Florida Gators basketball team No. 1 for first time since 2007

Florida Gators basketball team No. 1 for first time since 2007

February 25th, 2014 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Florida forward Dorian Finney-Smith (10) pulls down a rebound as teammates forward Will Yeguete, center, and guard Scottie Wilbekin come up to help against Mississippi in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Oxford, Miss.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

The Southeastern Conference does not have a deep pool of NCAA tournament candidates in men's basketball, but it does have the team at the top.

Florida will head into March ranked No. 1, a perch that Billy Donovan's Gators haven't occupied since 2007. The Gators won a second straight national title that year, but Donovan downplayed Monday's ranking as his team prepares for tonight's game at Vanderbilt (7 EST on ESPN).

"I think rankings are a revolving door," Donovan said on the league teleconference. "Every week they change. When teams lose in front of you and you win, then you move up. It's a good conversational piece, but it has nothing to do with what we're trying to do over the course of this season.

"Our guys never really had a goal of being No. 1 in the country, and it really doesn't mean anything right now. We don't start any games with the lead."

The Gators have won a school-record consecutive 19 games to compile a 25-2 record, which surpasses the 2007 team for the best start in program history. They ascended to the top spot after Syracuse, last week's No. 1 team, lost to Boston College and Duke.

Florida defeated Auburn and Ole Miss last week despite trailing in each contest with less than 10 minutes remaining.

"Every time you come out of a game, win or lose, you're always dealing with something," Donovan said. "There is always a residual effect from any game you play in, whether you play great or poorly or you win or lose. Our focus is just the next game up, and that's all that really matters.

"Our guys have done a pretty good job of that this year. That's not to say it will continue, but certainly our focus will be how to get better and improve as a team."

Florida is 14-0 in league games and could become the first team other than Kentucky to go undefeated in SEC play since Alabama in 1956. The Wildcats have since gone without a league blemish in 1996, 2003 and 2012.

The Gators have a three-game lead on Kentucky and can win the SEC with a victory tonight in Nashville and another Saturday against visiting LSU.

"You can tell they hold each other accountable and that the name on the front of the jersey is the only thing that they are playing for," Commodores coach Kevin Stallings said. "They play for each other on defense as well as any team that I've seen in the 15 years that I've been in the league. It's one thing to share and be unselfish on offense, but they're very unselfish on defense in how they cover for each other and how they play for each other.

"It's a really delightful thing to see, and it's something all of us coaches aspire our teams to be like."

An SEC title would be Florida's third in four years and its sixth under Donovan. Before his arrival in 1996, the Gators had just one league championship -- in 1989.

"Everybody in this league wants to win," Donovan said, "and sometimes we're not always in control of the results like we would like to be. The only thing you can do is prepare for the process that you've got to go through."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.