Originally created 02/04/03

Florida moves to No. 1 for first time



GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The Gators finally made it.

The team that spent its formative years being coached by assistants from the football staff and playing in a dingy, dimly lit gym made it to No. 1 in the AP poll Monday for the first time in its 88-year history.

"I think we made it by a process of elimination," Florida coach Billy Donovan said.

The Gators (18-2, 7-0 Southeastern Conference) jumped from fourth to first after a week in which the three teams ahead of them - Arizona, Pittsburgh and Texas - all lost, while they won twice to stretch their winning streak to 14 games.

Lest they get too excited, Florida's first game as a top-ranked team comes Tuesday at No. 6 Kentucky in a game that will decide the leader in the SEC East.

"The key is to be humble," Donovan said, "or this could be the shortest-lived stay at No. 1 in the history of college basketball."

Either way, it has been a long time coming.

Before 1980, Florida played in the old Alligator Alley, a dusty little gym that seated 7,000. The Gators liked to schedule games for midday, hoping to gain an advantage from the sunlight shining through the windows and temporarily blinding opposing players.

It wasn't until 1960 that Florida emerged from the dark ages and hired a full-time basketball coach, Norm Sloan. Before that, the Gators normally found their coach by searching their roster of assistants from the football team, or by picking a volunteer from the physical education faculty.

They have been much, much better of late, reaching the NCAA finals in 2000 and rising to No. 2 in the poll as recently as last year.

But the top spot in the AP poll had always seemed like a better fit for the football team.

Until now.

Their 14-game winning streak ties the school record set last year. Their ascension to No. 1 came two months to the day of their last loss, Dec. 3 at West Virginia.

"Our immediate goal is not to be No. 1," sophomore center David Lee said. "I mean, it's great to be No. 1. But we want to be No. 1 at the end of the season."

The Gators became the 49th school to be ranked No. 1 in the history of the AP poll, which started during the 1948-49 season. They join Alabama as the second team to reach the top spot for the first time ever this season. The Crimson Tide has since fallen to 22nd.

Florida received 50 first-place votes and 1,764 points from the 72-member national media panel to easily outdistance Arizona (16-2), which dropped out of No. 1 after losing at home to Stanford on Thursday.

The Wildcats had 1,687 points, 130 more than Texas (14-3), which held third despite a loss at Kansas last Monday.

Pittsburgh (15-2) dropped two places to fourth following a 67-65 loss to Syracuse.

Led by Donovan's old boss, Rick Pitino, Louisville (16-1) jumped from eighth to No. 5, the Cardinals' highest ranking since being fifth in the poll released Feb. 14, 1994.

Still, the day belonged to the Gators.

Their rise to the top has been sparked by a pair of freshmen, Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson, who are the best first-year players at Florida since the arrival of Matt Bonner, Brett Nelson and Justin Hamilton, who are seniors now.

Donovan said neither freshman has been jaded by the highly touted recruiting process they went through or the successes they enjoyed in high school.

"I think they both feel like they have something new to prove to people every day they walk out there," Donovan said.

Walsh, who started the season hot, isn't scoring as much, but is still in the starting lineup. He's averaging 14 points and 3.5 assists. Roberson is averaging 13.8 points coming off the bench. He is gaining more confidence with his shot as the season progresses.

Can they make it through the grind of the entire season?

"I think it will be more of a challenge mentally than physically," Donovan said. "And if I see them starting to slip mentally, I feel like I can challenge them, and they'll respond."

A native of Michigan, Roberson claims he's only vaguely aware of what it's like to play at Kentucky's Rupp Arena, where the Gators go for their next test.

He swears nobody's getting overconfident because of the No. 1 ranking.

"I love it for the program, I love it for the history of Florida," Roberson said. "But I want to be No. 1 when it's all over with. We know there really is no true No. 1 until the end."