It’s no secret that I root for the Florida Basketball team. Billy Donovan is one of my favorite people in sports and I’ve never made any secret of that. So when they lost three of their last four, I watched with interest to see what Billy might reveal about his approach to this “rough patch.”
“I’ve said all along that this is the toughest eight game stretch we’ve faced since I’ve been here at Florida,”
Donovan said after the loss to Tennessee. “At Vanderbilt, at LSU, at Tennessee, all tough environments and we’ haven’t responded as well as we would have liked.”
So did he run them? Did he scream his guts out at practice? Probably not. Billy probably appealed to their pride, their sense of history, there sense of self. Donovan doesn’t treat everybody or every situation the same. He’s smart and he’s sharp and most importantly, he’s honest.
He never called out any of his players. Al Horford was the only one playing anywhere near what he was capable of. Joakim Noah looked like he was operating at around 80%, Lee Humphrey was off, Taurean Green wasn’t running the show and Corey Brewer was trying to do too much. That’s the strange thing about this Florida team. It’s a real team without any real “go-to” guy or any singular star. So when they’re disjointed, they look terrible and just about anybody can beat them. But when they’re playing like a team and running the offense the way they’ve been taught, they’re nearly unbeatable.
So with this as a background I watched the Kentucky game in Gainesville on Sunday. Would the Gators remain unfocused and just another contender or would they recapture some of what made them champions last season? You could tell from the opening tip that Noah was a different player than he’s been in the last two weeks.
Donovan admitted that he wanted the team to enjoy winning the SEC regular season championship, something they hadn’t done before. So he let them cut the nets down and savor the title. But he also said later that the team seemed to relax after that and played like a team with nothing on the line.
Against Kentucky, Noah was big when he needed to be, hustled, cajoled his teammates and generally ran the show from the outset. Green acted like he had plenty to play for. Humphrey was still off but hit enough shots to make a difference. Most importantly, he kept shooting. Corey Brewer was still his wild self, but made enough spectacular plays to offset his crazy play. And Horford was his steady self.
Not surprisingly, the Gators took a 43-all tie at halftime and ran it up to as much as a 13 point lead in the second half enroute to an 85-72 win. Noah and Green had 17 points, Noah and Horford had 10 rebounds each. But it was the energy and the enthusiasm that was the difference.
Somewhere in that mix was Billy Donovan.
Florida now has some momentum for the SEC Tournament in Atlanta this week and some regained respect when it comes to the seedings for the NCAA Tournament. I still think Florida will get a #1 seed if they get to the championship game in Atlanta. They have quality wins, they won the regular season conference championship and they had a little “rough patch.”
Last year was last year but they did lose three straight before winning their final 11 and the NCAA title. Unless they lay an egg in Atlanta, the Gators should be the top seed somewhere.