There was a time when University of Florida men’s basketball coach Billy Donovan questioned the merits of winning a conference tournament.
That time is not now.
The Gators (29-2), seeded No. 1 in the SEC tournament and ranked No. 1 nationally, haven’t captured the event since 2007, which is also the last time they won the NCAA title. Florida, needing three victories for a conference championship, faces No. 8-seeded Missouri (22-10) in today’s SEC quarterfinals at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
If the seedings hold, Florida would face a Saturday semifinal against Tennessee, then a meeting against Kentucky in Sunday’s championship game.
“There’s not going to be anything from our perspective where you sit there and say, ‘OK, because it’s Sunday, let’s bail on this tournament early,’ ” Donovan said. “We’re not going to do that. We’re going to try to do the very, very best we can if we’re fortunate enough to play three days.”
The Gators, who went a record 18-0 during the SEC’s regular season, have a program-best 23-game winning streak. They are expected to be the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed and draw early round games at Orlando’s Amway Center.
“We want to win three SEC games and six NCAA tournament games — nine straight wins — that’s our goal,” senior center Patric Young said. “We want to win every time we go out there.”
Donovan isn’t enthused about the potential of a Sunday SEC title-game appearance, then a bid to Orlando, where opening-round games are Thursday. He even suggested staging all conference tournament championship games on a Saturday, something that won’t happen because of television’s need for Sunday programming.
Regardless, Donovan is familiar with the grind of March. The regular-season record has positioned the Gators, but now they must perform.
“It’s the next step in our season right now,” Donovan said. “The regular season is over with. Everybody in the league starts out and it’s 0-0. It’s kind of a new season over a five-day event.
“All that really matters is that first game. That’s all we’re guaranteed. You take care of that one and move on. But you’ve got to take care of it. You can’t look past it. We’ve got to emotionally, mentally and psychologically get past (the regular season). We’ve got to focus on the next thing in front of us and worry about us.”
The Gators will rely on Young and three other senior starters — guard Scottie Wilbekin, who was named SEC Player of the Year, and forwards Will Yeguete and Casey Prather.
The other starter is sophomore guard Michael Frazier II, a former Plant High School standout. Frazier, who had 37 points and a school-record 11 3-pointers March 4 at South Carolina, needs five points to reach a career 1,000 in his second season.
The Gators seemingly have all the important pieces for a run to the Final Four after becoming the first modern team in NCAA history to lose in three consecutive region finals. Still, Donovan is taking nothing for granted.
“When the ball goes up in the air, I don’t think our guys are running around saying, ‘We’re No. 1 in the country! We’re No. 1 in the country!’ They’re just playing,” Donovan said. “... It doesn’t matter what you did last week or the other day.
“It’s a brand new competitive experience and you’ve got to be able to handle it.”