GAINESVILLE — Florida isn't anywhere near the team Billy Donovan hopes it will be by the end of the season, but the Gators have gotten better over the past few weeks.
And that improvement is getting national attention.
Florida (16-2, 3-0 SEC) moved back into the national rankings at No. 24 on Monday after opening conference play with three wins.
The news was met with tempered enthusiasm. Actually, even a little fear.
"It's kind of scary," junior F Dan Werner said. "It kind of seems like we're in the same situation as we were last year after beating Vanderbilt. On one hand, I'm kind of excited. On the other hand, I'm kind of nervous. Hopefully, we don't follow the same path as we did last year."
It wasn't a good path.
Florida defeated then-No. 14 Vanderbilt 86-64 on Jan. 27 and rose into the rankings at No. 20, then lost to Arkansas (80-61) and Tennessee (104-82) and dropped out.
The Gators lost eight of their final 11 games before being selected for the NIT. They were the first defending national champions to miss out on the NCAA Tournament since Kansas in 1989, which at the time was on probation.
"After that Vanderbilt win, I think we got kind of big-headed," sophomore G Nick Calathes said. "That was when we got ranked. I think we let a couple games slip away, and we weren't focused and we thought we were going to make the NCAA Tournament because we were ranked. I think we've got to stay focused and take each game at a time."
Florida began this season at No. 19 and rose as high as No. 17 before losing to Florida State in early December and falling out of the rankings. Gator players said they hope this time they are better equipped to handle the expectations that come with being ranked.
"I sure hope so," Werner said. "Last year, obviously we weren't. So hopefully a year older we have a better understanding … that the ranking doesn't mean much. That's just people's opinion."
And an interesting opinion, if you look at it closely.
Florida is 27th in the latest RPI rankings, but its strength of schedule is No. 105 (out of 343 teams). The SEC is sixth in the RPI, one ahead of the Mountain West. Florida's opponents have the most combined losses of any team in the Top 25 poll, 146. And Kentucky, which is 3-0 in the SEC and knocked off ranked Tennessee last week, remains out of the poll.
Donovan said he's trying to get to a point with the program where being ranked doesn't generate so much discussion. It's expected.
"It's a great thing, I'm happy, it's pretty terrific, it's great," he said. "But in terms of impacting me, I would hope that our guys after seeing some of these guys go through being ranked, I would hope that would be the expectation, to be ranked. I think when you start talking about Duke and North Carolina and UCLA and programs like that, I don't think that they're really talking about those programs being ranked.
"It almost becomes that's what's supposed to happen. … It should have no bearing on how we perform, prepare, practice and what we do."
Women on the rise: Amanda Butler's women's team continues to be the surprise of the season. Sunday, Florida (17-2, 3-1) earned its first win over Georgia since February 2004, then on Monday moved up four spots to No. 15 in the AP poll. It is the Gators' highest ranking since Feb. 11, 2002.
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.