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UF faces tough road to top NCAA seeding

With six games left in the regular season, Florida coach Billy Donovan is insisting the Gators take it one at a time.

In reality, a lot depends on the entire cluster of games.

When the No. 10 Gators play at Vanderbilt tonight, they begin a stretch that includes four of six games on the road.

"The way our schedule works out is probably a little more of a disadvantage for our team because we are playing four of six on the road," Donovan said. "That is challenging. But the only thing I am worried about right now is Vanderbilt. To me that is the only game we have, and it's the only thing we need to worry about. I am not trying to look at it as a stretch as much as I am looking at it as this game right now."

A strong finish puts Florida in a position to stay closer to home, possibly a first- or second-round site in Jacksonville, which could be advantageous come NCAA Tournament time.

"That would make it that much easier for us to advance to the next round," junior forward Chris Richard said. "It would be like home-court advantage for us. So we need to try to win out and do the best we can so we can make it to Jacksonville and make it easier for ourselves. All of us want to finish strong and wrap it up. That would be huge."

Faltering down the stretch likely would do just the opposite because it would put the Gators back in the uneasy, familiar position of being a midlevel seed in the NCAA Tournament, the place where upsets have often occurred for Florida.

Playing away from the O'Dome hasn't been a simple task. The Gators opened the season 17-0, then lost to Tennessee on the road Jan. 21. Over the past seven games, Florida has won four and is 1-2 on the road in conference play.

"This is big, having the last four out of six games on the road," junior guard Lee Humphrey said. "It'll be interesting to see how we do with that long stretch away from home. We want to finish strong."

The Commodores are trying to do the same.

Vanderbilt started strong this season and at one time appeared poised to enter the Top 25. But the Commodores have won two of their past eight, a statistic Donovan believes is deceiving.

"I think sometimes when we look at games that end in a loss, your initial reaction is they're not playing well," he said. "That couldn't be any further from the truth with Vanderbilt. There are teams in this league that have had some heartbreaking, difficult losses whose league record does not reflect how good a team they are. I think they're playing about as well as anybody in our league right now. But sometimes when you don't have wins to show for it, immediately you're not playing well, and I don't think that's the case with Vandy."

In fact, Florida's first game against Vandy could have been a win for the Commodores. They shot 60 percent from the field and led the Gators by as much as 10 in the first half but collapsed in the final 20 minutes, hitting just seven field goals and going 0-for-10 from 3-point range.

"We got kicked physically at Florida last time, so we'll have to do a better job," coach Kevin Stallings said. "I think Florida is as good as any basketball team in our league and the most difficult in sheer matchups. We know it will be very difficult, but we're looking forward to it."

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