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College basketball

No time to savor No. 1 debut

UF's first top ranking gets tested in Kentucky, where it has one win since '89.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2003

They've seen the No. 1 basketball teams come and go, one by one falling victim to their own success.

Arizona. Duke. Alabama.

So when the news arrived in Gainesville on Monday afternoon that Florida was the new No. 1 team in the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today Top 25 polls, the reaction was a mix of pride and cautious optimism.

"I'm very, very happy for our players and the school," coach Billy Donovan said. "As far as the program is concerned, it's a tremendous honor."

It is the first No. 1 ranking in school history, but the consensus among the Gators was that it's nice, but no big deal.

"Let's be honest," Donovan said, "we moved to No. 1 because people in front of us lost. Now, we have won games, but for me to sit here and say we are the best team in the country ... we are certainly a long way away from being that. We aspire to be the No. 1 team in the country at the end of the year and we aspire to be the No. 1 team in the SEC this year."

The competition for the conference's top spot heats up tonight. Florida (18-2, 7-0) plays at No. 6 Kentucky (16-3, 6-0) in a nationally televised game at 9.

They are the only undefeated teams in conference play, with the Gators holding a half-game lead over the Wildcats in the Eastern Division. So the last thing the Gators need is to start believing they are the best playing college basketball.

"Right now it almost concerns me a little bit because I don't want us to get caught up in that," said sophomore David Lee, the team's third-leading scorer and top rebounder. "We've got a big game (tonight) and we've got (more) big games left in the SEC season. It's great to be No. 1, I guess, but we want to be No. 1 at the end of the season. We've seen other teams be No. 1 this year, then drop off and lose games, so we want to take it one game at a time."

Considering the opponent, that likely is a good idea. Florida has won in Lexington just once since 1989 (Feb. 1, 1998) and only six times in the program's 76-year history. Donovan said the No. 1 ranking comes at a good time because preparing for Kentucky won't give the Gators much time to dwell on it.

"It (the ranking) is going to be completely overshadowed by two teams in the SEC that are undefeated playing against each other," Donovan said. "If we do embrace it, it will the be the shortest No. 1 in the history of college basketball because a week from today, it could all change."

Kentucky is taking a similar approach. The Wildcats have rebounded from a tumultuous 2001-02 season and are playing arguably their best basketball this season.

With seven national championships, facing ranked teams is just part of the routine.

"It's just another big game," senior forward Marquis Estill said. "We really don't pay much attention to the rankings. It's just a big game and it would be a big win. We try to look at each game the same. We can't afford to take any team lightly. Obviously, Florida is a great team, they're No. 1, it's a great opportunity for us. This is probably one of the biggest games in the SEC all season, Kentucky vs. Florida."

For opponents, Rupp Arena is one of the toughest places in the nation to play. But what has impressed Donovan this season is his young team's ability to go into hostile environments and come away with victories, including at Maryland, at Mississippi State and LSU and a sold-out game against Florida State in Tallahassee.

It's a cross between being naive and having supreme confidence.

"I'm a freshman and I'm coming in taking every game like it's my biggest one because I'm not used to any of this," said freshman guard Anthony Roberson, who has led the team in scoring six times. "Somebody asked me about Rupp Arena; I heard a lot about it, but I don't know anything about it. I'm going into it with the same focus like I go into the O-Dome every night and just play hard and try to win another game."

Along with the No. 1 ranking, the Gators carry a 14-game winning streak and the best conference start in school history into Lexington. It's a challenge the Wildcats relish.

"This is a great opportunity," guard Keith Bogans said. "When you get a team ranked No. 1 and they're coming into your gym, it's something to look forward to."

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