(1) Florida Gators head coach Billy Donovan, senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin and senior center Patric Young met with the media on Friday less than 36 hours before competing against the (7) Connecticut Huskies in the Final Four of the 2014 NCAA Tournament at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, TX. Saturday’s semifinal game is set for 6:09 p.m. and scheduled to air live on TBS and TNT.
EXPECTATIONS, MATURITY, CONFIDENCE
Early in Donovan’s press conference on Friday, he was actually asked by a reporter whether he’s ever had to deal with the same expectations heading into a season that Kentucky did due to its heralded recruiting class. Donovan actually answered the absurd question, obviously noting that Florida had insanely high expectations heading into the 2007 season as defending national champions. “Our whole starting five came back off a National Championship and we started preseason No. 1 and we had to deal with that,” he said.
The question led to another, much-better one, however, as Donovan went on to explain his recruiting philosophy and whether he actively searches for players that plan to stay three or four years as opposed to one-and-done talent. As he has in the past, Donovan dismissed the notion that he does not like one-and-done players but did expand on his thoughts about the subject.
“I get asked this a lot. I cannot, as a coach, forecast a player’s future,” he began to explain.
“For instance, after Joakim Noah’s freshman year, I would have said there’s no way in the world that this guy is going to be a first round draft pick after his sophomore year, and he would have been the No. 1 player taken in the draft. I would have said the same thing after Marreese Speights’s freshman year, that there’s no way this guy’s going to be able to leave after his sophomore year, first round draft pick. As a coach, you never know.
“Now there’s certain guys you do know when you recruit them. I knew Bradley Beal was probably going to be a guy a couple years ago that was going to be here shortly. Patric Young had an opportunity for three-straight years to leave. He probably would have gone in the first round after his freshman year. He decided to come back. So some players you’re you just don’t know.
“It’s not necessarily by recruiting design where I look at a high school kid and say, ‘Okay, great, let’s recruit this kid because he’s going to be here for four years.’ I thought [Nick] Calathes would be a guy that would stay on our campus for three or four years and he took an overseas job after his sophomore year. You don’t know as a coach. These guys make decisions, and a lot of times, you don’t know how fast they develop or you don’t know what kind of opportunities are put in front of them to make those kind of choices.”
This group of players, the four seniors that have helped the Gators flourish this season, were unlike Calathes in that they did stick it out. Young did not go for the cash or fame grab. The others had opportunities to transfer at different times but decided to stay together. And Florida is a prideful bunch because of it.
“They have learned some valuable lessons on the court, no question, being here for four years at Florida,” Donovan said. “But the thing I’m much, much more pleased with is they have got a lot of experiences that were very difficult and very challenging that I think is going to take them to the next step in their life. They’re going to be able to handle life’s adversity a lot better. It wasn’t always easy for them. I give them credit for being persistent, for staying the course, for dealing with their personal struggles and challenges to try to overcome them, to battle them, to deal with them, to deal with them head on.”
So despite the fact that UF failed in three-straight Elite Eights over these players’ first three seasons and is now set to play in the Final Four for the first time since 2007, Florida’s resolve is not shaken and these Gators are as confident as ever.
“I think that the confidence level our team has been what it’s been really the entire year. These guys understand what goes into playing and competing, they’re really good as it relates to scouting report and preparation,” Donovan said.
“I think they understand how hard they have to play, how well they have to play defensively together, offensively together. So I think that the things that go into that, you got to believe you can do. Our guys, I think, have great belief and confidence in one another, that the things that we can control inside the process of each possession. I think that they believe in one another and in getting the job done each possession collectively as a group.”
DEFENDING THE POINT
There are plenty of areas where the Gators and Huskies will battle on the court Saturday, but ball-handling, offense-creating and shot-making from the point guard position will be of prime importance throughout the evening.
Florida and UConn both have a known quantity as a starter with Wilbekin and Shabazz Napier carrying the rock for their respective team. The question is what will happen when a tough on-ball defender like Wilbekin – this time not rusty while playing his third game of the season and able to play the complete contest without a sprained ankle – tries to guard one of the best offensive players in the country.
“I’ve always said this, and I do believe this: I believe great offense always beats great defense,” explained Donovan.
“Shabazz is a great offensive player, and Scottie is a great defensive player. But Scottie is not going to be able to deal with Shabazz one on one. We have been a team that’s played collectively as a group on the defensive end of the floor. Scottie’s going to need help because Kevin [Ollie] puts Shabazz in a lot of situations that he’s coming off screens, he’s in pick and rolls with the floor spread. To put Scottie on an island and expect him all by himself to handle him, Shabazz is just too gifted offensively.”
Ollie has his fair share of concerns about Wilbekin, but he also must deal with UF freshman PG Kasey Hill, a tempo-changing spark plug off the bench that was not on the court (high-ankle sprain) when the teams last met on Dec. 2, 2013.
“Kasey, with his speed, his ability to make plays, Scottie does the same thing, but it gives them an opportunity, kind of like us, where we can play two point guards at the same time. They didn’t have that option when they played us last time,” he explained.
“So, it’s a different game. That was four months ago. We’re a different team. I’m a different coach. Billy Donovan’s definitely got better understanding his team and what it takes for his team to win. So it’s going to be a whole different game. But Kasey Hill is a wonderful player. Now they got Chris Walker back in the rotation, which they didn’t have before. It’s going to be a challenge for us. We have to play our A game.”
A NEW WAY TO CHEER ON THE GATORS
There will be plenty going on when Florida competes in the Final Four on Saturday, but it is now easy to follow it all from a social content perspective with the new Fanzo app (download here), which puts all the hottest fan-trending sports news and information right at your fingertips.
What’s cool is that you can easily choose the Gators from their list of teams and get constantly-updated feeds of new posts and stories from OnlyGators.com, ESPN, FOX Sports and plenty of other national sources.
College basketball is hot now, of course, but every major league is covered. It will also be a great way to follow Gators in the NFL, NBA and MLB throughout their seasons.
YOUNG OLD AND FULLY-REALIZED
It took a lot out of both Donovan and Young to get the latter where he is now in his basketball-playing career. Asked to reflect on both how far his chiseled big man has come over the last four years and where he expects him to wind up after the season, Donovan reflected fondly not just on Young’s ability but also his tremendous character.
“I don’t think there’s any question that he has a professional career playing. I believe he will be in the NBA. He’s gotten so much better. He’s worked extremely hard to get where he’s at right now. I’m proud of how consistent he’s been this year. I think earlier in his career that was probably the one thing that was lacking was a level of consistency. He’s gotten so much more consistent. …
“The other part I would say, for Patric, is I give him a lot of credit for making decisions regarding his career in terms of what he wanted to do. I see a lot of people and a lot of the kids make really some poor decisions because they’re influenced by other people and the wrong people. I give credit to Patric that he self evaluated, really looked at his values, what was important to him. Every year he’s had an opportunity to leave and he’s elected to come back. Certainly we’re happy he’s come back every year. I love coaching him. If he wanted to leave, I would have supported him. But the one thing I admire is Patric did what he thought was best for himself and you think that that’s always a good thing.”
» Donovan on Ollie and the coaching job he’s done this season: “I think it’s always a challenge and difficult when you take over for a great coach like Jim Calhoun, but I think Kevin has done it in such a class way. When you play as long as he’s played, and you’ve had the success he’s had as a player, he understands for himself what wins and how he wants his team to play and how he wants his team to reflect himself. I’ve been really, really impressed. His coaching and all those things speak for themselves. I mean, you can watch his team play. They play hard. They’re unselfish. They play together. They have energy and enthusiasm. He’s done a great job. What impresses me even more with Kevin is the kind of person he is, just the way he has incorporated Coach Calhoun, the respect he gives Coach Calhoun as his former coach. I think he’s handled that whole situation very, very well. At the same time, he’s been able to put his stamp, his fingerprint on Connecticut’s basketball program the last two years. He’s an outstanding coach and a great guy. I’ve got equally as much respect for him, and all the way around, the way he runs his program and the kind of guy he is and obviously what he’s done coaching.”
» Donovan on the differences between college basketball when he was a player and now as a coach: “When I played in this event 26 years ago, there was a meaning about playing for Providence College. There was a meaning and a value. Back then it was glorified that you just got a scholarship to college, that your family didn’t have to pay for your education. You needed your degree to move on. Representing your school and your school colors and putting a college uniform on and representing the Big East, there were a lot of those things 26 years ago that were really valuable. I think what’s happened now is because of the opportunity to earn money in the game of basketball, those opportunities are far greater than they were 26 years ago. A lot of kids now look at this as, ‘I’ve got an earning window to make money playing this game, and really in a lot of ways I have a lifetime to get my degree and I can never earn as much money with my degree coming out of college that I could if I took an overseas job.’ Forget the NBA. We have had guys that have been at Florida that have been well over six figures as it relates to contracts. That’s not even in the NBA. So there’s an opportunity.”
» Donovan on how long it takes to know that one of his recruits will work out: “Within the first three weeks, I can tell. Now, he may not be, talent wise, where we want him and he needs to get better, but attitude wise, I know within the first three weeks whether this is going to work or not.”
Photo Credit: Rob Foldy, USA TODAY Sports