GAINESVILLE, Fla. — On the day the Florida Gators reached No. 1 in the polls for the first time in seven seasons, coach Billy Donovan stuck to the script that helped his team get there in the first place.
While his team climbed the rankings and set school records, Donovan lent a healthy dose of perspective along the way.
Monday was no different when the Gators moved from No. 2 to No. 1 after back-to-back losses last week by previously unbeaten Syracuse.
“It’s a great honor and I’m not dismissing that,” Donovan said. “But I don’t know how that helps our team.”
The Gators (25-2, 14-0 SEC) have won 19 straight games heading into Tuesday’s visit at Vanderbilt, where a win would clinch a share of the SEC title for UF. Tip-off is at 7 p.m. EST on ESPN.
If the Gators beat the Commodores (15-11, 7-7), UF will return home to face LSU at 4 p.m. Saturday with a school-record 30-game home win streak on the line.
To Donovan, rankings, school records and the inevitable postseason buildup around the nation’s No. 1 team are as much a distraction as an accomplishment.
“My point is, for our guys, that means nothing,” he said. “In reality, in terms of us preparing, us getting ready to play and us doing what we need to do in playing against Vanderbilt.”
Donovan’s players seem to be listening.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of things changing,” senior forward Will Yeguete said Monday. “We still got to go to school. We still got to do homework. Our lives aren’t really changing. We’re No. 1. That’s a really good accomplishment. But I think Coach D will use that to motivate us
“We know what it is to be ranked really high. We know you just take one game at a time. Honestly, the only thing that matters is (Tuesday’s) game.”
Donovan said unbeaten Wichita State (29-0) has a strong case to be No. 1 instead of UF. The Shockers received 14 first-place votes in The Associated Press, compared with 47 for the Gators and four for No. 3 Arizona. UF received 24 first-place votes in the coaches poll, while Wichita State received the remaining eight first-place votes.
“On any given night, there’s a lot of teams that can be No. 1 in the country,” Donovan said.
The Gators first reached No. 1 in February 2003 and promptly lost the next day at Kentucky. UF reached the top spot again in December of the following season, but lost to Maryland and Louisville the next week.
UF won the 2006 national title to end the season No. 1. The Gators opened the next season No. 1, and would spend a total of seven weeks there during the regular season before winning the national title.
Asked if his UF is the nation’s best team right now, sophomore shooting guard Michael Frazier II said, “That’s not for me to say. There’s a lot of things we have to get better at.”
The Gators are coming off a pair of close wins where defensive lapses made things interesting.
Auburn hit 10 3-pointers and led UF for a good portion of the game before falling 71-66 last Wednesday night in the O’Connell Center. On Saturday, the Gators allowed a season-high 42 first-half points at Ole Miss, including 22 by shooting guard Marshall Henderson. But UF held Henderson scoreless during the second half of a 75-71 win.
Coming off a win at Auburn, Vanderbilt has won six of nine games — its only losses by a combined nine points at home to Arkansas and at South Carolina and Missouri. The elevated court at Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gymnasium can be a challenge for visitors unfamiliar with the unique backdrop.
“They’re very capable of beating us,” Frazier said. “We have to come in with the right mentality and the right focus.”