Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Sports

No. 1 priority for Gators is winning NCAA title

ORLANDO

There in the early going, when the teams are feeling each other out, when Albany still feels as if it has a chance, that's when the Gators will unleash their secret weapon.

Yep, right then, the Gators will hit Albany with their seeding.

A little later, when the game gets tight, when Albany looks as if a No. 16 seed might finally upset a No. 1, that's when the Gators will resort to their untold strength.

In that moment, the Gators will hit the Great Danes with the fact they are such resounding favorites in this tournament.

Yeah, that'll hold Albany off, all right. Won't it?

The truth of it is that, for the life of him, Florida coach Billy Donovan can't figure out how any of it helps his team, not the polls and not the seeds and not the betting line (UF is a 21½-point favorite). To him, it is as simple as two teams playing, and one surviving, and everything else is just adjectives.

"If you get wrapped up in that stuff, it can be a problem," Donovan said Wednesday afternoon. "Those things can get in the way. 'They're tight. They're going to lose.' Now you're focusing on trying to avoid something. It's not about that.

"It doesn't make any difference. The ball's going to go up. I don't know how this stuff helps our team. We've got to be focused on preparation. It's something we've got to deal with. We've talked to our kids about it."

And that's the thing. No one wants to be Goliath. The world is filled with teams that want to be one of the No. 1 seeds, but not necessarily the No. 1-seeded team.

For Florida, the NCAA Tournament has boiled down to this: Either the Gators win it all, or they finish as a disappointment. That's the weight of being the overall No. 1 seed. For instance: One of the first questions that waited for the Gators on Wednesday? How can they get over the plateau of finishing in the Elite Eight three straight years?

It is an albatross hanging around this team's neck. Everyone else has an excuse. Duke couldn't get by Virginia. Wichita State is a small school. Arizona lost to UCLA. Only Florida lacks a get-out-of-jail-free card.

"I think the one thing we've talked about is the total focus on what matters as it relates to our preparation," Donovan said. "What takes place in between the lines, all those other things. That's the stuff that I would say is a distraction, that stuff that's out there on the peripheral. We have nothing to do with that. We've got to play games, and whether or not we move on or go home is going to be predicated on how well we perform and play.

"For us, it's not even about that. Us being No. 1 is a great honor and a great compliment, but I really don't know what it means. We're in a bracket, and we've got to play against Albany; and the only thing that really matters to our guys is trying to play to the very best of our ability."

For the Gators (32-2), that's the challenge. They have to leave all the expectations outside of the arena and play. They have to leave the 26-game winning streak, and the unbeaten status in the SEC, and the lofty expectations in the history books. It can't help them from here. All it can do is add pressure by becoming part of the burden.

"We try not to think about it," said guard Scottie Wilbekin. "Coach D does a good job of reminding us that no matter what the rankings are every year, there are upsets. Anybody can beat anybody, so we have to be on our toes no matter what."

Fact is, the No. 1 team in the country rarely wins this tournament anymore. Oh, once upon a time it did. Even from 1992-95, the No. 1-ranked team won twice in four years. But since UCLA in 1995, only two teams were No. 1 ranked going into the tournament and coming out of it. The latest to do it was the 2012 Kentucky team.

"Our whole first three years here, we were never the No. 1 team in the country," Florida center Patric Young said. "We finally achieved that this year, and we were just like, 'Okay.' I mean, everything is the same. Nothing really has changed.

"What we've done as a team has been taking it one game at a time. We have no control over what people are saying about us, what's going on on the outside of our program. We just have to be focused on getting better every day, getting close to each other, pushing, competing. We're just going to continue to do what's been working, and hopefully, we can achieve the ultimate goal."

You play. That's it. You forget about seedings. You lose track of the betting line. You ignore the polls. You shoot. You rebound. You defend.

You win, and rankings will take care of themselves.

You lose, and it all vanishes anyway.

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