Florida runaway preseason No. 1

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) – This time last year, Florida coach Billy Donovan was answering questions about being unranked to start the season for the first time since 1997.

There are far fewer doubters these days.

The Gators were the runaway No. 1 choice Monday in The Associated Press’ preseason college basketball poll – hardly a surprise considering they return all five starters and their top seven scorers from last year’s national championship team.

“We’re the same collection of guys that a year ago was unranked and ranked 75th in the country,” Donovan said. “Are we the 75th best team in the country? Are we No. 1 in the country? Probably not. We probably fall somewhere in the middle.”

Nonetheless, Florida will try to become the first repeat national champion since Duke in 1992.

The Gators received 63 first-place votes and 1,788 points from the 72-member national media panel to easily outdistance North Carolina, which got the other nine No. 1 votes and 1,704 points.

“We appreciate and respect that people think this highly of our basketball team,” Donovan said. “That being said, this ranking has everything to do with what we were able to accomplish last year and nothing to do with this year. We’re very honored to be the preseason No. 1, but at the same time, we fully realize we have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Some of that work comes early in the season with a game against third-ranked Kansas in Las Vegas on Nov. 25.

The last preseason No. 1 to win the national championship was Connecticut in 2004, and before that it was Kentucky in 1996.

“All this stuff right now is all speculation,” Donovan said. “No one has it figured out. I don’t think I have it figured out, either. You just try to work and do what you know you’ve got to do to try to get better.”

Donovan believes each of his starters – guards Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey, forwards Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah, and center Al Horford – can improve, a somewhat scary thought considering Florida finished 33-6 and beat UCLA 73-57 in the title game.

He wants Brewer and Green to be more consistent. He wants Humphrey to handle the ball better and shoot a higher percentage from the free-throw line. He wants Noah and Horford to play better defense.

More than anything, he wants his players to remember this is a new season with a new team and new goals.

He also wants them to stay humble and hungry.

“I understand that there’s going to be a lot of expectations,” Donovan said. “There’s going to be a lot of preseason hype around our team. People are going to talk about who’s going to repeat and everything else. But all that speculation of people guessing what’s going to happen six or seven months from now, for me to get caught up in that I would be wasting my time and my energy. I hope our team doesn’t get caught up in that. Being able to handle what’s in front of them now is totally different than what it was a year ago.”

Pittsburgh was ranked fourth, followed by Final Four teams LSU and UCLA. Ohio State, Georgetown, Wisconsin and Arizona rounded out the top 10.

The last team to return all the starters from a national champion was Arizona in the 1997-98 season. The Wildcats, who also won the title in Indianapolis and were the preseason No. 1 the next year, lost to Utah in the 1998 tournament, one win shy of the Final Four.

Florida became the fourth team to win the national championship after not having been ranked in the preseason poll. The others were Texas Western in 1966, Villanova in 1985 and Syracuse in 2003.

Alabama was 11th in the preseason poll, followed by Duke, Texas A’M, Memphis, Boston College, Marquette, Washington, Connecticut, Creighton and Syracuse. The final five ranked teams were Texas, Kentucky, Georgia Tech, Nevada and Tennessee.

“I think we’ve proven that we will have an opportunity to be very, very competitive this year,” Donovan said. “But I don’t think anybody at this point last year picked Florida, George Mason, UCLA or LSU to be playing for the national championship.”