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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Florida will open Southeastern Conference play right where it started the season — in the top 10.
The Gators moved up two spots to No. 10 in the latest Associated Press college basketball poll Monday. This time, coach Billy Donovan believes his team is more deserving of the lofty ranking.
When the season began, Donovan said his team — 10th at the time — was "light years away from even being ranked." The Gators had three players suspended and a few more dealing with injuries.
Now, Florida (11-2) is close to full strength heading into Wednesday's SEC opener against South Carolina (7-6).
Florida has won five in a row and 10 of 11, the only loss a buzzer-beater at then-No. 12 UConn early last month. The Gators are 14th in the Ratings Percentage Index and 44th in strength of schedule, a non-conference slate that included games against Wisconsin, Florida State, Connecticut, Kansas, Memphis and Richmond.
"I think we're a better team," Donovan said Monday. "I don't know where we should be ranked at this point in time. I think we've played some very, very good teams. ... In a lot of ways, you can move up in the rankings based on what teams do in front of you, and if a team doesn't lose games, you are never going to move up."
It should come as no surprise that the Gators are in this position. They have four seniors in the starting lineup — a rarity for a big-time program in college basketball — and plenty of pieces around them.
And they expect to get highly touted forward Chris Walker in the mix at some point this season. Walker is enrolled in school and practicing with the team, but still waiting for the NCAA Clearinghouse to rule him eligible to play.
"He's getting frustrated because he really wants to play," forward Will Yeguete said. "You can see it in his eyes that he wants to get on the court and run around a little bit and just be out there, but he understands that it's a process. We try to tell him every day to keep on working and pray for the best, and hopefully he will be out there with us soon."
Florida is 12-5 in SEC openers under Donovan, including 8-0 at home.
If the Gators make it 9-0 against the Gamecocks, they also would tie the school record of 24 consecutive home wins. The previous mark was set between 2006 and 2007, with two-time national champions Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Al Horford and Joakim Noah doing much of the heavy lifting.
The current group went 15-0 at home in 2012-13 and has won its first eight at the O'Connell Center this season.
Although players said the record would be nice, guard Michael Frazier II said, "right now, we have bigger goals."
"I think maybe down the road that will be a nice thing to say we made happen," he added.
Florida does have high aspirations for the season, especially since seniors Yeguete, Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin and Pat Young lost in a regional final of the NCAA tournament the last three years. They lost 74-71 to Butler in overtime in 2011, lost 72-68 to Louisville in 2012 and got routed 79-59 by eventual tournament runner-up Michigan last year.
In their final year, they want nothing more than another shot at the Final Four. And the SEC schedule surely will help prepare them for postseason play.
"Having those four guys, they understand the league and what league play is all about," Donovan said. "I think our schedule has allowed us to play at some difficult places on the road and some challenging games at home and some challenging neutral sites as well.
"It's not only about those four guys. ... We still have some younger guys who are going to have to step up and contribute with those guys and we're going to need leadership from those four guys. We're going to need those four guys to set the stage for our team going forward."