What No. 4 Florida Gators basketball has accomplished through seven games of Southeastern Conference play is unprecedented within the league.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Florida is just the third team in the last 25 years to win its first seven conference games by more than 15 points, joining 2010-11 Belmont (eight) and 1990-91 UNLV (12).
The Gators picked up their third-largest margin of victory in SEC play on Wednesday, defeating the South Carolina Gamecocks by 39 points. Florida defeated Ole Miss by 47 in 1993 and Mississippi State by 44 in 1987.
UF (17-2, 7-0 SEC) also extended its winning streak to nine games – the most it has strung together since winning 10 games in a row in the middle of the 2008-09 – and went undefeated in the month of January for the first time since 2007 (8-0).
For head coach Billy Donovan, the Gators winning by an average of 28.3 points in league play is notable but nothing for the team to hang its collective hat on.
“The more you win like this, the more you show what you’re capable of – I believe as a coach – the more responsibility you have because you’re playing at a certain level and you’ve shown a certain level. What you want to try to do as a basketball team is not go backwards a step but continue to grow and get better and improve and understand that’s the number one priority – getting better,” he said after Wednesday’s game.
“The minute you start to cut corners or you start to think you’ve got things figured out or you think you don’t need to do those things anymore, that’s where the slippage starts.”
Florida performed like Donovan dictated in the second half of the contest. If one of the Gators’ teams of the last few seasons led 33-10 at the half like they did on Wednesday, Florida might have taken its foot off the gas, relaxed on defense and cruised to a victory.
Not this squad. These Gators still outscored the Gamecocks 42-26 in the second half, posting more points in the latter 20 minutes than the visitors did in the entire game.
“When you’re up by a large margin, that does not give you the right not to do your job. I tell our guys all the time that the scoreboard has nothing to do with your responsibility on the court. They have done a pretty good job of playing every possession [the right way],” Donovan said.
Even with a 23-point halftime lead, Donovan made sure Florida realized that its first-half offense was far from perfect. The Gators missed a number of opportunities, failed to capitalize on some turnovers and were just awful at the free throw line.
“He actually was saying that we weren’t playing to our potential,” junior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “He said it was good but we had some lapses. He just wanted us to stay focused. He doesn’t really praise us too much. He wants us to stay focused and stay in the moment so we stay locked in.”
Remaining involved in a game – even if it is a blowout in the making – is all part of the process that Donovan has been preaching for his team to follow on a day-by-day, practice-by-practice and game-by-game basis.
That process includes forgetting what happened in the last game, working as hard as possible to study the next game plan provided by the coaching staff, concentrating on improving in practice and going into the next contest as prepared as possible.
During the game, Donovan reminds players that each possession is different from the last one. A mistake made on one defensive trip can be corrected on the next. Bad shot selection in one half can be rectified coming out of the locker rooms.
UF knows the difference between right and wrong, what will keep Donovan silent and what will make him go into a rage in front of the bench. Doing the wrong thing one moment can be fixed by righting the ship on the very next possession.
And huge, dominating, complete victories like Florida has registered in every SEC game so far this season can just as easily be negated by a lack of intensity, effort or preparedness the next day in practice.
“The past is over with; you have to start all over again. They got to understand that’s part of the process, starting all over again and blocking everything else out,” Donovan said. “Can they put their total focus, energy, effort into getting prepared for Ole Miss? Because that’s what’s in front of us right now.”
Photo Credit: John Bazemore/Associated Press