The Silver Lining: ‘Inconsistent’ Florida Gators struggling to find themselves as SEC play begins

By Adam Silverstein
January 7, 2015

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

Ant-Man:

The Top 5 List
From the home office in Wahoo, Nebraska…

Batman villains:
1. The Joker
2. Two-Face
3. The Riddler
4. Catwoman
5. The Penguin

Thanks for reading. Leave your comments below.

16 Comments

  1. Tractorr says:

    Hmm, I don’t know about The Riddler being on that list. I would definitely put Scarecrow on there probably at 5 and move the other two up. It is a shame they didn’t use him better in the movies.

    • To clarify: I’m not just going on the movies, but all-time…original TV series, animation, etc. Scarecrow is good though. Riddler in the TV show was pretty great. The character’s name is awesome – Edward Nigma.

      • SW FL Joe says:

        Interesting list. For me the ranking would depend on who you associate with the character. For example when you hear JOKER do you think of Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson or Cesar Romero. Each portrayed the character quite differently. I would rank a Julie Newmar Catwoman higher than a John Astin Riddler but not a Michelle Pfeiffer. And every Batman villain ever created would be higher than a Danny Devito Penguin

        • Well, regarding Joker, which of those is not worthy of No. 1? Penguin I go back to the TV series, same with Riddler. Catwoman as a character I had under Riddler, but I agree that Newmar was better than Astin.

  2. 1974Gator says:

    Great update on the development and the chances of improvement for our basketball team.
    “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 is scary.

  3. JayV says:

    Couldn’t disagree with you more about Top Five… I was looking forward to seeing it, and almost fell asleep. I got a few chuckles here and there, but was mostly bored. Too slow for my taste, I suppose.

  4. Gatoralum88 says:

    I hate suggesting this but…(with all due respect to college basketball’s best coach IMO) it may be the worst coaching job Billy’s ever done here. Yes, he’s a future Hall of famer & I love him & wouldn’t trade him for anyone BUT if it’s “a microcosm of practice” doesn’t Billy deserve some if not all of the blame? Obviously, he’s not cracking his whip hard enough in practice if it’s not getting through!

    A few complaints I have include:

    1) Robinson MUST ease up on his 3-point shooting. With all the bricks he fires up he should major in Building construction or Masonry.
    2) It surprises me how weak a post player Horford is considering how good a post player Al is. You’d think somewhere along the way there would have been some brotherly coaching.
    3) Hill needs to be more assertive offensively.
    4) Less Kurtz, more Walker. As lost as Walker seems at time, at least he’s a better athlete who can potentially alter shots at the rim. Besides, he’s not going to improve on the bench.
    5) Why can’t these guys make any clutch free throws? At times, it seems like they’re rushing them in key moments.

    We were ALL SO WRONG about this team! I certainly don’t see how they’ll get to 20 wins at this point with how they’re playing. 17 wins & an NIT berth because of name recognition seems about right.

    • gatorboi352 says:

      It baffles me how much Walker sits each game. It’s not like we’re winning with Kurtz out there instead. It’s almost like Billy is trying to drive home a point that isn’t sticking.

      • Michael Jones says:

        Kurtz should get his minutes because he’s the only guy out there except for maybe Chiozza who understands the game of basketball. . especially how to pass to an open man down low.

        But I agree with you that Walker should be playing more. Murphy too. Murphy looks like me might actually have some toughness to him, something that is very rare on a Billy D. squad (again, not counting last year’s team or the 2 national championship teams).

  5. Ken (CA) says:

    Great stuff about the team, Adam. Really kind of answers my thought from last week that “Billy must really be shaking his head trying to figure out how to get these kids to understand”. It sounds like that is still the missing piece of the puzzle and he hasn’t really been able to get them to understand yet, but maybe they are starting to understand.

    I still don’t get a 6’10 Forward who has almost no post presence and thinks he is NBA ready (Walker). Even if he is drafted, he is going to spend his life on the bench and maybe 5 years down the road he will start being productive. Not quite a Quame Brown bust but probably not even as good as a lackluster Marreese Speights who has taken years to develop into even a moderate player. He wants to play in the NBA he should be getting double doubles every night at least playing above the rim.

    • gatorboi352 says:

      I hope one of those coaches are in his ear about staying another year because he needs it.

    • Michael Jones says:

      In fairness to Walker, we do nothing to play to his strengths, which is jumping through the roof. He charges out there and sets a pick on the ball handler and then rolls to the basket all game long, wide open for an alley oop on the roll, but our guards won’t give it up. We could do things to free him up, to utilize his strengths, but we don’t.

      • Ken (CA) says:

        When he is getting 10 boards a game because he is doing good block outs and getting position, I’ll agree. Until then, I’m sure Billy knows what he is doing and as much as the ball is moved around, if he was in a position where there was an effective passing lane, I have no doubt he would get the ball more often.

    • 1974Gator says:

      Couldn’t have said it better myself. Great minds think alike.

  6. Michael Jones says:

    Another soft Billy D. team, only a little less talented than they usually are. Last year’s team and the 2 national championship teams weren’t soft but, for the most part, we usually play with very little heart and almost zero toughness.

    I like Billy D. as a person and loved him as a player but I’ve never liked his brand of basketball or the types of players he usually recruits . . . guys who love to dribble between their legs, pass behind their backs, and launch 3’s, but go looking for a place to hide when they get punched in the mouth.

    I laughed at the Kansas halftime lead, laughed sadly, that is, because I knew we would blow it in the 2nd half when toughness and intensity became factors. Ask Louisville, ask Butler, ask Michigan what kind of guts our Gator basketball teams are known to have when it gets hot in the kitchen.

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