Florida coach Billy Donovan insists his Gators remain excited

Florida coach Billy Donovan insists his Gators remain excited

March 12th, 2014 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Florida coach Billy Donovan holds up a piece of the net after the Gators became the first team in Southeastern Conference history to go 18-0 in league play on Saturday, March 8, 2014 in Gainesville, Fla. Florida defeated Kentucky 84-65 Saturday in an NCAA college basketball game.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Florida made Southeastern Conference basketball history last Saturday by completing the first 18-0 season in league play.

Billy Donovan's Gators are 29-2 overall, ranked No. 1 nationally and expected to land a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament regardless of what transpires at this week's SEC tournament. So will the Gators be just as motivated in the Georgia Dome as they were the past two months?

"I think we're like every other team in this league," Donovan said. "We're getting a chance to play in a championship tournament right now. There is going to be a winner out of these five days, and it's always exciting when you have the opportunity to do that."

Donovan was named Tuesday as the SEC coach of the year, with Florida senior guard Scottie Wilbekin the player of the year and senior center Patric Young the defensive player of the year. The top-seeded Gators open quarterfinal play Friday (1 p.m. on ESPNU) against the winner of Thursday's game between eighth-seeded Missouri and ninth-seeded Texas A&M.

Florida's regular-season title was its sixth since 2000, but the Gators have won only three SEC tournaments ever, all from 2005 to 2007. Florida's last two SEC tournament-title teams went on to capture NCAA tournament crowns.

"I think it's an exciting time," Donovan said, "and I think our guys will be excited about having that opportunity to compete in a tournament like this."

Another Vandy run?

Only one team has reached the SEC tournament semifinals each of the past four years, and it's not Florida or Kentucky.

Vanderbilt has developed a knack for advancing in recent years under Kevin Stallings, winning the 2012 tournament as a three seed and getting to the semifinals last year as an eight seed. Stallings said he never has been able to predict when his Commodores were in for a good run.

"I think it tends to just happen in the games," Stallings said. "You win one and maybe get on a little bit of a roll, but there has never been anything I have sensed going into a tournament when we've done well or when we've done poorly. I think it's a thing where you get there, win a game, and you get a feeling or get some confidence and start playing well.

"That confidence can be contagious, and it just carries you through some or all of the weekend."

Reaching the semis for a fifth straight year would require the 11th-seeded Commodores to win tonight against 14th-seeded Mississippi State, Thursday night against sixth-seeded Ole Miss and Friday night against second-seeded Georgia.

Not looking back

Arkansas has not won an SEC tournament game since 2008, when the Razorbacks reached the final at Georgia Tech before losing to Georgia.

The Hogs are not dwelling on their recent history at this event, nor are they reflecting on last Saturday. After routing Ole Miss 110-80 last Wednesday for a sixth consecutive win, Arkansas fell flat on its trip to Alabama, losing 83-58 after shooting just 17.4 percent in the first half.

"That was probably the worst half of basketball that I've kind of ever been associated with," coach Mike Anderson said. "We had four field goals in 20 minutes and 16 points in a half, and we normally score 16 points in a minute and a half or in two minutes. It was one of those games you just do away with, and you just move forward.

"We know we're a much better basketball team than that."

View from the bottom

It's been a tough two-year ride for Mississippi State coach Rick Ray, whose Bulldogs are a combined 7-29 in league play. They finished 3-15 this season, two games back of 13th-place finisher South Carolina.

"I don't think you can sit here and say that we're on an even playing field with everybody else," Ray said. "Our first year, we played with six or seven scholarship guys. This year, we've played the whole season with seven and eight scholarship guys.

"We've never had the competition for playing time, and I think any program needs that."

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