Stifling defense, winning ways have Gators on rise
By MARK LONG
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) Florida center Pat Young knows something is coming.
It could be a speech. It could be a video session. It could be a grueling practice.
Following an eight-game winning streak, a dominant start in the Southeastern Conference and the program's highest ranking in nearly six years, Young figures coach Billy Donovan will do something to get his team's attention.
"I know coach Donovan's going to humble us," Young said Monday. "He's going to find something to make sure we don't get too lifted up on this attention that we're getting now. We want to be great for being recognized as a good team, but we want to make it all the way. We want to win it all. Then we'll finally be satisfied with what we've got."
Florida moved up four spots to No. 4 in the latest Associated Press college basketball poll, jumped to sixth in the latest Ratings Percentage Index and have been projected a top seed in the NCAA tournament. That's a lot of love for a team that fell to No. 14 after losing close games away from home against Arizona and Kansas State.
How the Gators (16-2, 6-0 SEC) handle their recent success and raised expectations could be key to avoiding the kind of letdowns that have plagued so many other top-five teams this season.
"I almost liken it to driving a car," Donovan said. "You go out and drive in a country field and there's nothing to look at. You're looking at the road. Then all of a sudden, you get into the city and there's a bunch of sights and sounds and things you start looking at. You're not paying attention to what's in front of you and you drive the car right off the road into a pole.
"Our guys have got to understand that the chatter and stuff around them is on the peripheral. It's got nothing to do with us preparing to get ready for the next game. I think that any good team or any team that moves up in the rankings, you have to deal with that."
Florida is home for four of its next five games. The Gators host South Carolina (12-7, 2-4) on Wednesday night, three days before fellow SEC-unbeaten and 16th-ranked Mississippi comes to town.
The No. 4 ranking is Florida highest since the 2006-07 season, when the Gators won the second of back-to-back national championships. Florida spent much of that season atop the polls, but was ranked third heading into the NCAA tournament.
"It's good for the school, but honestly as a team, we're not worried about it," guard Kenny Boynton said. "Whether we're ranked or not, we're going to get a team's best game. So we've just got to go out there and play."
Defense has been the catalyst of Florida's rise.
Donovan's squad has held 10 teams opponents under 50 points and 14 under 60. Florida ranks third in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 51.2 points a game.
It starts with Boynton and fellow guard Scottie Wilbekin, suffocating on-ball defenders. Young and fellow big man Will Yeguete have provided plenty of help defense on pick-and-roll plays and drives through the lane.
"Being in the right position, staying in the white lines, help defense, that's the main things," Boynton said. "And containing the ball, basically giving up no open 3s and trying to make teams take tough 2s."
The Gators have been at their best in league play, winning six games by an average of 26.5 points.
The team has shot at least 44 percent in all of those, including at least 35 percent from 3-point range, and allowed no opponent to shoot better than 41 percent from the field.
Now, though, the Gators will try to continue their streak with a few extra distractions that come with more attention.
"We've got to drive our car with two hands on the wheel inside the lane and looking at what's in front," Donovan said. "And what's in front of us right now is South Carolina. So that's the challenge that they need to understand. ...
"No team's perfect. Everybody's got flaws, everybody's got things they've got to work at. I think the biggest mistake you can make as a player or as a coach or inside your team is to say, `OK, we're playing really, really good basketball, we're great, we're OK, everything's going to be fine.' Really, all that stuff is in the past. What about today? We don't want to slip and go backwards. They've worked hard to get to the point now. Can you keep working hard to continue to grow and develop?"
Updated January 28, 2013