“We’ve got a lot of room to grow and get better.”
Billy Donovan on the Florida Gators men’s basketball team
The Gators have opened the season at 18-2 tied for best opening mark in school history. The magnitude of this achievement cannot be understated considering the Gators lost their top three scorers from last season which represented almost two thirds of their scoring. They also have had to deal with injuries, suspensions, dismissals, and the situation with star freshman Chris Walker who missed the fall semester and then has had to sit out 12 games due to NCAA investigation into impermissible benefits received while in high school. For much of the season they’ve barely had enough players field a starting lineup and have had to find scrubs to scrimmage in practice. Despite all this they’ve barely missed a beat from their three consecutive Elite Eight appearances in the NCAA tournament. As well as they’ve played, however, and as anyone who has watched their games can attest, they certainly have room to grow and get better.
Don’t get me wrong. They’ve certainly played well. A twelve game win streak, undefeated in the SEC, and their only losses were a tough road match up with Wisconsin and a buzzer beater to Connecticut. All this has led to a #3 national ranking and lots of media attention mentioning them as potential final four candidates.
Yet they continue to have their struggles. Particularly on the road. Particularly closing out the first half. For whatever reason they appear to lose focus at times which allows opponents to climb back in games right when the Gators should be pushing down the accelerator and putting their foot on the opponent’s throat. It’s almost unexplainable, and to fans it can be down right maddening.
Take Thursday’s night game against Mississippi State, who has the lowest RPI of any of the Gator’s conference opponents. The Gators started well but had break downs in their three point defense that allowed the Bulldog’s to hang around through much of the first half when they had loads of opportunities to take control. They finally used a 10-0 run to take a nine point lead with just under four minutes left in the first half, but just when it appeared the Gators were beginning to assert their dominance, they went cold from the floor and even worse had multiple defensive breakdowns that allowed the Bulldogs to close the half on an 8-0 run going into halftime down only a point.
“I thought we got off to a very good start,” coach Donovan said. “We scored on our first two possessions. We did a good job handling their pressure and we got to the basket. We had some break downs defensively. We gave Borchert up two threes early in the game which allowed them to get back into the game. And then they closed the half out, we’re up by nine and they go on an 8-0 run. I wish we would have closed the half out a little better.”
Closing out the first half has been a problem all season for the Gators. If there’s an area they have room to grow and get better it’s definitely closing out the half. Basketball is a game of runs for sure and one of the Gators’ biggest strength is their ability to score in bunches. With their suffocating press and stifling half court defense as well as quick offensive turnarounds, the Gators have the ability to jump out to big leads.
It seems, however, that they lose some focus defensively when they make big early runs which allow teams to get back in the game particularly on the road. Against Auburn, the Gators would repeatedly jumped out to 6-9 point leads only to watch the Tigers quickly tighten up the score. The Gators were never able to fully put the Tigers away on the road until the end of the game. Arkansas was very similar and the Gators needed a clutch shot from Scottie Wilbekin to get to overtime before taking control of the game and the victory.
Three point defense is another area for growth and improvement. Take away the game against Tennessee where the Gators held them to 1-19 on three point field goals, the Gators have struggled defending the three point line. At one point, their two point field goal defense percentage was better than their three point. It’s an odd situation considering that defense has been the strength of this team all season. All too often they’ve played solid defense, pushing the opponent late in the shot clock, only to see them drain an open three. For their part, it has gotten better. They have dropped their three point field goal percentage defense down of late to a much more respectable level but they still have lapses that could very well haunt them against better opponents and at tournament time.
Looking ahead to today’s game against Texas A&M, the first time they’ve faced them in the O’Dome since 1992, Donovan said they need to play better than they did against the Bulldogs.
“I didn’t think we played great yesterday,” said Donovan. “Hopefully that in itself is an opportunity to grow and get better. I thought we played pretty well in the game against Tennessee here at home. We had three days, four days before our last game against Mississippi State. I thought at times we played really, really well in the game on both ends of the floor and there were some times that I felt we played really, really poorly. We’ve got a lot of room to grow and get better. We need to play better tomorrow than we did on Thursday night.”
Billy Donovan preaches religiously that offense will take care of itself but defense is where games are won and lost. As evidenced at the end of the first half against Mississippi State, the Gators had open looks but simply couldn’t make shots, but it was the defensive break downs that allowed the Bulldogs to tighten the score going into halftime.
“It really was a game (Mississippi State) in my opinion that I thought offensively both teams had plays around the basket to finish to make, and both teams did not do a great job around the basket,” Donovan said afterwards. “There was a lot of missed lay ups by both teams. We got up by nine there towards, right under the 3:40, four minute time out. And it was probably to be honest with you a little bit of a fraudulent nine point lead because they missed a lot of shots. And then all of the sudden we get a truck load of really good looks by Frazier and by Wilbekin closing out that half and we missed them all. The run started for them right when the shot clock was running down, I think it was Davis doing a tough shot over Frazier. And then we didn’t close the half great. I thought Sword and their backcourt guys and Johnson hurt us on some drives. We got too gapped and too spread out.”
With everybody finally healthy and cleared to play (Chris Walker will be available Tuesday), the Florida Gators are a really good looking team right now. They certainly deserve the national attention they’re receiving and are legitimate title contenders. However, they certainly have some flaws meaning there’s room to grow and get better.
“Our guys for the most part are great kids,” Donovan said. “They work very hard, they want to win, they’re very coachable. But like anything else when you’re in a competitive situation, a competitive environment there’s going to be break downs, there’s going to be mistakes. I just thought that we had too many of them in terms of what we normally have done in the past. There’s areas for us to grow and get better from that.”
Luckily for them there’s still time left to do that before the SEC and NCAA tournaments. If they do just that perhaps they’ll finally break the Elite Eight jinx of the last three seasons and get back to the Final Four for the first time since 2007. If so this could very well end up being a season to remember for the Florida Gators.