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April 6, 2007

Kentucky-Florida could be next great rivalry

Billy G at least rhymes with Billy D.

Soon enough we'll know whether he can coach with Billy D.

If he can, Florida-Kentucky is going to move within an elbow jumper of Duke-North Carolina as the best rivalry in college basketball.

It has all the earmarks of a budding feud. Gators coach Billy Donovan beats up on UK until Wildcats coach Tubby Smith has used up his nine lives and gets tossed out with the kitty litter. Kentucky then tries to lure Donovan to assume the throne in Lexington - only to find out he's pretty happy with the kingdom he has built in Gainesville.

Some reports suggest Texas A&M's Billy Gillispie, announced on Friday as the Wildcats new coach, wasn't even next on UK's list. The so-called "Plan B" wasn't necessarily B for Billy but B for Barnes, as in Texas coach Rick Barnes. The Longhorns' coach was believed to be ready to take the job, but something convinced him to stay put. Anyone think that something might be a certain 6-9 forward who may be one-and-not-so-done?

So the Wildcats will claw forward with Gillispie, who took the Aggies to the Sweet 16 before being eliminated by Memphis. He spent only three years in College Station, and he compiled a record of 70-26. It was a remarkable turnaround for the program. The year before Gillispie's arrival from UTEP the Aggies had gone 7-21, including 0-16 in Big 12 play.

Gillispie's first head-coaching job was at UTEP, where he compiled a 30-32 record. He went 6-24 his first season in El Paso, but flipped that to 24-8 and an NCAA Tournament berth the next year.

His teams have been known much more for defense than offense, which doesn't necessarily fit the mold of what Kentucky fans wanted. All three of his Texas A&M teams ranked in the top 50 nationally in scoring defense, but only this year's team cracked the top 50 in scoring offense. Last year the Aggies averaged only 63.4 points per game in Big 12 play, their fourth-worst scoring average in conference since 1960.

Surely there will be somewhat of a honeymoon period for Gillispie. It will last longer if he wins - and even longer if he wins against Florida, which clearly has established itself as the new power in the SEC East.

Donovan's Gators have beaten the Wildcats six consecutive times. Four of the six were double-digit blowouts. Two of the six were at Rupp Arena. It definitely has gotten under the skin of Wildcats fans, as well it should.

UK had UF's number for a long time just as it has every other SEC school. The overall mark, 84-30, still is staggeringly in favor of the Big Blue.

It's an interesting time for both teams to be sparking the tinder for a rivalry. With all four of its all-everything juniors Al Horford, Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah and Taurean Green declaring for the NBA Draft, the Gators' cupboard isn't bare. However, it isn't stacked like the shelves at Target the day after Thanksgiving either. Kentucky actually might start off in a little bit better shape than Florida. Yes, leading scorer and rebounder Randolph Morris is gone, but five of the next six on the scoring list are slated to return.

Expectations still will be above the rim for the Gators and Wildcats next season. Donovan's teams have won at least 22 games in each of the past nine seasons. He also welcomes the fifth-ranked recruiting class in the country by Rivals.com. Gillispie's teams have won at least 21 games for the past four seasons. Kentucky teams have won at least 22 games in each of the past 17 seasons.

Donovan and Gillispie could be butting heads sooner than next season. They probably will clash on the recruiting trail.

For the first time in recent memory, though, neither Florida nor Kentucky will be the favorite in the SEC East. Both will be looking up the preseason polls at Tennessee, which returns everyone but Dane Bradshaw from its Sweet 16 team.

No one in Gainesville or Lexington will care about the Vols. It will be all about the Gators and the 'Cats next season.

Can't wait to see who has the best Billy club.

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.


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