Head coach Billy Donovan and a couple players spoke with the media on Monday, two days before the (1) Florida Gators (36-2) left for Arlington, TX to prepare for their Final Four game against the (7) Connecticut Huskies (30-8). The 2014 NCAA Tournament semifinal is set for 6:09 p.m. on Saturday and scheduled to air live on TBS and TNT.
It’s not often a team goes 36-2 heading into the Final Four, let alone with that program being on a 30-game winning streak and somehow being provided with the opportunity to avenge one of those two losses on its way to a potential national title game.
That is the chance Florida has ahead of it Saturday, though Donovan does not necessarily believe that the two teams having squared off earlier this season does anything more than help both coaching staffs with scouting and preparation.
“It gives you at least a reference point of what you’re dealing with there,” he said. “I think that that from a preparation standpoint for both teams, both teams kind of know each other. We’re not in the same league. We’ve played each other once. It was a long time ago, early December, but the game was played, and both teams were out there competing, and both teams have an idea of size, length, speed, quickness.”
Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin concurred.
“The game was such a long time ago. It feels like it was forever,” he said. “They’re playing their best basketball now, and I feel like we’re doing the same. That’s what you have to be in this position, to be in the Final Four. I don’t expect anything less than for them to play their best game.”
Perhaps the most important thing coming from that Dec. 2, 2013 game was that both teams were able to learn from the contest. UF has used its loss to improve its teamwork and basketball IQ, while UConn has referred to its victory during the latter portion of the season, building confidence from the big win.
“I think you always learn through wins and losses. I always say as a coach the best way to learn is through winning. In that situation, a lot of times, it’s the second shot that beats you, not the first one,” Donovan explained, referring to Shabazz Napier’s offensive rebound and buzzer-beater. “When a shot goes up, the tendency is to want to go in there and want to go rebound. We obviously ran in way too deep. Actually, three guys ran in below the free throw line, and the ball got punched back out, so hopefully that’s something we’ve learned from.”
He then added: “To me it’s like having open heart surgery, and the doctor tells you, ‘Listen, you have to stop eating fried foods, you have to eat chicken, fish and vegetables.’ You tell the doctor, ‘No, no, I can still do that. The reason I have heart failure is I’m not drinking enough water.’
“You go back and don’t listen, and you go back and get another open heart surgery. At some point when stuff happens, the act to be able to find out how to correct and get the results you want is something that everybody needs to do.”
Countered Huskies head coach Kevin Ollie: “We took a lot from that game – the resiliency that we had, we got down in that game and came back. We played hard. We played scrappy. They are a tough team to face. Their experience in being in Elite Eights three-straight years, now finally making it to the Final Four. How hard they play, the respect I have for Coach Donovan is out of this roof, the way he’s built that program, took it over, took it to another level.
“They just play so hard. They don’t give an inch on the defensive end and offensive end. … Every cut they make is hard. Every screen they set is hard. Just teaching our guys that you can’t take a play off, you can’t relax. For us to beat a team like that, we couldn’t relax not one minute. … How I used it later on in the season, when we came with difficulties, wasn’t playing up to our capabilities, you put that tape in. … You know what level we can play at.”
Every bit of media coverage looking at the Gators will point to Donovan’s Final Four experience and the fact that he is 3-0 when given the opportunity to advance and play in a national championship game. This is not something lost on his players either.
“He knows what goes into trying to win this thing,” said sophomore guard Michael Frazier II. “The biggest thing for us is just taking his advice on things and listening.”
Concurred Wilbekin: “What he was describing with the Final Four was just a lot of distractions and we’re going to do our best to try and not get distracted by all of the hoopla and the excitement of the Final Four. It’s not going to be easy because, from what I hear, there’s a lot of things we’re going to have to do while we’re there. But I’m going to enjoy it. It’s the Final Four, my last year playing college basketball and my last couple of games with these guys.”
To that end, Donovan compared the Final Four and all of its festivities and obligations to another major sporting event.
“You go to the Final Four, it’s like the Super Bowl in a lot of ways. There are a lot of different demands on your time when you travel,” he explained. “Most of the time we travel – even to the SEC Tournament or even to the NCAA Tournament, outside of some open shootarounds – for the most part you’re traveling schedule is relatively the same. This is a very, very time consuming thing and there’s a lot of things that I think can distract you from playing.
“There is obviously an enormous amount of attention placed on the event, and our guys just need to understand that we’re there to play basketball. We’ve been fortunate enough to get an opportunity to play another 40 minutes. Sometimes with all that takes place in the Final Four, you can really, really get distracted on some of those things, so it will be very important that we keep ourselves focused mentally and emotionally, and even physically on things that we need to do to get ourselves prepared to play on Saturday.”
Wilbekin’s penchant for halftime buzzer-beaters and end-of-game heroics has become unavoidable as the season has progressed, and Donovan is pleased to see him playing with so much enthusiasm and gusto in tough situations, especially because he knows when to take over or otherwise dish the ball.
“He’s got an enormous amount of confidence in himself. But there are guys that can have that kind of confidence and not have a real good awareness,” he explained. “There are certain guys that have an ego that they want to take the last shot. They want to be the hero. A lot of times, taking the last shot may or may not be the right play. … You’ve got to have a good awareness when the ball is in your hands of being able to make those kind of decisions. I think for Scottie he’s done a real, real good job of balancing both, himself and some other guys.”
Wilbekin being able to trust himself and his teammates is the key.
“I just have confidence that I can take a shot in a late clock situation, and I have confidence that it can go in,” he said.
“The main thing is not be afraid to take it and not be afraid that if you miss you’re going to let your teammates down or anything like that. The whole team has confidence in each other. We have confidence that the person taking the shot will take their best rep and not be scared of the moment or scared of the shot.”
Yet while Donovan is pleased to see that part of Wilbekin’s game develop, and equally impressed with how well he has played as a whole, he sees him having an even bigger long-term impact off the court.
“From a standpoint of him being a Gainesville kid, I think there are a lot of positives that can come through him of what he’s been through as a player. I think he’s got an opportunity to be a role model in a lot of ways in this community for a lot of different kids.”
Senior center Patric Young credits Donovan for his maturity as a player and person, so it is a nice parallel that when Donovan needed someone to take an inexperienced player under his wing on a moment’s notice, Young stepped up and came through.
That is what happened with Young and freshman power forward Chris Walker after the mid-season enrollee joined the program and had to learn everything from scratch considering he did not go through preseason workouts or training camp with the team.
“When he came in in December, he had no idea about anything. He didn’t know how we stretched, how we lifted weights. He did not know any drill in practice. He didn’t know what we were doing on offense, defense, didn’t know how to guard a pick and roll. He was a 6’10″ live wire athlete,” said Donovan of Walker.
“As a coach, we spent a lot of time with Chris trying to get him caught up on what we do. What was probably more impactful for Chris was the amount of time that Patric spent with him, explained to him why it’s important to stretch, how to go about stretching, how to get yourself ready to play, how to get yourself ready for practice, not showing up 15 minutes before we practice to get taped, but get here 45 minutes or an hour, get out on the court.
“Patric has spent a lot of time helping him. That’s just the way Patric is as a kid. It probably has less to do with Chris Walker and much, much more to do with Patric. I think if any player was here with the situation that Chris Walker was in, Patric would do it. I think he’s grown fond of Patric because of the time and investment he’s made in him.”
Young’s mentorship has gone so far, in fact, that he even helped Walker partially overcome his fear of flying.
According to Yahoo! Sports’s Pat Forde, Young took Walker (who was having a bit of an anxiety attack) up to the pilot so he could be calmed down before the team flew out to Memphis, TN last week.
It is unknown whether Young had to do the same for this week’s trip to Arlington, but Walker, who is playing his best basketball of the season, in Texas as a new piece Florida will be able to throw at an athletic UConn team.
Much of the buzz coming out of the Huskies’ big win over the Gators was about Napier’s shot, but it never would have happened had F DeAndre Daniels not been in position to tip out the offensive rebound and give UConn a second chance at glory. That fact was not lost on Donovan after the game, and it is something he still thinks about now.
“I look at it a couple of ways. On that night they were the better team. They beat us. They made the plays necessary down the stretch to beat us,” he said. “The play by Daniels, the ball going back out to Napier was a great play, but you’ve got to give him credit that he had the wherewithal just to keep the ball alive. I don’t know if he knew where he was tipping it to.
“We, obviously, had really good coverage on Napier on the last shot, and we also had three guys kind of run in. You’ve got to give them credit that in the midst of all of that chaos, they made the winning play that was necessary in the game to win the game. I always say, inevitably when a game is over with, I always believe in between the lines the best team wins, and they were the best team that day.”
Donovan is also impressed with what he has seen from Daniels, who averages 13.0 points and 5.9 boards, while watching film of him from other games this season.
“He’s been great. He’s really improved and gotten better,” Donovan said. “He’s a versatile forward. He shoots threes [43 percent[. He's posting up. He's long, he's athletic. He can put it on the floor. Kevin does a lot of great stuff with him to put him in situations where he can shoot the ball. He can put it on the floor. He can play out of the post. But he's a guy, I think, has progressively gotten better during the course of the season.”
Ollie agreed with Donovan's breakdown of one of his best and brightest pupils.
“One word that we always talk to him about is touches. His touches comes from his activity. Offensive rebound, defensive rebound, taking charge, getting a deflection, getting a block. When he has over eight rebounds, he averages 19 points. That just goes right into the touches," he said.
"When he's active, when he's on the floor, when he's on the court, blocking shots, he's going to get his points because he's that talented. He's 6'9", can play inside, can play out. He stretches the defense as a hybrid four to put it down on the floor in isolate situations. The biggest thing for him is to bring that energy. When he does that, he plays at another level. Hopefully he can continue to do that in our run in the Final Four.”
NOTES AND QUOTES
» Donovan said the Gators had Sunday and Monday off and had to take care of all their off-the-court business by 3 p.m. on Monday before focus returned to basketball.
» Donovan on the NCAA Tournament as a whole and getting his team prepared for Saturday: “It's the greatest time of the year. It's an unbelievable weekend. It's kind of the culmination of the college basketball season, but at the same point, we're here to play. We've got to get ourselves ready to play. We're not ready to play right now. We don't need to be ready to play right now. This is probably going back to the SEC Tournament, the last time we've had maybe a complete week, so to speak, where we're going to be able to be prepared to play. Now coming out of that week, going into the game against Missouri, we did not play well in the first half. … Everybody's dealing with a week right now [and] you want to be really ready to play once Saturday comes around.”
» Donovan on the fan support for Florida at the airport when the team returned from the Elite Eight: “It was great. There were several hundred fans out there at one o’clock in the morning, which is always nice. I always appreciate people doing that. I think our guys enjoyed it. I think any time you win a game like that, you come home, it’s always a great plane trip home, and certainly for us the last three years it’s not been a pleasant plane trip home. So, it was nice to see people out there, and I think our guys enjoyed that.”
» Donovan on being familiar with AT&T Stadium from having played there last season: “I think that we have more than enough time to get ourselves acquainted and familiar with the building in terms of being in there. But I think anytime you play in that kind of dome setting, it is a little bit different. That place is as big of a place as I’ve ever been into. It’s a gorgeous building, but it will be for us a situation where we have enough time that we can get prepared to play in that building with the opportunity the NCAA gives us to shoot ask work out and practice there.”
» Donovan on Napier, who averages 18.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game while hitting 40 percent of his threes and draining 87 percent of his free throws: “Well, he’s done it a lot. Obviously, he played on a National Championship team his freshman year. He is a great scorer. He can do it by himself. He doesn’t need necessarily a lot of help or a lot of screening. He’s been a big shot-maker his whole entire career. … Napier, to me, is one of those guys that’s been in college for four years. He has evolved into an elite guard in this country, as good as anybody out there. Certainly against us he made some really big shots coming down the stretch. He made a three point shot we fouled him on. It was a four point play, and then obviously, he made the game winner. But he’s a terrific player. He’s had a great year.”
» Wilbekin on whether questions about his early-season suspension have become irritating: “Sometimes I feel like there’s so much out there that it doesn’t need to be asked anymore. I don’t know how I can answer it in a different way. But I understand it because I mean, I guess it’s a good story that I was suspended and now I’ve won some awards at the end of the year.”