No. 1 Florida Gators basketball (26-2, 15-0 SEC) concluded its stretch of playing four road contests in a five-game span last week and returns home Saturday to host the LSU Tigers (17-10, 8-7 SEC) at 4 p.m. on CBS. Florida head coach Billy Donovan met with the media on Friday to discuss the game ahead as well as winning the outright regular-season 2014 SEC Championship on Thursday evening.
THEY ARE THE CHAMPIONS
The Gators were able to clinch the 2014 SEC regular-season title without even stepping foot on the court Thursday night thanks to Kentucky dropping its fourth league game of the season with only three contests remaining. As per usual, Donovan was happy to praise his team for winning the title but cautioned that it was not the ultimate goal this season.
“The league is not over. We still have three games remaining,” he said. “I think our guys certainly set out to compete for an SEC championship in early January but at the same point, the season’s not over. We’ve got three games left to be played.
“Our guys have done a good job up to this point in time of staying focused and going through the process of getting prepared for each game and I don’t think this game is any different for us in terms of you want to continue playing well. The season’s not going to be over with. In a week or maybe a little bit longer the SEC Tournament will start, the postseason will start, so this is something where we’re playing against some good teams and we have an opportunity to keep moving in that direction. I still think there is a lot out there in front of our team.”
Donovan confirmed Florida’s Thursday announcement that freshman point guard Kasey Hill, who missed three-straight games with a groin injury, practiced in full that day and has been cleared to play on Saturday against LSU.
“He practiced yesterday and looked pretty good, no pain. No limping or anything that I can notice where he looks hampered our bothered. He was out there the whole time,” Donovan said.
“I think our trainer felt like he could have possibly thrown him in there against Vanderbilt, but it was one of those things where he just thought it was a little bit of a risk. If he did tweak it again, it could put him out for another ten days or so, so I think he feels pretty confident – those extra days have really helped him.”
The Gators have won all three games Hill has missed but done so by a combined 12 points. Senior PG Scottie Wilbekin has also been less efficient without Hill on the court to both spell him and share the ball-handling duties. He has played an average of 37 minutes in those games, shooting just 12-for-36 from the field and 8-for-24 from beyond the arc.
Donovan also discussed the team’s overall health, noting that Florida is “about as good as we can be right now.”
“We don’t have anything significantly ailing,” he noted, “but I think everybody’s probably somewhat banged up. Everybody’s probably dealing with sore knees, lower backs, tendinitis, those kinds of things that are wear-and-tear injuries. But we can adjust practice, and we can do things to kind of get them back physically. The biggest thing you want them to do is to try to be able to get game-in and game-out to that emotional level you want to. And it’s a grind mentally to emotionally get there each and every game.”
It took a while – seven games, in fact – but redshirt sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith finally broke out of his near-month-long slump by leading the Gators with 19 points on 6-of-11 shooting (3-of-6 from three) on Tuesday night. On Friday, he admitted that he felt frustration while missing shot after shot but said his teammates had his back.
“It felt good,” he said. “I went through a little bit of a slump, but it’s great to see [that happen after] how much work I put in.”
Donovan also praised Finney-Smith for his effort, pointing out that his importance to the team comes from more than just his ability to put the ball in the hoop.
“We need him to be able to continually move past when the ball is not going in the basket and continue to be aggressive,” he said. “I thought he maintained his aggressiveness against Vandy when he made his first, just missed one at the top, and then took one [that] barely grazed the rim. He stayed engaged in the game, which was good. When he’s playing well, it definitely changes and helps our team.”
NOTES AND QUOTES
» Donovan on winning without NBA first-round talent: “I think a lot of times when people define great players they define great players as guys who go on and play in the NBA. I think all of these seniors who play for us will have that opportunity. Do we have lottery picks on our team and clear-cut first-round draft picks? Maybe not. But in terms of right now where we’re competing in college, we have a very good group of guys – a group of guys who are talented and have experience and have played together, and I think have a good relationship and a bond. I think a lot of times people’s determinations of great players are what is this guy’s opportunity at the next level. There are a lot of great college players who have not had the opportunity to move on and play and have a long career in the NBA. Two totally different levels, but I would agree that we don’t necessarily have a team full of lottery picks.”
» Donovan on whether he is concerned about LSU and its frontcourt: “Major concern. Major concern. … Now [Johnny] O’Bryant has got some legitimate guys around him. … They are a really, really talented team. I would say their basketball team has a lot of answers at a lot of different spots, and they have just about six guys averaging double-figure points. They are an unselfish team. They lead our league in assists. They lead our league in scoring. They’re just about in the top four and five of every offensive statistical category. Defensively, we’ll have our hands full.”
» Donovan on UF being 13-2 in single-digit decisions this season and pulling out a number of clutch wins: “Sometimes a lot of things have to do with the ball going in the basket. I can think of a lot of games last year where I thought we had really good looks and we didn’t make shots. … So there’s a combination between guys making plays and putting the ball in the basket. And then there’s also a part of it, too, of being able to get some stops and we’ve been able to make some free throws. Those things kind of culminate to being able to play as well. If you can get stops, get good looks and make free throws, you’re probably going to be a team coming down the stretch that is going to put itself in a position to win. There were times last year where I thought we didn’t make a couple of shots that we needed to make and we missed. … Sometimes, you can execute really well and be good but people look at the results and say, ‘Geez, they haven’t won close games.’ I’ve never really believed in that. I’m more looking at are you getting a good shot – or – did we get a shot off? Did we execute coming down the stretch? Did we play good defense? Sometimes the ball goes in the basket for the other team; sometimes the ball goes in the basket for you. We’ve happened to make some plays to kind of win some of those games.”