Anytime there’s big time basketball in Gainesville these days, its worth going. Saturday’s Florida/Louisville match up had all the story lines you could want. The enigmatic Gators, unranked against the talent-laden, highly ranked, Rick Pitino-coached Louisville Cardinals. Pitino’s coaching of Louisville is akin to Steve Spurrier returning to the college football field as the coach of Florida State. His coaching career has been somewhat nomadic; not Larry Brown-esque, but he’s made a few stops. And he’s left a trail of successful assistants behind, including Billy Donovan. Donovan is now 0-6 vs. Pitino after his Gators fell 74-70, a stat he blew off immediately.
“In four of those we had no chance,” Donovan said, referring to his contest as the head coach of Marshall and his first couple of years at Florida. “It was like going up against them with you at point guard,” he added, referring to a local writer who doesn’t resemble a basketball player.
In the game against Louisville, the Gators gave themselves a lot of chances, but never closed things out. “We couldn’t get over the hump,” is how Donovan described it. But it seemed to be most of their own doing. They’d get within two, or even one, then throw the ball away, have a bad offensive position or do something stupid, like committing an intentional personal foul. “Our basketball IQ isn’t as high as it could be,” is how Donovan explained it after some thought.
There were a lot of dynamics working at the game that made Donovan’s post-game press conference a little strained. Losing to Miami the week before didn’t sit well with the Florida Head Coach although it was a case of a couple of players getting hot and the Gators not being able to respond. But Donovan was a little testy, and a little overly critical of his team. He referred to them as “they” a little too often, and besides the IQ comment, either was calling out his team in a subtle way or trying to lower expectations in Gainesville.
“We’re a good, solid basketball team,” is how he described his combination of youth and experience. “This team doesn’t have the talent of Donnell Harvey, Mike Miller and Kwami Brown. They work hard, they’re great kids, they have enthusiasm and they want to compete, but when they get in games like this, their talent doesn’t carry them, because they’re not overly talented.”
I thought that was a bit harsh, but pretty much right on the mark. Donovan continued his lecture, either directed at the media, the fans, the administration, the players, or some combination thereof. “There’s a perception around here that we have all world talent. You want to see all world talent? Go to Michigan, Illinois, North Carolina, and Kentucky, that’s where you’ll find it. We don’t have that. We have good, solid players who want to improve and we keep working on it.”
It’s less upbeat than I’ve seen Donovan over the years he’s been at Florida. Granted, I don’t go to every game, but he’s usually more upbeat, puts a positive spin on things, even when they’re bad. He could be a victim of his own early success, getting the Gators to the Championship game in 2000, and getting out in the early rounds of the NCAA’s ever since. But it seemed a little deeper than that. Perhaps he’s a little tired of the sniping that goes along with the Gator program, whether it’s football, or basketball.
Everybody’s an expert, and everybody’s a critic. “People compare this team to the 2000 team,” Donovan said without defining, “people.” “But they’re not close.”
So are we expected to sit back and watch the team not “get over the hump” because they’re not that good, or be happy with them playing hard and smart, no matter the outcome? Actually if they play hard and smart the outcome will be more positive than negative, even against big name teams, like Louisville. Anthony Roberson, David Lee and Matt Walsh were all-preseason somethings, but they are fitting or giving the leadership players of their stature should. Lee is a good player, but could be better, if only by demanding the ball more. His three point attempt at the end of the game was criticized by Donovan and a couple of his teammates, but in that situation with time running out and an open shot, I didn’t have a problem with it, except that it was an air ball.
Roberson needs to look for his shot more and Walsh needs to be a part of the team instead of appearing to try and win every possession himself. When he’s hot, he’ll beat anybody in the country, but when he’s not, which is more common, he’s got to get into the flow of the game with the rest of his team.
Freshman Al Horford can play, and Donovan’s confidence in him showed as he left him in down the stretch in the second half. Taurean Green is also poised for a freshman, and the rest of the first-year players look like they can contribute. “Sometimes you’re caught,” Donovan explained, “Do I play them a little and let them take time to develop experience, or do I throw them in there and live with the mistakes they’ll make as inexperienced players?”
It was a rhetorical question, but can easily be answered. Play who you think can help you win Billy no matter they’re class standing.
Hopefully that’ll make Billy a little happier.