GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When Chandler Parsons arrived at Florida four years ago, he figured the Gators would be winning championships and rings every season, just like they’d done the previous two years.
“My freshman season was a reality check,” Parsons said. “We thought we knew everything.”
It was a reality check for Florida’s program, too. After winning back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007, the Gators haven’t won an NCAA tournament game since.
Until Tuesday night, Florida hadn’t even won an SEC championship since the greatest class in school history left for the NBA draft in 2007.
But after blasting SEC West leader Alabama 78-51 in front of 12,225 fans at the O-Dome, the Gators earned at least a share of the SEC regular-season title. Florida can take it outright by winning its regular-season finale at Vanderbilt on Saturday (or if Alabama loses to Georgia).
“It’s been pretty tough,” Florida senior Alex Tyus said. “We’ve been through a lot. Right now, we’re just trying to enjoy this moment. We’re really excited we left something behind that people will remember. It’s exciting to win a championship and get rings and all that other stuff.”
When Parsons and Tyus arrived in Gainesville in 2007, the Gators were coming off one of the greatest runs in college basketball history. From 2004-05 to 2006-07, Florida went 92-19 and won 12 straight NCAA tournament games to win consecutive national titles.
When Parsons and Tyus arrived in Gainesville as freshmen, there was really only one direction for the Gators to go.
Try jumping into Michael Phelps’ lane after he won eight gold medals at the 2008 Summer Olympics, or into Jimmie Johnson’s car after he won five consecutive NASCAR championships.
It isn’t easy.
“We came in here after one of the greatest college teams ever,” said Parsons, who scored 19 points with 11 rebounds against Alabama. “I don’t think we had too many expectations, but we learned from those situations. We got humbled and hardened.”
From the start, Gators coach Billy Donovan wondered if Parsons and Tyus would ever be tough enough to lead his teams to championships. Donovan knew the pair wouldn’t be as good as departed stars like Corey Brewer, Al Horford and Joakim Noah, but he even wondered if Parsons and Tyus would work hard enough.
“I give them credit because they really battled through a lot of adversity,” Donovan said.
Florida missed the NCAA tournament in each of Parsons’ first two seasons, losing in the NIT semifinals in 2008 and NIT quarterfinals in 2009.
Along the way, Donovan butted heads with his players. Former UF point guard Jai Lucas -- who was picked to replace Taurean Green -- left for Texas shortly before his sophomore season in 2008-09.
Forward Adam Allen -- the fourth member of Donovan’s 2006-07 recruiting class -- hadn’t played in a game this season before dribbling out the final seconds of Tuesday night’s blowout of the Crimson Tide. He has been plagued by knee injuries throughout his career.
“I didn’t know three or four years ago if a day like this would be possible,” Donovan said. “For them to walk out of here with a share of an SEC championship is really rewarding. They’ve come such a long, long way as players. I didn’t enjoy the process two years ago, but they really figured things out.”
More than anything, Donovan said, Parsons and Tyus finally figured out what it would take to win a championship.
“I don’t think people understand that just because you’re a year older [doesn’t mean] you’re a year better,” Donovan said. “Part of growing and getting better is that when you make mistakes and don’t do things right, you address it. That was my biggest issue -- as freshmen, they refused to address the issue. My issue was they weren’t competitive enough and didn’t practice hard enough.”
Donovan believes his team turned the corner last season, after high-scoring guard Kenny Boynton and Georgetown transfer Vernon Macklin were added to a nucleus of Parsons, Tyus and guard Erving Walker.
Florida finished 2009-10 with a 21-13 record, losing to BYU 99-92 in double overtime in an NCAA first-round game in Oklahoma City. Cougars star Jimmer Fredette lit UF up for 37 points, including two 3-pointers in the second overtime.
“I thought the last two years the team was really moving in the right direction,” Donovan said. “The two years before that, I didn’t think we were moving in the right direction.”
As for Alabama, its 27-point loss was a potentially devastating blow to its NCAA at-large hopes. The Crimson Tide came into the game with an RPI rating of 87. Bama’s profile has been damaged by its low schedule strength (175) and dearth of quality wins (14 of its 19 victories came against teams ranked No. 120 or worse in the RPI). The Tide also suffered unsightly losses to teams like St. Peter’s, Seton Hall and Iowa.
Then came Tuesday night’s nightmare, which couldn’t have come at a worse time. Alabama might have to win Saturday’s home finale against Georgia and reach the finals of next week’s SEC tournament in Atlanta to have a realistic chance at an at-large bid.
“It’s only one game,” Crimson Tide coach Anthony Grant said afterward.
But it was a game that will be remembered for a long, long time in Gainesville.
“I couldn’t think of a better ending,” Parsons said.