GAINESVILLE — Expectations are suddenly rising for the Florida men's basketball team.
After back-to-back NIT appearances, Billy Donovan's Gators are showing signs of a resurgence.
With wins over Florida State, then-No. 2 Michigan State and Rutgers last week, Florida went from unranked to No. 13 in the AP poll released Monday. The Gators are No. 17 in the ESPN/USA Today poll.
It is the first time the Gators have been in the national rankings since January. Florida was 16-2 (3-0 SEC) and No. 24 on Jan. 19. The Gators lost 70-69 at South Carolina on Jan. 21 then defeated Vanderbilt 94-69 that week but dropped out of the polls.
Donovan set up a more competitive nonconference schedule this season, including a matchup against No. 8 Syracuse on Dec. 10 in Tampa. He said he's not sure whether the Gators should be ranked so high but at least a ranking is warranted.
"Here in November … we've played a very, very good schedule, and I think we've played against some quality teams, and we've done well up to this point," he said. "There's been times in the past where our team has been ranked and it's probably been undeserved. Coming off a Florida State home game and then playing Michigan State and Rutgers, whether or not we deserve to be that high, I'm not sure."
Florida sophomore Erving Walker was a key figure in last week's run, and he was named SEC player of the week.
Everything at stake: Florida and Alabama seem to be taking different approaches to Saturday's SEC Championship Game. Alabama coach Nick Saban said the Crimson Tide understands what's at stake but is taking the game as it has every other one this season. The Gators are openly expressing the magnitude of the game.
"It definitely does," Florida CB Joe Haden said when asked if the team's biggest goals this season rest on this game. "We had a plan to go to the SEC Championship. That's the whole goal. That's the mind-set for the whole team. Coach said, 'If you set yourself on going undefeated (and) … you lose a game, then was the season a failure?' He didn't want that to be the case. Now we're all sitting here undefeated. SEC Championship, we win this, we go on to the national championship. So, basically, this is the game."
UF coach Urban Meyer said he's not concerned about his team's focus because he senses the Gators recognize they are too close to their dreams to falter.
"I think (offensive coordinator Steve) Addazio said it best: It's now a 100-meter dash; let's go finish it," Meyer said. "It's right there. It's right there. You're not at the 20 coming out. You can reach for it now."
This is the matchup most expected since the season began, and players expect the game to live up to the hype.
"It will be a very exciting game and one of the best games, hopefully, in SEC history," QB Tim Tebow said.
Obama and the Gators: Florida OL Marcus Gilbert's father is an FBI agent who has been part of the Secret Service detail for former President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama. Gilbert said his father recently relayed messages from the president, who asks about Gilbert often.
"He loves my dad; he calls him, and they talk a lot," Gilbert said. "He asks about me, and my dad will relay it to me, and I'll let him know how I'm doing and how the season is going."
How about this week's game?
"He's rooting for us all the way, like he did last year," Gilbert said.
AlaBama's new confidence: Alabama's come-from-behind win over rival Auburn last week may turn out to be a positive for the Tide. Alabama overcame an early 14-0 deficit, then rallied, including a 78-yard drive that began with 8:34 left and culminated with a touchdown pass from Greg McElroy to Roy Upchurch for a 26-21 win.
For McElroy, a first-year starting quarterback, and the rest of the No. 2 Tide, it was a season-defining drive that has given them increased confidence.
"I think it's important for everybody involved," McElroy said. "I think the fact that we didn't play our best game and … also having gotten the victory is obviously huge for us as a team and as our confidence is concerned. … After putting that long and critical drive together, I think that should allow us to go a long way."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3389.