“There’s opportunity for them to chase things that hopefully keeps them motivated, focused, and excited during this stretch here because we’ve got seven days left.”
Florida Gator head basketball coach Billy Donovan
It’s been quite a season for the Florida Gators men’s basketball team. A historic season full of plot twists, struggles, adversity, criticism, and doubt. The season started with more unknowns than a grab bag with starting point guard Scottie Wilbekin on the bench due to suspension that could have derailed his career at Florida, transfer Damontre Harris booted off the team entirely, incoming freshman McDonald’s All American Chris Walker unable to enroll as he finished online classes needed to graduate and then eligibility issues once he enrolled, and four returning seniors all of whom were previously solid role players but none of which anyone would have thought might lead this team to a number one ranking and possible number one NCAA tournament seed.
Through much of the preconference schedule the Gators struggled to field enough bodies to have adequate practice scrimmages. Throw in injuries to leading scorer Casey Prather, center Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, and freshman point guard Kasey Hill and the Gators struggled to maintain consistency in the starting lineup.
These Gators have been through so much adversity not only throughout this season but throughout their careers that this senior class has realistically gone from chasing their tails to chasing greatness. That’s been a common theme for Billy Donovan all season when pushing his senior laden squad to fight through, press on, and be always striving for greatness.
“Hopefully, the greatest thing hasn’t come yet,” Patric Young said. “But as of now, this class has gone through a lot, from guys thinking about transferring to staying in school, to not playing games with injuries, all those things, this team, this senior class, has persevered, stuck together and won.”
It didn’t quite start out so rosy, however.
After losing to Connecticut on a buzzer beater with just enough healthy and available players to finish the game, the Gators were seemingly at a crossroads. At 6-2, the Gators were a very unknown quantity. Short on depth, and perhaps even shorter on leadership, the Gators had no identity. The usually tough defense, a hallmark of Billy Donovan teams, was very inconsistent. The assist to turnover ratio, another important barometer for Donovan teams, was negative. Their three point defense was worse than their two point defense. They looked like anything but the team that had earned three straight Elite Eight berths.
It’s not that they were playing terribly bad, it’s just that they lacked cohesiveness. They were somewhat discombobulated offensively and defensively. Effort was there but timing was not. They were a work in progress. Unfortunately that progress had been retarded due to Scottie Wilbekin’s suspension which kept him from practicing with his teammates for the entirety of the summer. Throw in Will Yeguete’s slow recovery in the offseason from knee surgery and backups Kasey Hill and Dorian Finney-Smith being new to the lineup and having to feel their way somewhat in the dark and it becomes all too clear why the Gators struggled with their cohesiveness and consistency.
“One of the areas we were behind on I felt,” Billy Donovan said earlier in the season. “We were behind in terms of these guys playing together because of suspensions, injuries, and a lack of cohesiveness.”
Despite all the turmoil, hardship, and adversity the Gators recovered from the two early season losses to take off on a current 21 game winning streak opening 16-0 in conference play for the first time in school history and nearing the SEC record for conference wins in a season (17).
Now with two games remaining in the regular season, the Gators have already clinched their 2nd consecutive SEC title and their third in four years. What’s next? Well for one thing the rise in the polls and the winning streak create a lot of unwanted issues for the Gators.
“With what we’re dealing with right now, I’ve seen players and teams lose their way and lose their identity,” head coach Billy Donovan said. “I think it’s very, very easy to have that happen.”
The media attention, the fan expectations, excitement over winning streaks and breaking records is all heady stuff. It can disrupt even the most focused of teams. It can totally derail a season of hope and promise. It can lay ruin to some of the hardest working teams and destroy everything they’ve built.
“We’ve been a team that has gone through this process since the season started,” Donovan said. “We’ve worked hard, we’ve been the same each and every day in practice, we’ve strived to get better, we’ve strived to be the best we can be, they give a great effort. But the minute you start losing sight of your identity of who you are because of all this other stuff, sometimes it’s hard to regain your identity. And that’s the challenge right now.”
Often when a team reaches a pinnacle during a season, the external influences, sometimes referred to as “noise”, can be more challenging than the opponents on the schedule. Billy Donovan has been very guarding of that with this team as the season has progressed much like a mother with her child.
“The one thing I’ve talked to them about protecting is protecting their identity and who they are,” said Donovan. “In order to protect your identity you’ve got to come every single day with the understanding that you got to stick to the process of what goes in to getting prepared for each game.”
Protect their identity. The identity they struggled for much of the season to create. Slowly, the team has come together and gelled on both sides of the ball. Scottie Wilbekin stepped into the leadership void marvelously after working too hard to be a scorer early in the season and he’s taken on the role of facilitator more of late.
“I think one of the things that happened (was) when he first came back (from his five game suspension) he was getting a lot of assists,” Donovan said of Wilbekin. “Then I thought after a few games it went the other way. He was scoring more points and he wasn’t getting as many assists. I thought he got too offensive-minded in terms of trying to create and maybe do a little bit too much. I think now he’s back to playing a little bit more balanced. I think he’s done better.
And, oddly, with him focusing more on running the offense and getting others involved and not pressing his offensive game, he has become a better offensive player overall. He’s taking more natural shots within the framework of the offense rather than pressing and it has led to him shooting at a higher percentage and has allowed him to become Mr. Clutch for the Gators. Game after game during this winning streak particularly once they got into conference play, Scottie has hit big shots when they’ve needed them down the stretch, both field goals and free throws. When the Gators were staring defeat in the face on the road at Arkansas, Wilbekin stepped up and hit a huge jump shot to tie the game and allow them to get into overtime where his clutch free throw shooting helped seal the victory.
His leadership has been more than scoring and assists, however. He’s been the guy to maintain control of the team’s in-game emotions and temperament. When adversity hits, shots aren’t falling, the other team is making unreal shots, referee calls are very inconsistent, you name it-Scottie’s calm “we’ve been down this road before” temperament and attitude helps keep his teammates calm and focused. The past three seasons, the Gators have had huge average scoring margins but their play in close games was atrocious. They turned that around to go 12-2 in games decided in single digits this season and Scottie’s calm leadership is directly responsible for that.
“I think when you’re a point guard, that’s the kind of position you’re put into,” Wilbekin said. “I think I’ve done a better job, a good job, of being more vocal on the court and trying to relay what coach wants as a position on the court. So, just talking to my teammates, encouraging them and trying to get them on the right track.”
Casey Prather came out of nowhere to lead the Gators in scoring this season and for much of the season he was in the top ten in the SEC before injuries sidelined him somewhat. Still he is playing much better than any of his other seasons in Gainesville by focusing on his specific skillset and working within that framework.
“Prather’s another clear understanding,” Donovan said on Monday. “A guy that wanted to be a jump shooter when he first got here and never played to his strengths. And it was a part of him that had stubbornness, which makes him a good player. He wanted to prove that he could shoot jump shots. But when he got to a place that he says this is not who I am, I’ve got to do other things, his game started to take off.”
Defensively, they’ve been somewhat tighter and more communicative as the season has progressed. They still have their lapses and breakdowns but, for the most part, they’ve done really well of late forcing teams to fight the entire game to get the ball up court, of pushing them to take tough shots late in the shot clock, and of just being plain disruptive both in the half and full court games. Even in games where stat-wise they didn’t look so great defensively, they still do an amazing job of limiting possessions and number of shots.
Still it’s been a huge battle for the Gators to maintain their intensity and focus with the grind of the conference season adding to the external factors.
“The hardest part for our guys I think has been over the last two weeks is emotionally getting to a level-physically we’re fine- but it is an emotional grind every day and getting themselves ready to that level I think is the challenging piece for our team,” Donovan said.
“I think going into this last week or so…we hadn’t really put two halves together,” Donovan added after the LSU game. “And I think our guys, at least our older guys, are mature enough that when you make those points to them and bring those things up to them they’re pretty good at listening to what you’re saying.”
“They have good buy-in-ability to say ok these are things we need to get better at. With everything that was going on the last week, with where we got ranked, the SEC at Vanderbilt at least clinching a share to Thursday winning it outright to all the stuff with wins and everything else. I told our guys ‘what does that have to do with us? We need to look at how we’re playing right now’. If we’re going to get wrapped up in all this other stuff that’s going on, where everything looks rosy on the outside, it’s not rosy right now, it’s just not.”
The last few games heading into LSU, in particular, the Gators looked very beatable almost playing down to the level of their opponents and almost getting beat. Again, it came down to a lack of focus and intensity for the Gators.
“Coming out of that two game road stand at Kentucky and at Tennessee, we did not play well here at home against Auburn, I didn’t feel like we played great at Ole Miss, and I didn’t feel like we played great at Vanderbilt,” Donovan said. “And I told our guys-sometimes when everything looks rosy on the outside of all these different things and people look at the bottom line result, I’m still looking at-how is our team playing? I didn’t feel like we played up to our ability and our potential. I think if you look at our defensive numbers from the last few games, from the three point line, from two point field goal percentage, it wasn’t great. I told our guys, a lot of these things that are out there that are swirling around our team that have nothing to do with how we’re playing. And right now we need to be playing better basketball. We’re not playing well enough. I thought offensively, we wasted a lot of possessions over the last week or so. We didn’t get enough out of particular possessions.”
But that’s the difference in having a young team and an older, mature team like Donovan’s Gators. They worked very hard to regain their focus and intensity and to correct the mistakes they had been making.
“I think the last two days our guys have come back and have really been committed to trying to shore up some of those things, get better in those areas,” according to Donovan.
“I told our guys that this [LSU game] was going to be a game that we were going to really find out a little bit more about ourselves in terms of how we were going to respond, what kind of commitment we were going to make to make improvements in areas that we needed to improve on.”
So Donovan has stressed very strongly to the team that it’s identity is the only thing it should be playing to protect.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve tried to get across is that when you get to this point in time of the season, you don’t want to play like you’re trying to protect something,” Donovan said. “Where you’re back on your heels, and we don’t want to lose being number one, and we don’t want to lose again at home, we want to keep the streak going.”
“Once you get into trying to avoid things and trying to prevent things from happening, I think inevitably you get tight, you get frozen, you don’t play. And the biggest things for us I’ve tried to explain to our guys is there are things out there for us to chase. What are we going to chase right now, what are we going to go after.”
What are these guys chasing now that the league title has been won? Greatness. Plain and simple. Not winning streaks or tournament seeds, but greatness.
“Our guys are pretty grounded,” Donovan said. “If you look at it, what are we actually playing for when the league championship part of it is over with? What are we playing for? I’ve never been a big believer in playing for seeding. Our guys don’t even know what that means. They don’t even know how that works.”
“Tonight these guys broke the single season number of wins during a regular season of any team in the history of this program. That to me is a significant milestone. So they’re chasing something right now. There’s two games remaining right now, it’s an 18 game league schedule, there’s an opportunity for them to come back and continue on with what they’re doing. So there’s opportunity for them to chase things that hopefully keeps them motivated, focused, and excited during this stretch here because we’ve got seven days left.”
Patric Young summed it up.
“That was definitely his (Donovan’s) idea. I think as he saw the results at the beginning of the season, winning so many games in a row, breaking records and all that, he just sees the ceiling of this team is really high and he wants to motivate us to keep striving for greatness. We can do that every game; we can do that every practice. We just need to focus in on that each opportunity we get.”
And the pursuit of greatness means focusing day to day and game to game on the task at hand and not getting caught up in the externals such as the number one ranking or tournament seeding possibilities.
“We know that having the number one ranking doesn’t really mean anything when you have the season still going on,” Casey Prather said. “We just try to pursue greatness and that’s what we trying to do every day.”
And that pursuit has made them a better, stronger team as the season has progressed.
“I think we’re a lot different,” Prather added. “Our defense is completely better. We’ve got a lot of guys that’s healthy right now so that helps a lot. I feel like we just continue to try to get better, strive for greatness.”
With two games left in the regular season, there is light at the end of the tunnel which should give them some extra added motivation in their pursuit of greatness.
“We try to come out with the same motivation every game,” Wilbekin said. “But I guess if there’s anything we could just see the light at the end of the tunnel. We only have two games left now, we want to finish out strong.”
And for sure the head man in charge will do what is necessary to feed that motivation amongst his players.
“Well, he’s always on edge himself,” Young said of coach Donovan. “And I’m sure he even gets tired of the process sometimes, and he fights human nature. Running baseline runners 45 times in one practice for like 20 minutes was not fun. But he just keeps us motivated so that when it comes down to it these little things, it needs to be like we don’t even think about it. We need to get it done and make plays. He always has some type of speech to help keep us motivated and doing those things.”
So after all the hardship and adversity and with two games left in the regular season, a 16-0 record in the SEC, a 21 game winning streak, a 31 game home winning streak, and a number one NCAA tournament seed hanging in the balance, what’s left for this team to chase?
Only the pursuit of greatness.