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Florida craves a return to form
Since starting 17-0, the Gators have been a .500 team and need to beat Kentucky today for a first-round bye for the SEC tournament.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published March 5, 2006
Four months after the season began, Florida finds itself right back where it started.
Trying to prove itself and looking for respect.
The Gators opened 17-0 and were ranked as high as No.2, but they have lost three of their past four games, (are 6-6 overall since) and fallen to No.17. "I think we have to earn our way right now," coach Billy Donovan said. "We've done nothing here at the end of the season. ... We have to go out there and prove ourselves. I think that we're in the same exact boat that we were in before the season started. We've lost some games. We've got to re-establish ourselves."
Starting at Rupp Arena.
Florida plays Kentucky today with a chance to earn its first victory at the famed facility since 1998 and its first regular-season sweep since 1988. But there's so much more to this game than breaking obscure streaks. The winner earns second place in the SEC East and a much-needed bye in this week's conference tournament.
"I think the bye is really important," Florida junior guard Lee Humphrey said. "To win the tournament, it gives you an extra game that you don't have to play. Any time you're playing three games back to back to back, it's going to be tough no matter when. Then if you throw in a fourth game, it's going to be even tougher.
"Going in, it's our goal to win the tournament, and it will definitely be better for us if we get the bye."
Kentucky couldn't agree more.
"It's significant in that you do get past the first game or two, you don't have to play four days in a row," coach Tubby Smith said. "We've done that before, and that's a tough thing to do.
"But it's also significant because you are the team that's feeling a lot better about themselves and you want momentum as you go into (NCAA) Tournament play. You don't want to be coming in in a losing situation."
A month ago, Kentucky was struggling, and as recently as a couple of weeks ago, it was considered an NCAA "bubble team." But the Wildcats have won four of their past five games, including a victory over SEC East champion Tennessee on Wednesday.
"We're playing with a little more cohesiveness, a little more togetherness," Smith said. "We're playing defensively, and we're rebounding the ball better. Those are the areas that we struggled with all year long. The things we've done well over the years, we had to get back to those basics."
The Gators' woes, in contrast, began late. Florida has played three of its past five on the road, losing at Alabama and Arkansas and at home to Tennessee.
The Gators are applying a philosophy they call PHD. It's a reminder of where they started, how hard they worked to get near the top and how hard they must continue to work to achieve their goals.
"Poor, hungry and driven," sophomore guard Taurean Green said. "That's an attitude we have to have. We have to have the mind-set we had at the beginning of the year, when we weren't getting any respect. ... We have to be respected again.
"We feel teams are starting to disrespect us, and we're trying to gain that respect back."
Florida has won three in a row against the Wildcats, including last year's SEC tournament championship game and a nationally televised game in Gainesville last month. Today is Senior Day, and Kentucky players said it's imperative they send their seniors out on a winning note.
"It's a big rivalry game for us," senior guard Ravi Moss said.
"We need to get back on the winning side. We need to come back and respond."