Extending records and setting new marks seemingly every time they step on the court, No. 1 Florida Gators basketball at 27-2 overall and 16-0 in league play has compiled the best start through 29 games in program history.
The Gators started by setting school records for consecutive wins at home, streaks that are up to 31-straight against all competition and 16-in-a-row when taking on Southeastern Conference opponents.
Next up were the aforementioned single-season records with UF having won more games in the regular season than ever before and now starting 16-0 in SEC play for the first time in school history.
The No. 1 national ranking finally came last Monday and will remain in place after two more wins in a six-day span.
Florida clinched a share of the regular-season 2014 SEC Championship with last Tuesday’s 57-54 win at Vanderbilt and won the title outright – in February with three games left to play – thanks to a Kentucky loss on Thursday.
The Gators had an opportunity to celebrate their seventh regular-season championship (third in the last four seasons, second in as many campaigns) on Saturday and did so with a wire-to-wire 79-61 beat down of LSU. But that exaltation came to an end once the final buzzer sounded.
There were no t-shirts or hats brought on the court. A ladder and pair of scissors did not get handed to a walk-on to start the net-cutting process. No mementos would be taken from the Stephen C. O’Connell Center on Saturday because Florida’s seniors knew – and were taught – better.
“I trust those four seniors,” said head coach Billy Donovan after Saturday’s win. “They didn’t want to do anything like that, which is fine. I didn’t want to do it either. I still think there’s still a lot in front of our team, still a lot we need to play for. We’ve got two games remaining – one on the road and one at home – want to close out this regular season and the end of the SEC schedule as best we can.”
Indeed, it all starts with Donovan – his demands and the course he has laid out for the Gators. The coach who is more concerned about Florida’s emotional state than he is about any physical ailments that may be bothering the team. The coach who could is happy to see his players celebrate after victories but has no tolerance when he sees that joy to bleed into the next practice.
Donovan wants to keep the Gators on the edge of glory rather than allowing them to bathe in it.
He hopes Florida realizes that its goal each game is not to defend its No. 1 ranking or what it has already accomplished but rather look ahead to what else can be added to the catalog of triumphs.
“You don’t want to play like you’re trying to protect something where you’re back on your heels,” he explained. “‘We don’t want to lose being No. 1. We don’t want to lose being at home. We want to keep this streak going.’ Once you get into trying to avoid things and trying to prevent things from happening, inevitably you get tight, you get frozen, you don’t play.
“The biggest thing I told our guys is there’s things out there for us to chase. What are we going to chase right now? What are we going to go after? … There’s opportunities out there for them to chase things that hopefully keeps them motivated, focused and excited during this time of year, during this stretch here, because we’ve got seven days left.”
What does Donovan have on his bulletin board for the Gators?
For starters, Florida has never gone undefeated in conference play. In fact, since the league expanded to 14 teams just last season, UF could become the first SEC squad to ever finish the league slate 18-0.
At that point, Donovan will pull a pair of scissors out of his own pocket.
“I’m OK with that because it’s the end of the season. It’s the end,” he said. “I’m not opposed to doing that. To me, when you cut down a net, that’s finality. To me, there’s still two games left, so there’s no finality right now.”
After that last game is played, Donovan will point out, the 2013-14 Gators could become the first team since the 2006-07 group to sweep arch rival Kentucky in a season series. No UF team since that squad has won the SEC Tournament either, a feat which would make Florida the SEC’s sole title holder this season.
And of course, with a long-term perspective covering the next month, this team hopes to be the first Gators squad in seven years to get past the Elite Eight and into the Final Four after stalling in the quarterfinals each of the last three seasons.
Donovan will present those goals to his players one at a time as needed.
First, Florida has to figure out a way to get to 28-2 on the season, 17-0 in conference play, by travelling to Columbia, SC and taking on a South Carolina team that just pulled off a major upset by taking down UK on Saturday.
“Sometimes when everything looks rosy on the outside … and people will look at the bottom-line result, I’m still looking at how is our team playing?” said Donovan.
“I’ve seen players and teams lose their way and lose their identity. I think it’s very, very easy to have happen. You lose who you are. So who have we been? We’ve been a team that has gone through this process since the season started. We’ve worked hard. We’ve been the same each and every day in practice. We’ve strived to get better. We strive to be the best we can be. They give a great effort.
“But the minute you start losing sight of who you are because of this other stuff, sometimes it’s hard to regain your identity. That’s the challenge right now.”
Tuesday’s challenge is the Gamecocks, a team the Gators stomped 74-58 at home on Jan. 8, which simply represent another taste of glory Donvoan’s team can briefly enjoy as they tries to hold onto their edge for the duration of the season.