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For the first time in four years, the Florida Gators men's basketball team controls its own SEC destiny

UF and coach Billy Donovan, left, would like a win today over Kentucky and next week over Alabama to lock up the SEC season title.

Associated Press

UF and coach Billy Donovan, left, would like a win today over Kentucky and next week over Alabama to lock up the SEC season title.

Florida coach Billy Donovan calls it "uncharted territory," the path his men's basketball team has taken to the top of the SEC standings. His players view it more as a just reward. Both sides have legitimate points.

In the past three years, Florida has made back-to-back National Invitation Tournament appearances then lost in the first round of last year's NCAA Tournament.

During those years, the Gators became well-known for their late-season collapses.

Today, No. 13 Florida will play No. 22 Kentucky at 4 p.m. in Rupp Arena having locked up the No. 1 seed in the SEC tournament and still in the hunt for the overall SEC regular-season title with three games remaining. The Gators have won nine of their past 10 games, including six straight.

It is those previous years of adversity that have these Gators wanting even more.

"We're excited, but it's still not everything," senior forward Alex Tyus said. "We want to get the whole SEC. We're excited that we have three big games coming up to do that. Definitely, this is just the start. … We know we need to pay attention to detail in practice and keep fighting in these next three games."

To achieve that goal, Florida will play at Kentucky today, host SEC West leader Alabama on Tuesday, then close out the regular season March 5 at Vanderbilt. A victory over Kentucky and a win over Alabama seal the overall title for the Gators.

But that's most likely easier said than done.

Kentucky is just 3-7 on the road this season and is coming off a 77-76 overtime road loss to Arkansas on Wednesday.

But at home, the Wildcats are 13-0 and have the nation's second-longest home winning streak (32). They are also 7-1 this season in bounce-back games.

"I think probably going in a lot of people wouldn't give us a whole lot of chance to win the game because of what they've done the last few years there," Donovan said. "I mean, it's a very, very difficult place to play. They probably on an average win about 90 percent of their games there. … It's a terrific team, and a team we had a chance to beat early in the year, and they are going to come back really excited and ready to play."

The first time the teams met this season, the Gators took a big lead, fell behind, then came back to win 70-68. But Kentucky has won the past three meetings with the Gators at Rupp Arena.

"We understand it's not going to come easy," UF senior forward Chandler Parsons said. "If we handle our business, it doesn't matter what Alabama does. We've just got to take one game at a time, and we control our own destiny with how we perform. (But) it's Rupp Arena; they haven't lost in 32 games there. And they are obviously a great team; they have a lot of talent. But we're going in there with the mentality that we're going to win the game. We understand we've got a long stretch, and it's not going to be easy."

For Florida's seniors, who have endured the NIT and the first-round NCAA loss, this year's success is special. The key is not getting complacent now.

"Not a chance," Tyus said. "You don't even need to worry about that."

For the first time in four years, the Florida Gators men's basketball team controls its own SEC destiny 02/25/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 25, 2011 10:18pm]
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