GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida Gators moved one step closer to the top spot in the national college basketball rankings, following road wins at Tennessee and Kentucky.
The Gators rose a spot to No. 2 in the both the Associated Press Top 25 and the USA Today coaches polls Monday and trail only unbeaten Syracuse. Winners of a school record-tying 17 games, UF (23-2, 12-0 SEC) received one of 65 available first-place votes in the AP poll.
But the Gators could make the final step this week and reach No. 1 for the first time since winning the 2007 national title.
Syracuse (25-0) looks eminently beatable after it needed late-game heroics during two-point wins last week against Pittsburgh and N.C. State. The Orangemen will host Boston College on Wednesday before visiting No. 5 Duke on Saturday.
Meanwhile, the Gators will host Auburn (12-11, 4-8) on Wednesday and travel Saturday to Ole Miss (16-9, 7-5).
Auburn has lost six straight games to UF. While Ole Miss beat the Gators 66-63 in the 2013 SEC tournament championship game, the Rebels have lost two straight games and four of six overall.
Gators coach Billy Donovan is unconcerned with national rankings or past results, instead focusing his energy on Auburn. The Tigers stayed within striking range of the Gators during a 68-61 home loss on Jan. 18.
“This is a team that has played very well and is giving itself a chance,” Donovan said Monday. “They’ve played very good basketball.”
Auburn has won four of six games and features two of the SEC’s best offensive players, guards Chris Denson and KT Harrell.
Denson leads the SEC with a scoring average of 20.9 points, while Harrell averages 19.2 points. Denson had 56 points in two games last week, including 26 during a loss to Kentucky.
The duo combined for 39 points during the teams’ first matchup.
“They’re capable of going off with big nights, both of them,” Gators point guard Scottie Wilbekin said.
Wilbekin beat out Denson and Missouri’s Jabari Brown (49 points in wins against Arkansas and Tennessee) for SEC Player of the Week honors.
Wilbekin scored a career-high 21 points during a win at Tennessee, followed by a 23-point night during Saturday’s 69-59 win at Kentucky. In addition, Wilbekin had eight assists and five steals and, incredibly, did not commit a turnover during 71 minutes.
Wilbekin’s workload actually could increase. Freshman point guard Kasey Hill is doubtful for Wednesday’s game after suffering a groin injury Saturday.
Wilbekin credited his mistake-free play to “trying not to do too much. Not trying to make the hero play, just being smart.”
The senior point guard has been a calming influence late in games.
During UF’s 69-59 win at Kentucky, Wilbekin hit 5 of 6 free throws during the final three minutes. He was 21 of 24 from the foul line last week.
After he hit 10 of 20 free throws to open the season, Wilbekin put in extra work to shore up a weakness. It is one of many signs of growth Wilbekin has shown since he returned from a season-opening five-game suspension for violating team rules.
Wilbekin’s suspension was his second in eight months, leading Donovan to offer the 20-year-old a chance to transfer. Looking back, Donovan wonders where the Gators would be if Wilbekin had.
“If he didn’t change,” Donovan said, “and if he left, we probably wouldn’t be undefeated in the SEC.”