The schedule has been difficult, but Florida Gators (7-6) basketball is off to its worst start since the 1996-97 season, head coach Billy Donovan’s first at the helm of the program and a campaign in which Florida started with the same record through 13 games and finished the season 13-17.
While it is quite unlikely that the Gators end 2014-15 with a sub-.500 record, Florida is not trending upward like many expected now that its roster is at full strength.
“I don’t really look at the record as much as much as how we’re playing,” Donovan said Monday.
Well, UF is not playing well either. And he is quite aware.
The Gators do not have a signature non-conference win despite a 13-game slate filled with tough opponents. Florida is 210th nationally in scoring, 177th in rebounding, 131st in assists and one of the worst in the country in both getting to the charity stripe and making free throws once there.
Simply put, there is not much going right for the Gators, which went from undeserved preseason No. 7 to a team that is no longer even garnering votes in the top 25 polls. No ranked opponent has more than three losses; UF has double that many with five of six coming in single-digit defeats.
Florida is floundering in every facet of the game except defense, and Donovan knows exactly why.
“There’s a competitive disposition that you have to have that we do not have – and we’ve never had it. That’s going to be one of those things for these guys where they’re going to have to figure that part of it out and they’re going to have to make a commitment to it,” he said after Saturday’s loss, the team’s sixth of the season.
“It’s much, much – much, much – more mental than it is physical. There is a mental competitive spirit that you have to have that our team does not have, just doesn’t have it. And maybe they’ll never have it. I don’t know. But we don’t have a competitiveness and a will when it gets really hard.
“We play good when it’s easy. We don’t play well when it’s hard.”
Hard is what the Gators have faced all season long. Even when Florida’s had its way against quality opponents in the first halves of games, it has collapsed in the latter 20 minutes and blown double-digit leads in important resume-building contests. And those failures have opened some eyes even if they have not led to immediate improvement.
“I don’t think they ever anticipated it was ever going to be this hard for them. I tried to explain it to them before the year started,” Donovan explained. “I think they’ve all acknowledged, ‘This is a lot more challenging and difficult than I ever could have imagined.’ Just performing, every night, knowing that you’re having to be relied on. … Now those guys have now got to step up.”
Florida entered the 2014-15 season with just one player, junior guard Michael Frazier II, with extensive (and recent) starting experience – and he was being asked to play a new role for the team.
The rest of the roster consists of a graduate transfer who was a career reserve at Michigan, a redshirt senior walk-on playing significant minutes, two sophomores who were reserves last season (one who actually saw legitimate court time), two freshmen, and three redshirt junior transfers – one the SEC Sixth Man of the Year in 2013-14, another who has not played in two seasons, a third who never played more than mop-up duty at Duke and was not eligible until the spring.
So, suffice to say, the Gators are not working with a veteran crew. But that does not mean Donovan demands any less from his players.
Donovan only pinpointed three of his players as truly consistent – redshirt junior forward Dorian Finney-Smith, sophomore point guard Kasey Hill and redshirt senior walk-on F Jacob Kurtz. “Everybody else,” Donovan said, “it’s been really up and down.”
Two of those players – Finney-Smith and Hill – plus Frazier are major-minute holdovers from the 2013-14 team, but each is either seeing significantly more court time or playing a different role. Donovan called the adjustment “overwhelming” for the trio, which has not yet figured out “what really goes into winning.”
There’s consistency and then there’s effectiveness. Donovan has taken a liking to advanced statistics and discussed Monday how he has been keeping track of each Florida player’s plus-minus (sum total of point margin with that player on the court), a stat that helps determine how effective one is while he’s playing.
There are two Gators with a positive plus-minus margin. Two of nine that have played in eight or more games this season. Again, it’s obvious to Donovan why that is the case.
“The way you get into a positive is by doing the things that you have control over – blocking out, getting back in transition, communicating, pick and roll coverage, first to the floor, loose basketballs – those are things that kind of impact the game. But when you only have two guys, to me, that’s a real, real direct correlation to the fact that we are not focused on the things that actually really go into winning.”
Donovan knows Florida is not an offensive juggernaut and will struggle at times to make baskets. What dismays him is that those bouts of ineffectiveness often bleed over into the team’s defense and rebounding. He is even more bothered by the team’s overall lack of basketball IQ, especially when it comes to finding the open man or rotating properly when a play breaks down.
He notes that the Gators’ inconsistencies are a “microcosm of practice.” In other words, Florida’s not just struggling under the bright lights on the big stage but behind closed doors as well.
Yet even with all of these issues, the Gators have been in the position to win five of the six games they lost. Outside of the North Carolina loss, Florida’s defeats have come by an average of 2.8 points.
That’s one possession. It’s one more quality pass, one less turnover, more effort on the offensive glass or even a couple additional trips to the foul line (and/or a higher conversion percentage at the charity stripe).
The Gators are getting mentally bruised; their egos are being checked. And Donovan doesn’t like it, but he knows Florida needs it – badly.
“They’re getting calloused and scarred right now. They’re getting scuffed up pretty good right now, which is good,” he said. “I don’t like seeing anybody have to go through this, but I think if you look at any really good player or look at any really good team, you can trace back that they’ve been hardened through the journey of getting where they’ve gotten to. It never comes easy.”
Easy is what a few of these Gators remember from last season, when the team won a school-record 30-straight games and did not lose for four months. Through 13 games, Florida is well aware that easy is in the rear view mirror, no one more so than the coach.
“I can’t sit up here after a lot of the successes we’ve had the last four years and not take the good with the bad. I feel like my job, my responsibility as a coach, is to teach these guys what goes into winning. I understand that there is a result-orientated side of it; at the end of the day, you’re going to look that scoreboard, did you win or lose?” Donovan said.
“But you have to earn those things. That’s not just given to you. That doesn’t happen by osmosis. So I feel like my responsibility as a coach to these guys is to teach them how and what really goes into winning. We’ve made some strides, gotten better in certain areas, but we’re just not consistent enough.”
If the 2015 NCAA Tournament was being selected today, the Gators would be out. Not on the bubble but flat out. Should Florida continue on this path, it may not even make the NIT unless it gets chosen for name recognition alone. None of the four SEC schools that made the secondary tournament last season had fewer than 19 wins; UF is on pace for 16.7 through the end of the regular season.
Donovan admitted Monday that he does not know whether the Gators can make the strides necessary to become an NCAA Tournament team this season. He plans to “keep cracking and working” the players in an effort to change their mindset for the better. He has not lost hope in Florida’s ability to make a major run. “But for me to sit here blindly and say, ‘All is well,’” he asked rhetorically. “I’m not going to say that.”
The physical effort is there. The team chemistry exists. The talent is healthy and available. The pieces are in place for the Gators if they want it bad enough. In fact, that’s all that remains in the way – the want, the desire, the understanding of what goes into winning and how to accomplish it not just week to week but game to game and minute to minute.
“There’s not an emotional and mental investment and commitment to each other, to the team to what it really takes [to win]. There’s just not,” said Donovan.
“If you asked our team, our guys internally, ‘What’s the goal today?’ [The answer would be], ‘I hope I play well and I hope we win.’
“That’s about as shallow as it comes. There’s no substance behind that. We’ve got to become and we’ve got to develop more substance – competitive substance. We don’t have enough competitive substance inside us right now.”
Not Only Gators: Top Five
Rare is it these days that I’ll visit a theater, which I do quite often, and come away impressed with a film that has exceeded my expectations. In fact, that has happened less than a handful of times in the last year, though it did occur recently when I saw Interstellar.
Anyway, that was the case Saturday when I went to see Top Five. Chris Rock – who wrote, directed and stars in the film – is at his best. That’s not a surprise considering the movie is basically an extended stand-up comedy routine played out in scenes with dozens of cameos and Rosario Dawson a constant presence throughout.
Without dropping any spoilers, what happens in Houston and later in a New York jail are just tremendously funny parts of the movie. Comedies rarely need to be seen in theaters but there is something about watching a funny movie with an audience that makes you laugh harder and more often. Top Five does not need that experience to be funny, but you will certainly enjoy it a bit more watching with a large group of strangers on a big screen.
This Week’s Movie Trailer
The Top 5 List
From the home office in Wahoo, Nebraska…
1. The Joker
3. The Riddler
5. The Penguin
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