The Florida Gators take another shot at school history tonight when they play host to Vanderbilt (7 p.m., Lincoln Financial TV) at what promises to be a jam-packed, rowdy Stephen C. O’Connell Center. With a win, the number-one ranked Gators (19-2 overall, 6-0 SEC) can become the first team in school history to get to the 20-win mark before the end of January.
Last season, the Gators got off to a 17-0 start, best ever in Florida history but they didn’t get their 20th win until they beat Kentucky at the O’Connell Center on February 4. Not only could this be Florida’s 20th win of the season, it could mark the ninth straight year that the Gators have reached the 20-win mark. The Gators had only five 20-win seasons in school history prior to Donovan arriving on the Florida scene in1996.
And that’s not the only history staring down the Gators. If Florida wins, the Gators will equal their best start in SEC history, the 7-0 mark held by the 2003 team. Florida won its last SEC game of the 2005-2006 season so the Gators have an eight-game winning streak in SEC play. If you add in three wins in last year’s SEC Tournament, it’s been 11 games since Florida lost to another SEC team.
Florida has won 12 straight games since an early December loss to Florida State in Tallahassee. Only four of the 12 games have been decided by less than 10 points with the average margin of victory 18 points.
This is also a chance to extend Florida’s home winning streak which stands at 14 straight games. That’s the third longest home win streak in school history (record is 20). The Gators are 152-26 during Donovan’s tenure.
The Vanderbilt game is the first of four in a row that could put Florida in prime position to win the SEC Championship outright. Florida has won one SEC championship (regular season champions are considered SEC champs, not the winners of the tournament title even though the tournament champ gets the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament) outright in 1989 and the Gators have shared two championships (with Kentucky, LSU and Tennessee in 2000 and with Kentucky in 2001). Florida is 6-0 in league play and the Gators are the only team undefeated in league play. Vanderbilt (15-6 overall), Georgia (13-6) and Kentucky (16-5) all have 5-2 records in the SEC East. Every other team in the league has at least four losses. Arkansas and Auburn lead the SEC West with 3-4 records.
The Gators will face Vandy Wednesday night and Tennessee Saturday afternoon at home, then next week the Gators are at Georgia Wednesday night and at Kentucky Saturday afternoon. If the Gators were to run that gauntlet, they would be sitting pretty at 10-0 and all the teams in the SEC East would have at least three losses, meaning the Gators could go 3-3 the rest of the way and do no worse than a tie for the outright league championship.
But first things first. Winning the title is the ultimate goal, but Donovan won’t allow the Gators to look past the next game and that’s Vanderbilt. He’s certainly not going to let them even consider the possibility of going undefeated in the SEC although it’s pretty clear that at this point of the season, Florida is head and shoulders the best team in the league.
At his Monday press conference, Donovan said, “The only thing that’s important is, and I keep saying it: It’s about today. It’s about right now. I’ve told our guys that the stuff they hear outside of our locker room is all hype, it’s all poison. If you listen to that stuff, you start believing that stuff and taking it in, all it does is rob you of your talent, rob you of your focus, rob you of anything, so if anyone’s talking about us being undefeated, to me, if our guys buy into that and feed into that, it is disruptive and I’m hopeful that our guys can keep a level of humility.”
Donovan has watched a topsy-turvy January for the rest of the league. Preseason SEC West favorites LSU and Alabama opened the season in the top ten but both have 2-4 records in the league. Tennessee, which was expected to give the Gators a run for the East, is 2-4 in league play. There is plenty of balance in the league which means home courts aren’t necessarily safe havens and there are no guaranteed wins.
Because of the volatile nature of the league and the ability for every team to come away with a win on any given night, Donovan totally discounts all talk about going unbeaten in the league at this point.
“For me to talk about an undefeated season is a bit premature,” he said. “Talk about it if we’re 14-0, but right now, we’re not even halfway through the season. We’ve played six games. We’ve got two on the road this week and then we play five of our next eight on the road, so we’ve got a ways to go before anyone starts talking about being undefeated. I’d be shocked if our guys right now are into that or are even thinking about that. Our total focus is on Vanderbilt right now.”
This is a Vanderbilt team that has scored its biggest wins in the SEC on the road. The Commodores have come away with wins at Kentucky and at LSU so they know how to win in hostile environments. Donovan says it won’t be a problem keeping the Gators focused because the Commodores are “team that is very confident playing on the road, seeing what they’ve been able to do in the last several games.”
GAME NOTES: Vanderbilt has four starters averaging in double figures, led by Derrick Byars (15.8). Shan Foster (15.3), Dan Cage (11.9) and Ross Neltner (10.3) also average in double figures … Cage is hitting 45.9 percent from three-point range on 51-111 shooting. Foster (46-114) and Foster (43-125) also have quick trigger fingers from the three-point stripe … Vandy’s backup center Ted Skuchas was a high school teammate of former Gator Matt Walsh in Germantown, Pennsylvania … Cage is hitting 88.9 percent of his free throws (40-45) while Foster is hitting 81 percent … Vandy has blocked 62 shots as a team this season, which is fewer than the 72 that Joakim Noah (39) and Al Horford have combined. The Gators have 109 blocked shots on the season … Florida’s five starters have all led the team in scoring at least three times. Taurean Green and Horford have each led the Gators five times while Corey Brewer and Lee Humphrey have led four times each and Noah has led three times.