It’s been said to be the loneliest number that you’ll ever do by the group Three Dog Night in their 1969 single. For the first time in seven years and 12 days the Florida basketball team is back on top in both the Coaches and AP top 25 poll, in other words: they’re No. 1.
It’s been a mixed bag atop the highest perch college basketball has to offer for Florida. Among the more memorable games (for the wrong reasons) as No. 1 was of course the first time against Kentucky on February 4, 2003. The Gators (who had been ranked that high for little more than 24 hours) took a beating at the hands of their bitter rival 70-55. That night UF was shell-shocked by a determined and talented group of No. 7 Wildcats that were underwhelmed by an opponent they thought would have been better.
“We were kind of surprised. We thought they had more firepower,” said then Kentucky forward Chuck Hayes after that win.
The second time the Gators were top-ranked the basketball gods again were not favorable, this time at home, two days after being named No. 1 on December 8, 2003 the orange and blue fell to the Maryland Terrapins 69-68 in what was Maryland head coach Gary William’s 300th victory. At the time it was also UF’s first non-conference home loss in 41 games.
The next time UF was ranked No. 1 it was something they earned through six straight victories in the NCAA tournament. It was the final poll of the season and the Gators were fresh off of winning the program’s first national championship in 2006. They also began the next season as No. 1, and finished there as well after repeating as national champions.
After relinquishing the top spot November 25th of that season with an 82-80 overtime loss against Kansas, the Gators would regain it almost two months later on January 15, 2007. They would defend it until February 19th, the school record for the longest time atop the rankings.
Monday marked the fifth different season, 10th regular season week and the thirteenth different time the Gators have sported the No. 1 ranking. The Gators have only been ranked No. 1 in the AP poll 11 times because the AP does not publish a postseason poll while the Coaches do. The Gators are now tied for 23rd in most weeks all time at No. 1 in the AP poll with Houston. In total, Tuesday’s game against Vanderbilt will be the 21st Florida has played whilst being No. 1 with a 15-5 all time record in the top spot.
They received 47 of 65 first place votes in the AP Poll and 24 of 32 first place votes from the Coaches poll. Predictably, head coach Billy Donovan downplayed the fact to the media Monday but gave interesting context to the feat.
“I think what happens is sometimes you can get focused on that and what happens is now everything that you do is attached to a ranking,” Donovan said. “You never hear like ‘No. 2 Florida.’ It’s No. 1. It’s that ranking that gets dragged with your team. My point is, for our guys that means nothing; in reality, in terms of us preparing, us getting ready to play and us doing what we need to do in playing against Vanderbilt. It’s a very, very nice honor.”
He also highlighted an important part about any team’s ascension to No. 1, to put it bluntly, it takes help.
“I think it’s a nice complement,” Donovan said. “But let’s be honest right now: The only reason we have garnered No. 1 and we would have never, ever been No. 1 if it had not been for the teams in front of us losing.”
Coming into last week there was only one team in front of Florida, the squad Donovan called “the best team in the country,” the Syracuse Orange. They were a team that had seemingly been playing with fire multiple times in conference play grinding out six games with margins of victory that were six points or less until they finally dropped two close contests one in overtime at home to Boston College 62-59 and on the road to Duke 66-60. There was chatter about a movement to keep the Orange atop the polls if they could beat the Blue Devils (their second game of the week) but it was all for naught.
The last time Florida was No. 1 in the regular season, the week of February 12, 2007, the run ended in the same place the newest reign at No. 1 will begin, Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym. With its elevated floor, strange shooting backdrop and benches on the baseline it can be a difficult environment for even the savviest, most veteran bunch (which the Gators were by college basketball standards when they lost that Saturday in 2007 83-70).
With 19 straight victories and an unblemished record in the SEC some may think a loss (that would presumably knock them from the top spot next week) might do the Gators a bit of good, Donovan disagrees.
“I think any coach would tell you the greatest way to learn is through winning. Certainly, losing does help you grow as well,” he said. “After every game there is residual effects you have to deal with as a coach whether it’s your team didn’t play well or your team played very very well.”
If the Gators do in fact keep wining Tuesday in Nashville and Saturday back at home against LSU they’ll extend school records for wins in a row, wins in a row on the road in conference play and break a school record for wins in a row in conference play in general.
They’ll also stay lonely at No. 1 atop the college basketball world –for the time being, that is.