop by the pizza joint next door.
Banger's Sausage House & Beer Garden, Austin, Texas: Some friends and I stumbled upon this popular hangout on Rainey Street while in town for a bachelor party last month. Banger's specializes in different varieties of sausages and bratwursts -- the Louisiana Lightning was really spicy -- but the thing that stood out were the sides. Served in mason jars, the German potato salad and the jalapeno creamed corn with onion gratin nearly put me in a state of euphoria. The house-made Snickers Ice Cream Jar was one of the best desserts I've ever had. If you're more thirsty than hungry, Banger's has more than 100 beers on tap and a nice outdoor area with picnic tables and music.
Frankie Bones, Hilton Head, S.C.: The culinary highlight of this summer's spur-of-the-moment getaway to Charleston/Hilton Head came during our visit to Frankie Bones, one of the most highly rated restaurants in the area. I hit the lottery with the teriyaki steak and fried shrimp combo. The steak was full of flavor and the shrimp was battered lightly enough that it didn't lose its flavor. So impressed was I with Frankie Bones that I recommended it to my editor, who visited during his trip to Hilton Head a few weeks later. "You definitely know your food," he texted after his meal. Hey, whatever it takes to impress him, right?