If there is one thing Florida Gators head basketball coach Billy Donovan understands, it is the pressure of high expectations regardless of the age of your players.
Coming off of consecutive national championships in 2006-07, Donovan was faced with a young squad of up-and-comers who were expected to pick up where the Oh Fours left off. While his players had confidence and held those same expectations, there were plenty of factors working against them in addition to their inexperience.
“Players, when they’re young, they look at a program or a school or a team and think, ‘If I go there, this is going to happen for me.’ They don’t understand the commitment and the understanding of what goes into it,” Donovan explained on Monday. “When young guys are playing, it’s not just a guarantee that guys understand how to win.
“It takes time to do that.”
It all starts with understanding how to win at the collegiate level, something Donovan related to what the football team is going through right now after three-straight losses.
“Young players have to go through that to understand what goes into winning. There’s a process. You don’t just go in and just win,” he continued. “No one is immune from it. Everyone has to go through it. It just doesn’t happen because you’re ‘at Florida.’
“‘Because we’re at Florida, we’re going to win.’ It doesn’t work like that. That’s the beauty of competing – there are ingredients that go into practice habits, preparation, the mental part of the game, chemistry, covering for each other, knowing when it gets really hard how to handle adversity. A lot of times, when these guys are young, it’s the first time these guys have gone through adversity.”
Adversity is exactly what the football team has been faced with recently, and head coach Will Muschamp on Tuesday agreed with Donovan’s assessment that it all starts with gaining an advantage in the mental aspect of the game.
Muschamp has been trying to explain to his team how important that factor is for winning for months, but he notes that the inability for some young players to understand that from the start may be due to how much success they saw in high school.
“That’s what’s hard, especially with the way recruiting is nowadays,” he said. “Young men have an inflated opinion about where they are as a player. So when they come in, they don’t understand what Billy referred to as the process it takes to be a good player. What is that process? The mental preparation. The physical attributes may be the same as the guy you’re lined up against. What’s going to be the difference at the end of the day? The mental preparation, the mental edge, the mental belief in what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. And that’s called ‘discipline.’
“There’s no question that young players that generally mature quicker are players that understand what it takes to be successful and understand that it’s not just about what happens on the field. It’s about what happens in the classroom. It’s about what happens in the meeting rooms. It’s about what happens in the weight rooms. And they continue to advance their professional career the right way off the field not necessarily what you’re doing on the field. There’s no question that’s a huge growing process. Generally the ones that play as freshmen and contribute and play a lot and play well are the ones who are mature enough to understand what it takes.”
That’s not to say Florida’s mental preparation is lacking in all areas, but it certainly needs to improve. Another thing the Gators have to fix is the team’s health, something Donovan said has undoubtedly cost them some victories thus far in the season.
“The other thing with the football situation just to me on the outside looking in – and I know nothing about football,” Donovan joked, “it is very clear that if you take a team’s starting quarterback and starting tailback away and replace them with a freshman quarterback…that would be like taking Erving Walker and Patric Young out of our team and expecting to be really good. That would be an incredible blow to our team.”
Muschamp, who has refused to use injuries as an excuse because they happen every year in one way or another, did admit Tuesday that he does not think Florida has a long ways to go in order to step up their game to the next level.
“We’re not that far away. I really don’t believe that. I just don’t. I think the biggest issue we have as much s anything is depth right now,” he said. “In this profession, something that has held true for me is that it’s never as good as it seems and it’s never as bad as it seems. It’s somewhere in between. I don’t think we’re far off – I don’t. I don’t believe that. I think we’ve got good players in this program.
“I think we’ve got some depth issues we have to work through because that helps competition. It’s different when you got a guy standing behind you that’s ready to take your job. Right now, quite frankly, at some positions we don’t have that. That gets better play – it gets more consistent play.”
Considering the Gators have half as many upperclassmen (19 seniors, 16 juniors) on the roster as they do underclassmen (34 sophomores, 33 freshmen), depth is looking like something Florida may find very shortly with another solid recruiting class or two.
How those future Gators prepare mentally to be part of a winning football team is what remains to be seen.