“Are you prepared to go all the way back down to the cellar again and have to prepare and go back up?
Florida Gator head basketball coach Billy Donovan
The Florida Gators men’s basketball team had quite a week last week. After winning two tough road games against Tennessee and Kentucky, the Gators moved up to #2 in both the AP and USAToday coaches poll. They tied a school record with their 17th consecutive victory moving to 23-2 overall on the season and remaining undefeated in the SEC at 12-0. So Billy Donovan, where are you going now?
“Back down to the cellar.”
Back down to the cellar to do work. No resting on their laurels. No celebrating a rare win at Rupp Arena. No pats on the back for overcoming adversity in two of the toughest road venues in the nation. When you’re on top of the world there’s only one way to go… down… back down to the cellar.
Basketball is a grind. It’s all about surviving runs, overcoming adversity, staying the course. The Gators have excelled at this from game to game all season long. It starts with senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin and his on-court leadership.
‘”Just stay the course,'” Wilbekin said when asked what he tells teammates during intense in-game moments. “I tell them we know it’s going to be tough like if we got a foul called that we didn’t like or that we didn’t think should be called I’m just like, “We’re on the road, it’s an SEC environment, it’s Kentucky. We knew it was going to be like this. We knew they were going to make runs, we knew they were going to make tough shots but we just have to stick to the course and stick to the process.'”
Basketball season is a grind as well. From training camp, to the preconference schedule, to the long 18 game conference schedule. Then there’s a four day conference tournament and if you’re lucky the NCAA tournament which is two games in three days for three consecutive weekends in order to win a championship. If you want to win big you’ve got to grind hard, you’ve got to go back down to the cellar.
The hardest thing for players is to understand the extent of that grind. There’s no time to rest and whether you play well or play bad, win or lose you have to keep going back to the cellar, you’ve got to keep grinding. The toughest part of coaching is getting players to not only understand that but to buy into it.
“I think for any coach, that’s a constant battle in trying to deal with moving to the next thing,” Billy Donovan said. “I always say this, there’s always some kind of residual effect after a game, whether a player didn’t play well or he didn’t play enough or a guy played great and thinks he’s got it all figured out or he was in foul trouble – there’s some kind of effect your team deals with coming out of the game. I think the key is, are our guys willing and prepared today to start all over again in the process of getting ready to play on Wednesday night and be willing to not skip steps?”
And that’s where this team is at right now. Despite their huge week that answered a lot of the questions detractors had of the team and has them pushing not only for a number one NCAA tourney seed but possibly the number one overall seed, they’ve got to forget about all that and head back down to the cellar to prepare for the next game against Auburn.
“We obviously had a week where we played two road games and it was two really good wins for our guys,” Donovan said. “But right now, they don’t mean anything as it relates to going into this next game against Auburn. So are we willing to take ourselves all the way down to the bottom and realize that we’re starting off at the bottom and now we’ve got to obviously prepare and build and get ready for this next game? And after the Auburn game, are you prepared to go all the way back down to the cellar again and have to prepare and go back up? And that is a tedious, grinding, fatiguing, hard process to go through, but it’s one you have to go through I think in order to be successful.”
And that is what has been key for this team. It explains how they’ve won 17 in a row, how they’ve come within 7 points of being undefeated. It explains how they’ve come this far with a team that has been through so much and started the season with so many questions and arguably without any superstars. If nothing else, this team has fully bought into the concepts Billy Donovan preaches. They’ve become the on-court personification of Donovan.
“I don’t know. I mean, I hope they do [believes in what he preaches],” Donovan said. “I think a lot of times, you can say a lot of different things and I always feel like if you say those things, you can back it up with your actions. So, hopefully our guys, if they’re saying those things, they’re trying to at least back them up. For the most part, these guys have been really, really good. They’ve been coachable, they’ve worked hard, they’ve been great kids and they’ve done what we’ve asked them to do. I still think we can get better. There’s another challenge in front of us here, obviously this week with Auburn. If they are repeating some of the things that I say, the biggest thing is, do they really believe in what they put into those things? Hopefully they do.”
Grinding is never easy and it hasn’t been easy for this team. They’re not perfect and haven’t always done it to Donovan’s satisfaction but they never stop going back down to the cellar.
“Yeah, there’s been plenty of times they don’t do it as well as I would like,” according to Donovan. “I’m anxious to see how well we do it here today. It’s always a challenge. There’s a certain expectation that we have in terms of going into the next game and trying to prepare for it and how do we handle that approach.”
You’ve got to fight and battle through the mental aspect. The body and mind want to rest and take it easy. But champions dig down and find the strength to fight back against human nature.
“The hardest thing right now with regards to that is we’re dealing with really good kids that are between 18 and 22 years old that are trying to figure their way in life and understand and have some great opportunities to learn and grow in a lot of different ways,” Donovan said. “But at the same point, they’re human, they’re not robots or machines. I think the challenge I always talk to them about is, ‘Are you prepared today to battle human nature?’ Human nature says, ‘Let’s take it easy, we just had two good wins, everything’s going to be fine, everything’s OK.’ You’ve got to constantly battle and fight that every single day and as a coach you try to educate them on that.”
He added, “And it’s no different for anybody else, there’s always things that we have to battle where we have to make those decisions, and our guys right now are going in there like, ‘Here we go again,’ and that’s a hard process. Are we perfect at it? No. Have there been times this year that we haven’t done a great job? Yes, they’re human, but we have to constantly bring it in front of them and have them address it and try to deal with it.”
The key to grinding and getting better, according to Donovan, is confrontation. Players have to be stressed in practice in order to improve and get better.
“I think there has to be confrontation in practice for those guys to grow,” Donovan said.” “If I go to practice every day and it’s just easy for them, there’s no adversity or confrontation, I think it’s hard to grow. They’ve got to be able to take on things. There are going to be challenges presented to them inside of practice and they’ve got to be able to handle those challenges and achieve what they need to achieve together. It requires, a lot of times, those guys working together, being on the same page, being connected and getting it done collectively as a group.”
And it comes down to mental toughness.
“There is a mental approach that those guys have to have in terms of trying to get themselves ready to play,” according to Donovan. “I think we can all probably acknowledge that the most difficult times of all of our lives, although they’ve been hard and difficult, looking back on them, we’ve probably seen more growth in those difficult times and maybe even those times have gone great. I think the same thing can be said for our team. You go through those difficult times, where you try and prepare and get better as a team, you look back and say, ‘Wow, I’ve come a long way.’ But, during the process it’s challenging and difficult, but I do think there’s a reward in terms of seeing development and growth.”
And the reward is more than just wins, school record win streaks, and a possible undefeated conference season. The reward this year may just be the Gators third NCAA tourney championship. They’re definitely in the midst of a special season.
“Probably just the day-in, day-out process of how hard it is to be good,” Scottie Wilbekin said when asked what the biggest thing he’s learned from coach Donovan. “And I would say that we don’t know what that is yet. He knows, because he coached back-to-back national championship teams, but he keeps telling us and we keep striving to get to that place where we’re working as hard day-in and day-out to accomplish something great.”
Accomplish something great. This team certainly has the opportunity to do just that. Considering where they were when the season started, Wilbekin suspended and Damontre Harris booted off the team, what they went through early in the year with minimal depth and injuries and then how far they’ve come to a reach a #2 national ranking and become the odds on favorite to win it all, this team has a great opportunity to accomplish something great. But if they want to get to the top, they have to go back down. Back down to the cellar.