ATLANTA — Billy Donovan has nothing to defend about his University of Florida basketball team.


The Gators' No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, a 32-2 record and both the SEC regular-season and tournament titles speak volumes. Superlatives not needed.

But Donovan was quick to defend a conference that got only three teams invited to the NCAAs by the selection committee on Sunday, with Kentucky and Tennessee joining the Gators.

"So we got three teams," Donovan observed. "Hopefully all three of us will be able to represent our league well."

Florida, which defeated Kentucky 61-60 in the SEC Tournament championship at the Georgia Dome on Sunday, will play in the first round of the South Regional on Thursday at the Amway Center in Orlando against the winner of a play-in game in Dayton, Ohio on Tuesday between Albany (18-14) and Mount St. Mary's (16-16).

If the Gators win — and a No. 1 seed has never lost in the first round since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 — they will play the winner of Pittsburgh vs. Colorado on Saturday. Two victories send the Gators to Memphis, Tenn., the following week.

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Florida is making its' 14th NCAA appearance in Donovan's 18 years as coach, and its 17th appearance overall.

Tennessee (21-12) was relegated to another play-in game in Dayton, Ohio against Iowa, with the winner getting an 11 seed in the Midwest Regional against Massachusetts. Kentucky (24-10) is the eighth seed in the Midwest and will play Kansas State.

Donovan felt two SEC teams in particular, Arkansas (21-11) and Missouri (22-11), were deserving of bids.

"Certainly ... Missouri is an NCAA tournament team," he said. "Arkansas, without question, an NCAA tournament team. I'm saying NCAA tournament teams worthy of getting into the tournament and also winning games."

Donovan went 2-0 this season against Missouri and his team struggled in the first half before beating the Tigers 56-49 in the SEC quarterfinals. The Gators played Arkansas once, and outlasted the Razorbacks in overtime, 84-82.

He said the "body of work," for Arkansas and Missouri was worthy.

"I think it's unfortunate [in what] happens to teams is they get to a place this time of year and they're playing really, really good basketball," he said. "And maybe because of what happened in November, they can't overcome it."

As far as his team is concerned, Donovan said what most tournament coaches say: a new season begins, with four victories leading to the Final Four and two more after that to the national championship.

Donovan has two of those, in 2006 and 2007. His teams have reached the Elite Eight in each of the last three seasons and Florida is 31-11 in the tournament since he became the coach in 1996-1997.

With the regular season and the SEC Tournament titles behind them, Gator players said their mental state entering the NCAA is at a peak.

"We're right where we need to be, confidence-wise," said tournament MVP and senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin. "We came into this tournament wanting to win it. That was our goal. We accomplished that. Now it's just on to another game. Whoever we play, we'll get ready for them and come in with the same focus we have had."

Senior center Patric Young of Jacksonville made a bold prediction, then qualified the remark.

"I think we have the kind of confidence that we can line up against anyone," he said. "We think if we're playing the right way, there's no one we can't beat. But we have to go and do what we did after the regular season and start from the bottom, coming in every single day [to practice] with the mindset of still getting better."

Whichever team the Gators play will have some confidence. Albany was fourth in the America East regular season and Mount St. Mary's tied for fourth in the Northeast Conference. Albany upset Stony Brook 69-60 and Mount St. Mary's surprised Robert Morris 88-71 to win their conference tournaments and qualify for the NCAAs.

Both teams have made three NCAA appearances, all as No. 16 seeds. Albany has lost to Duke, Virginia and Connecticut; Mount St. Mary's to North Carolina, Kentucky and Michigan State.

Florida has played Albany once during the regular season, winning 83-64 on Nov. 10, 2005. The Gators and Mount St. Mary's have never met.

Garry Smits: (904) 359-4362


Men's College Basketball