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Florida coach Billy Donovan wants his team to stay focused in wake of its No. 1-ranking.

Tuesday February 25, 2014Just A Number: Gators Take Nation's Top Ranking in Stride -- and to Vanderbilt

Florida coach Billy Donovan wants his team to stay focused in wake of its No. 1-ranking.

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- As the victories mounted the last two months, Billy Donovan and his staff provided constant reminders to their Florida basketball team that it needed to expect the opponent’s very best effort, every single night. The standard the Gators had set for themselves simply demanded it.

Well, the stakes were raised Tuesday.

Those 19 straight victories have earned Florida the ultimate bulls-eye, with both the Associated Press and ESPN/Coaches polls vaulting the Gators (25-2, 14-0) to No. 1 just in time for a road date with the Vanderbilt Commodores (15-11, 7-7) Tuesday night at Memorial Gymnasium.

For UF, it’s the fifth time the program has climbed to the top of the polls and the first since a four-week stay there in January and February of 2007 on the way to a second straight national championship.

The team that knocked Florida off its lofty perch back then?

Unranked Vanderbilt. At Memorial.

And what does that piece of history have to do with this one?


Sort of like what being ranked No. 1 in late February means. That’s certainly the picture Donovan is painting for his players.

“Our lives aren’t really changing,” senior forward Will Yeguete said. “It’s a good accomplishment, but I think Coach D will use it to motivate us.”

He certainly won’t be using it as a point of emphasis. Or praise.

“I’m not dismissing any of that stuff, but I think what happens sometimes is you get focused on that and now everything you do is attached to a ranking, [as in] No. 1 Florida -- if we stay No. 1,” Donovan said Monday. “It means nothing.”

He compared the development to senior guard Scottie Wilbekin last week being named Southeastern Conference Player of the Week. It’s nice, but it’s not going to do much to help the Gators beat the Commodores, or LSU later this week, or South Carolina and Kentucky next week, or whoever down the line.

“I don’t think Scottie went into the season saying, ‘I want to be SEC Player of the Week for five weeks,’ ” Donovan said. “I think it's a nice compliment, but let's be honest right now -- we would not have garnered No. 1 it had not been for the teams in front of us losing.”

UF started the season at No. 10 in the AP poll, fell as low as 19th, and since have gone the last 11 weeks without a loss while Kentucky, Michigan State, Arizona and Syracuse all spent time at the top of the heap.

Now, it’s Florida’s turns to be the so-called best in the land ... for now.

The Gators, of course, want to be the best in the land come April, but swear their lone focus is on being the best in the Memorial Gym come Tuesday night.

“I don't know how good every other team in the country is. All I know is that we have a lot of things we can do better and we need to get better,” sophomore guard Michael Frazier II said. “The only thing that matters is us staying in love with the grind and falling in love with the process of getting better every day.”

Let’s not forget “embracing the struggle,” another one of Donovan’s go-to phrases often parroted by his players. When you’re No. 1, plan on every game being a struggle; and every arena being like a lions' den.

The 2002-03 team that gave UF its first trip to the top found that out. Those Gators were voted No. 1 on Monday and got drilled by 15 on Tuesday at Kentucky. Thanks for coming.

Florida ’03-04 took a turn there in December of that season. Its first time out was a home game against Maryland. A loss. Three days later, the Gators went to Louisville. Lost. See ya.

It took the reigning national champs of 2006-07 to extend the ranking beyond one week. They lasted three weeks and seven games at No. 1 before losing to Kansas in Las Vegas, then returned to No. 1 in January and stuck around for five weeks before -- once again for emphasis -- losing at Vandy.

UF’s all-time record while wearing a “1” is 15-5.

FYI: Vandy’s record against “1s” at home is 6-7.

"I think we know we're in this position,” Yeguete said. “It's obviously something that we need to respond to and try to keep calm [about] as well. Whether we're No. 1, I think every team wants to beat us.”

More to the point, the Gators have looked very beatable of late. The defense that has been their calling card all season has taken a leave of absence, as Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Auburn and Ole Miss have all shot better than 45 percent against UF over the last five games.

Florida won each of those games with some bare-knuckle defense and clutch shots in the game’s waning moments, but the Gators cannot bank on that ability to switch into high gear in crunch time when the situation demands.

They need to find it sooner.

And sooner rather than later.

"We watched a bunch of film [Sunday] about defense, things we can do.” Yeguete said.”We're not a great defensive team now.”

But they are the No. 1 team in the nation right now.

Everybody will want a piece of that.

No. 1 Florida at Vanderbilt  

When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
Where: Memorial Gymnasium, Nashville, Tenn.
Records: Florida 25-2 (14-0); Vanderbilt 15-11 (7-7)
TV: ESPN (w/Brad Nessler, Jimmy Dykes and Shannon Spake) 
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise)
Game notes: Florida notes; Vanderbilt notes


History: Vanderbilt leads the all-time series 64-61, but UF has made up lots of ground over Coach Billy Donovan’s 18 seasons. The Gators are 23-13 against the Commodores under Donovan, but just 7-9 in games played at Memorial Gym and that includes a 77-67 loss there two years ago against a Vandy team armed with eight seniors that went on to shock No. 1 Kentucky in the SEC Tournament championship game. The last meeting between the two came March 6, 2013 in Gainesville, with UF winning 66-40 behind Kenny Boyton’s 15 points. The victory clinched a share of UF’s second outright league title in three years.

Pre-game storyline: The Gators will play their first game as the nation’s top-ranked team since the 2007 season and will do so with a chance to clinch at least a share of a second straight SEC crown. That would be a first in program history. Florida has a three-game lead over Kentucky atop the standings and can win the title outright with two wins in the final three conference games. 

On the Gators: They’ve allowed the fewest points in the league (just 58.67 points per game), but the Gators are trending the wrong way when it comes to opponent’s field-goal percentage. Five straight opponents have shot at least 45 percent and two of those were over 50 percent from the 3-point line. UF needs to clean that up before the postseason arrives. ... Florida has hit 80 points just once during the SEC season and that took an 18-point outburst in overtime at Arkansas. ... Backup point guard Kasey Hill is doubtful due to a groin pull that occurred Feb. 15 at Kentucky and sidelined him the last two games. ... Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin is playing at a remarkably high level in averaging 18.7 points, 41.5 percent from the floor, 40.5 from 3-point range and 82.7 from the free-throw line. Wilbekin was a little careless with the ball Saturday in the win at Ole Miss, but his five turnovers not only were offset by seven of the team’s 19 assists, they were more than his four previous games combined. ... Senior center Patric Young (10.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg) has logged at least 29 minutes in four of the last six games. In those games, he has seven assists and just five turnovers while making 19 of 23 free throws (82.6 percent). ... Senior forward Casey Prather (15.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg) will try to bounce back from a tough night shooting at Mississippi. His 3-for-10 performance in that game nudged Prather from fourth in the nation in field-goal percentage to seventh (.614). Prather was somewhat bothered in the game with ankle and knee soreness, so UF gave him Sunday off from practice to rejuvenate.

On the Commodores: Tough team to figure. After winning four straight in SEC play, the Commodores have dropped three of the last five, but are coming off a convincing 67-59 win at Auburn; the same team that took UF to the wire last week at the O’Dome. In that game, Vanderbilt went 10-for-18 from the 3-point in the second half alone to overcome a 16-point deficit on the road. ... Vandy doesn’t score a lot -- its 66.5 points per game ranks next-to-last in SEC -- but the Commodores make it really hard to score against them. Vandy allows just 40.1 percent from the floor (5th in the league) and next to nothing -- as in 29.9 percent (2nd in league, 21st nationally) -- from the 3-point line. ... Offensively, the Commodores run multiple actions under Coach Kevin Stallings, running screens for the screeners, with a lot of false action that combines pick-and-rolls with Princeton concepts. ... Senior forward Rod Odom (14.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg) goes 6-9, but is a legitimate “stretch-4” threat at 40.5 percent from the arc. ... Senior point guard Kyle Fuller (11.6 ppg, 4.5 apg) does a little bit of everything (he ranks second in the conference in assists), while junior guard Dai-Jon Parker had a career-high eight field goals and 21 points at Auburn.

Key numbers:

* .333 - Vanderbilt’s all-time winning percentage against the No. 1 ranked team in the nation, by virtue of an 8-16 record. The Commodores’ last big takedown came over eventual NCAA champion Kentucky team in 2012. The Commodores are 6-7 vs. No. 1s at home, including an 83-70 beating of Florida on Feb. 17, 2007.

* 4.3 - Dorian Finney-Smith’s percentage from the 3-point line over the previous seven games. That number went up when “Doe-Doe” went 1-for-5 from the arc at Ole Miss, his only make in his last 23 attempts. 

* 6 - SEC championships in UF history, which currently is tied with Mississippi State for fifth-most in the conference. A win at Vandy will move the Gators into a tie with Alabama for fourth with seven.

* 7 - Players on scholarship for Vanderbilt after center Josh Henderson was lost for the season with a knee injury in December and guard Eric McClellan was dismissed from the team in January.

* 129 - Miles from Nashville to Jackson, Tenn., where Prather grew up and was a hometown standout. At Northside High, he averaged 29 points, 13 rebounds, five blocks, five steals and three assists per game. He once had 53 points and 24 rebounds in a game.

Watch for it: Make that “Get used to it,” as in a heightened intensity by the opponent and the crowd, now that the Gators are wearing that No. 1 jersey on their backs.


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