This is not Billy Donovan’s first rodeo.
And that’s a good thing for the Florida Gators (36-2), who after three years of getting close enough to sniff the Final Four are finally on their way to Arlington, Texas where they will face Connecticut (30-8) in the first of two NCAA Tournament semifinals Saturday (6:09 p.m., CBS). As much as knocking at the door three straight years before kicking the door down helps prepare you for moments like this, there is nothing like been there, done that experience. There isn’t a player on the Florida team that has ever been to a Final Four.
Billy Donovan has been there four times before – once as a player with Providence back in 1987 and three times with Florida. He got the Gators to the championship game in 2000 where they lost to Michigan State then came back to become the first team since Duke (1991-92) to win back to back national titles in 2006-07.
While this will be a brand new experience for the Gators, Donovan knows and understands what will be going through his team’s mind this week as they prepare in Gainesville through Wednesday, travel to Dallas on Thursday, workout in massive AT&T Stadium Friday and then take the next step on their journey toward greatness Saturday. During the next few days, players will have to deal with submitting names for their ticket list (each player gets six) plus deal with far more media scrutiny than ever before. When they get to Dallas for the public workout on Friday, there will probably be 30-40,000 people in the stadium just to watch the workout and after that more media than they know exists will descend on the open locker rooms and jam microphones and recorders in their faces.
To call it a media circus would be the understatement of the century.
“It’s no different from the Super Bowl,” Donovan said Monday in Gainesville. “There is going to be a lot of different things, and you try to prepare them as best they can so that they understand that they cannot get emotionally drained with dealing with all that we have to deal with. We’ve got to still stay and keep our focus on playing, and hopefully through some of my past experiences there I can take them and relay them to them and try to get them to a place where they get bought in and listen and use some of the experiences I’ve had to help them.”
The players still have to go to school until Thursday, go to practice, watch film on UConn and study scouting reports. Any time they turn the television on to ESPN, they’re likely to hear some talking head hype Saturday’s final four games (Wisconsin plays Kentucky in the second game).
Some teams get this far, suddenly feel the weight of the hype and lose focus and perspective.
Donovan will keep reminding the Gators that it’s another game and you don’t change the way you prepare for the game just because it’s a national semifinal, nor do you change the way you prepare just because you’ve already played UConn once before. UConn beat the Gators, 65-64, back on December 2, the last time Florida lost a game, on a Shabazz Napier buzzer-beater. The Gators played the last five minutes of that game without Scottie Wilbekin, who sprained an ankle, and without backup point guard Kasey Hill, who missed the entire game with a high ankle sprain suffered against Southern University a couple of weeks earlier.
“The ingredients that go into winning don’t change,” Donovan said. “So there is a process that you have to go through. Getting them to buy into the process, it’s a 40‑minute process that you have to go through. Even doubting it, it’s the process of each possession. It’s can you battle and fight through human nature when things are not going your way? A bad call, a bad play, a missed shot, a turnover, can you get yourself to move to the next thing mentally without your mind dragging you back into the past or worrying about too much into the future? I just believe in those things.”
This is what Donovan calls “staying in the moment.”
Staying in the moment has been a constant theme for Donovan for years, but it always takes on a more prominent role during championship runs. Donovan had been talking about staying in the moment all season in 2006 but nobody really paid that much attention to it until the Gators came home with the NCAA title starting four sophomores. When 2007 rolled around, everybody knew exactly what he was talking about and the Gators repeated.
He didn’t stop talking about it the last six years, but again, it’s more prominent this year because the Gators are at the Final Four where the Las Vegas oddsmakers have them favored to win the third national championship in nine years.
“I use those things about staying in the moment of what’s going on,” Donovan said. “There are times when I can see those guys shift in and out of the moment on the bench, by what they say – ‘Let’s close out the half after the four‑minutes. Let’s close out this half.’ No, it’s not the half. This next possession, it’s not about the half. What are we going to do this possession? And you start, and I’m trying to get them to understand how much you have to mentally be focused on each possession, and you can’t be really good unless you have five guys focused in the moment of what’s going on in that possession. Then you can get to a place where you start to deal with my job, my responsibility, what am I supposed to do?
DONOVAN ON KASEY HILL AND HIS PAINFUL TURF TOE
Well, I know turf toe is painful, but come on, we’re playing in the Final Four. He’ll be fine. He’s a great kid. Hopefully his toe will be okay and he’ll be able to play. But I do appreciate him working through that. He doesn’t appear to be in a lot of pain when he’s running around out there. He’s moving pretty well.
ON TEAMS TRYING TO TAKE MICHAEL FRAZIER II OUT OF THE GAME
Michael has to just keep working in transition when the floor gets broken of getting himself open. But we’ve never been a team, nor do I believe that when somebody’s trying to take a guy out of the game, that the only way we can win is by him scoring. Now all of our focus is trying to get him shots. We still have Patric Young. We have (Caesy) Prather, we have (Scottie) Wilbekin. We have Doe-Doe (Dorian Finney-Smith) coming off the bench. We have Kasey Hill. There are enough guys out there that we need to take advantage of whatever the defense is there.
Would I like Michael Frazier to knock down five, six, seven threes a game? That would be great for us. That would be great. But sometimes the defense has something to do with that. If they are taking him away, the mature thing we need to understand what else is open? Sometimes that is the greatest sign of respect for a player is when they try to take you out of the game. Some teams tried to do that to Michael, but we’ve still been able to move on and advance by doing different things.”
ON PATRIC YOUNG AND HIS IMPROVEMENT
One of the things for him that he’s gotten tremendously better at was his work ethic. He was a guy a lot of you remember had these great spurts of energy and passion, and then all of a sudden he would disappear. He never realized that that was a by-product of practice. That’s how he practiced, and that’s how he ended up playing.
He’s gotten so much more consistent in practice each and every day of being a consistent worker with a great attitude, and he’s been much, much more reliable on that. I’m not so sure early in his career he ever bought into that fact that the practice part of it was a reflection of him in games. I think it built up a lot of frustration in him. As we talked about, he had all these expectations, Dwight Howard, and this, and this. I think for him it was confusing.”