GAINESVILLE, Fla. — On the heels of a rare win at Kentucky, the Florida Gators’ next opponent was one Billy Donovan feared more than any other remaining on the schedule.
This formidable foe is sneaky quick and never backs down, even from a UF squad ranked No. 2 in the nation.
“The challenge I always talk to them about is, ‘Are you prepared today to battle human nature?’ ” Donovan told reporters Monday.
Donovan was eager to find his answer later that day at practice.
The Gators (23-2, 12-0 SEC) began preparations for Wednesday night’s visit from Auburn (12-11, 4-8), riding high following wins at Tennessee and at Kentucky. The Tigers, a lower-tier SEC team and losers of six straight to UF, are unlikely candidates to snap the Gators’ two win streaks. UF has won 17 games in a row and 29 consecutive home contests.
But Donovan said even the best players can fall victim to their natural instincts and lose sight of their goals.
“Human nature says let’s take it easy,” Donovan said. “We just had two good wins. Everything is going to be fine. Everything’s OK.
“You’ve got to constantly battle and fight that every single day.”
The Gators have prevailed more often than not this season.
It helps to have four senior starters who have appeared in 491 games combined and are familiar with Donovan’s high standards.
“The key is, are our guys willing and prepared today to start all over again in the process of getting ready to play Wednesday night?” Donovan said. “And be willing not to skip steps? To come to practice and start with film. To start practice and warm up correctly to get ready to practice well. To do the things in practice with a focus and effort and intensity to continually get better.
“That’s the hardest part, after a game is over with, whether you win or lose, you have to start all over again. That is a tedious, grinding, fatiguing, hard process to go through. But it’s one you have to go through in order to be successful.”
To date, the Gators are having as much regular-season success as any squad in school history. UF is one win shy of tying the best start (24-2) and breaking the school-record winning streak — both set by the 2007 national champions.
This team, too, ultimately will be judged during the postseason.
The Gators suffered stinging losses in the Elite Eight the past three seasons, but seem better equipped to reach the Final Four this time.
In 2011 and 2012, UF squandered 11-point leads during losses to Butler and Louisville. The current Gators have shown their mettle late in games and are 10-2 in contests decided by single digits.
Last March, the Gators were overwhelmed during a 20-point loss to Michigan. While UF’s roster is not littered with NBA lottery picks, the Gators combine a high talent level with a synergy Donovan last detected with his national title teams.
Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said the Gators have handled both adversity and prosperity equally well because of this bond.
“If I had to pick a reason, it’s just the experience that us four seniors have,” he said. “Just growing through each year and seeing the older guys when we were freshmen, how they handled it, how we handled it last year being juniors and being in a bigger role. Just knowing how we want to handle it this year and trying to do that as best we can.”
With Donovan, every day is a challenge to do even better.
The Gators have not lost since a buzzer beater on Dec. 2 at Connecticut and are winning by an average of 13.2 points. Yet, Donovan thinks the Gators can improve pretty much everywhere — free-throw shooting, pick-and-roll defense, offensive execution and outside shooting.
“I don’t think there’s one area of the game right now that I couldn’t tell you that we couldn’t afford to get better,” he said. “I just think that it’s a constant growth of trying to improve each and every day.”