Florida returned to the Top 25 this week for the first time in more than a month, but the Gators know all too well how difficult it can be to stay there - especially during this part of the season.
Florida tries for its 11th straight victory Wednesday when it visits South Carolina.
The No. 24 Gators (16-2, 3-0 SEC) moved back into the poll Monday for the first time since Dec. 7, when it suffered a 57-55 loss to Florida State and fell out of the rankings the next day. Florida’s 10-game win streak began after that defeat.
The Gators, though, are wary as they find themselves in a similar position to last season, when they were 15-2 midway through January and improved to 2-0 in the SEC by beating Auburn. Florida pushed its record to 18-3 by knocking off then-No. 14 Vanderbilt to close out the month, but went on to lose eight of its final 11 games and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade.
“It’s kind of scary,” forward Dan Werner said. “It kind of seems like we’re in the same situation as we were last year after beating Vanderbilt. On one hand, I’m kind of excited. On the other hand, I’m kind of nervous. Hopefully, we don’t follow the same path as we did last year.”
Nick Calathes isn’t as concerned. The Florida sophomore, averaging a team-best 17.7 points and 23.0 over the last five games, was the Gators’ leading scorer in 2007-08 at 15.3 points a contest.
“I think we let a couple games slip away and we weren’t focused and we thought we were going to make the NCAA tournament because we were ranked,” Calathes said of last season. “We’ve been through it. We have a lot more older guys on the team and I think that we’ll definitely be more focused.”
Calathes went 6-of-10 from 3-point range and finished with a game-high 28 points in Florida’s 80-65 victory over Arkansas on Saturday.
The Gators are holding opponents to 64.2 points per game and winning by an average of 17.5 points during their 10-game run. Four of their final eight regular-season losses in 2007-08 were by 10 points or fewer.
Florida won two close games against South Carolina last season, beating the Gamecocks 73-71 at The Colonial Center on Jan. 23 and 85-82 in Gainesville on Feb. 20. The Gators have won five straight in the series and 18 of the last 21 meetings.
South Carolina (12-4, 1-2) could prove to be a challenge for Florida defensively despite some sub-par offensive outings recently. The Gamecocks are the second-highest scoring team in the conference at 80.1 points per game, although they’ve averaged 71.7 in the last three games.
South Carolina will be trying to avoid a third straight loss after falling 82-79 to then-No. 24 Tennessee on Saturday.
Dominique Archie and Devan Downey each scored 19 points for the Gamecocks, but Downey, the team’s leading scorer at 19.6 ppg, continued to struggle with his shooting. He was 9-of-20 from the field and is shooting 37.7 percent (20-of-53) over the last three games.
South Carolina was outscored 43-28 in the first half before rallying after the break.
“Our kids fought hard without question, and they gave great efforts in the second half, and they played with the kind of mentality that we want,” South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said. “But we have got to learn to come out with good effort from the get-go.”
Florida is the fourth ranked opponent South Carolina will face this season. The Gamecocks are 1-2 in those contests, beating then-No. 19 Baylor 85-84 on Jan. 2.