The top-ranked Gators — winners of a school-record 23 consecutive games — are assured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but for a prideful group of seniors, this weekend’s Southeastern Conference tournament won’t be taken lightly.
“It’s really important for us to focus on the moment and getting better every single day as we’ve been doing all year,” senior center Patric Young said. “We can’t let the moment be bigger than what we’re trying to accomplish.”
The Gators, winners of three of the last four regular season SEC titles, have lost two consecutive tournament championships but hope a third time’s a charm. Florida’s quest begins Friday, as a motivated team opens the quarterfinals round at 1 p.m. (ESPNU) against Missouri (22-10), who beat Texas A&M 91-83 in double overtime on Thursday.
The Gators topped the Tigers 68-58 in Gainesville on Feb. 4.
After becoming the first team in SEC history to go 18-0 in league play, coach Billy Donovan gave his players a well-deserved two days off (Sunday, Monday) before the team resumed practice Tuesday and traveled to Atlanta on Thursday.
Florida partied hard following its throttling of then-No. 25 Kentucky last Saturday, celebrating Senior Day and UF’s historic victory with a raucous postgame net-cutting ceremony.
“The biggest area for us is to get emotionally, mentally and psychologically past what happened on Saturday,” said Donovan, who explained his team focused solely on themselves this week and not any what-if opponents.
The Gators (29-2) are the prohibitive favorites to win the final SEC tournament played in the Georgia Dome, as the tournament moves to its near-permanent fixture at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee for nine of the next 11 years.
Florida’s path to its first tournament title since 2007 won’t be easy though, as the Gators could face as many as three hungry bubble teams (Missouri, Tennessee or Arkansas, Georgia) desperate for an at-large bid.
Donovan, who candidly discussed a major issue with the event’s annual setup, scoffed at the notion his team should pack it in and prepare for next weekend’s more important tournament.
According to multiple news outlets, the last team to win the NCAA Championship with a winning streak longer than 13 games heading into the tournament was undefeated Indiana in 1975-76.
Florida, a lock for a No. 1 seed in Orlando, faces a short turnaround should it reach Sunday’s SEC Championship (3:15 p.m., ABC), as the games in Orlando are slated for Thursday and Saturday.
“The one thing the NCAA has to look at is any conference that’s playing their conference tournament and it goes into Sunday, those teams, in my opinion, should not play in the NCAA tournament until Friday,” Donovan said bluntly.
“And I think our league should look at it, too. Are we better off backing up our conference tournament and ending it on Saturday? Just end it on Saturday and give everybody Sunday off and figure out who’s in the tournament and who’s not and move from there.”
But don’t confuse Donovan’s frustration with a lack of desire to win another league title.
“Our goal right now would be to try to put three games together and play in a championship game on Sunday,” he said.
“There’s not going to be anything from our perspective where you sit there and say, ‘OK, because it’s Sunday, let’s bail on this tournament early.’ We’re not going to do that. We’re going to try to do the very, very best we can if we’re fortunate enough to play three days.”