Gators wary of Vandy
Published: Wednesday, January 31, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 31, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.
With five starters back from a national championship team, Florida faced lofty expectations coming into the 2006-07 season.
Vanderbilt at Florida
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After some early stumbles, Florida has matched them. At 19-2, the Gators retained their No. 1 ranking for the third straight week, have won 12 straight and have a chance to reach 20 wins before February for the first time in school history.
Now comes the hard part.
How does a team with talent, experience and depth, a team that has already had success in the postseason, not look ahead to March and the quest to become the first team since Duke in 1991-92 to repeat as national champions?
"I would hope that we wouldn't look ahead," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "There are always those human elements you're forced to deal with after a win or loss. Our guys understand it's about mindset.
"I think our guys are smart enough to realize that if there's any game they feel like they're unmotivated or complacent, we won't win."
Florida will begin that process tonight at home against a Vanderbilt team that should get its attention. Even though the Gators have won six straight and 11 of their last 12 against the Commodores, No. 24 Vanderbilt comes into the game with a four-game winning streak in Southeastern Conference play and is ranked for the first time since January 2004.
"Vandy is playing great basketball," junior forward Joakim Noah said. "We're just looking forward to that."
The Commodores already have proven they can win on the road, knocking off Kentucky at Rupp Arena and beating LSU in Baton Rouge. Vanderbilt has received a spark from its current smaller lineup, with senior guard Dan Cage emerging as a leader.
"It's not often that you have the opportunity to play the No. 1 team in the country," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "Sometimes teams are ranked number one because someone else lost or some other reason, rather than really deserving it. I think Florida is truly the best team in the country. They're extremely talented, they have no weaknesses and they're well-coached."
Florida, coming off a 25-point win Saturday at Auburn, can match its best SEC start in school history with a win and can clinch its ninth-straight 20-win season under Donovan. Florida (6-0 SEC) last started 7-0 in the league during the 2003 season.
Florida has won two league games by 25 points or more, with a three-point win at Mississippi State the lone scare in league play. That's caused some to speculate that Florida could become the third team since 1956 to go undefeated in the SEC. Kentucky was last team to go through the league schedule unblemished, finishing 16-0 in 2003.
"Talk about it when we're 14-0," Donovan said. "We haven't even made it to the halfway point right now.
"We've got two at home this week, then five of our next eight on the road. We've got a long way to go before anyone talks about that and I'd be shocked if our guys are into that or even thinking about that."
Junior center Al Horford admitted it's crossed his mind.
"You really can't, though," Horford said. "We understand, any given night, any team in the SEC can beat us and can expose us out there. We don't want to be exposed."
Florida leads the nation in field goal percentage at 54.4 percent and ranks fourth in the country in 3-point field goal percentage at 43.7 percent. The Gators are producing inside and outside, getting to the free-throw line 25 times or more in each of its last three games.
"You don't know what to take away," Stallings said. "Certainly, their inside game is dominating, but so is their perimeter game."
Noah is as impressed with the little things Florida has done during its current winning streak, such as hustling for loose balls.
"Being the No. 1 team in the country and having the big target on our back, I think that showed something about this team," Noah said, "when you see we're the aggressors and we're the ones getting every loose ball against teams who should be doing that against us."
Florida will close its two-game homestand Saturday against Tennessee, a team that beat the Gators twice last season. Then it's back on the road next week for games at Georgia and at Kentucky.
Wins the next two weeks would put Florida in prime position for its first SEC regular-season title since 2001. To Donovan, that's looking too far ahead.
"Sometimes when you're No. 1 in the country and you're 6-0 in the league, everybody wants to be a fortune reader, everyone wants to forecast the future and we don't focus on what reality is," Donovan said. "The reality is we have a game (today). We have to focus on what we have to do right now."
Noah practiced Tuesday and said he's progressing from flu-like symptoms that slowed him Saturday at Auburn, "I'm feeling a little better right now" Noah said. "I'm not at 100 percent, but I feel like it's OK. I'm getting better."
Kevin Brockway can be reached at (352) 374-5054 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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