Donovan has reason to be optimistic

It has taken awhile due to suspensions and injuries, but after a successful non-conference schedule that includes wins over four top 100 RPI teams, Billy Donovan has a good idea of what his 10th-ranked Florida Gators (11-2) are made of heading into Wednesday’s first Southeastern Conference game with South Carolina (7-6, 0-0 SEC) at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center (7 p.m., CSS TV).

The Gators have won tough games at home over Florida State and Kansas and they’ve proven themselves away from the O-Dome by knocking off Memphis and Fresno State in neutral site games. The only two losses are to 4th-ranked Wisconsin in Madison and then 12th-ranked Connecticut in Storrs. The Gators played the Wisconsin game with six scholarship players available due to the suspensions of Scottie Wilbekin and Dorian Finney-Smith and UConn without Kasey Hill and Devon Walker, both of whom were out with injuries.

Now that the Gators are healthy and have all but one of their roster players available – Chris Walker is still waiting clearance from the NCAA – this is a team that is beginning to look like one that will be contending for an SEC championship when league play begins Wednesday.

“Kasey Hill and Scottie Wilbekin were out games and then (Michael) Frazier was out with a concussion,” Donovan said at his Monday morning press conference. “We lost DeVon Walker with a mid-foot sprain. Dorian Finney-Smith wasn’t eligible to start the season so there’s been a lot of flux inside our roster right now and I knew at the start of the season at some point we were going to get our full complement of players back, but you know what, you still have to deal with fatigue, injuries, foul trouble. I think our guys understand, as everybody does, it’s almost like okay, now the season is starting.”

The non-conference portion of the schedule is for building a resume for March. Those wins over quality opponents in November and December will only help the Gators with an NCAA seed if they have a successful conference schedule. By going 11-2 in November and December, the Gators have momentum heading into Wednesday’s game, but Donovan sees a need for improvement.

“I think we can complement each other better than what we maybe have been doing over the last several weeks,” Donovan said. There’s still improvement to be made in those areas, but I think the things that make up a good team in terms of the unselfishness and the chemistry, guys getting along, guys playing for each other, wanting to win, a lot of those intangibles that you have a hard time measuring, I feel like our team has those things. I feel like the season, the team playing and competing, is important to our guys.”

Donovan has been pointing to the assist-to-turnover ratio lately as one area in which the Gators should get better. Although they aren’t turning the ball over that much – only 11.6 times per game – the Gators are averaging just 9.9 assists. Some of that has to do with transition points and second chance points off the offensive boards where the Gators average a healthy 13 per game. Some of the negative ratio also has to do with players missing open shots. The perfect pass to an open shooter only counts as an assist if the shot goes down.

The assist-to-turnover ratio is a concern but Donovan noted that it

“Outside of Kasey Hill and Scottie Wilbekin, everybody on our team has a negative assist-to-turnover ratio, and that, to me, is very, very disappointing, especially when you talk about having some older guys,” Donovan said. “And Kasey Hill is a freshman that’s kind of helped us that he’s been able to do some of that. I think Scottie’s assists the last several games have been down. But one thing that’s been glaring for us is although we haven’t had an enormous amount of assists, we really haven’t — outside of several games here or there — where we’ve had an enormous amount of differential turnover-wise. Same thing against Richmond – we have 10 assists and 14 turnovers, we have a negative assist-to-turnover ratio, but it wasn’t like we had 10 assists and 20 turnovers.

That’s where you really have a problem, so I’d like to see our turnovers anywhere from 12 to 14. I think with the way we’re trying to play — fast, and up-tempo — that’s going to happen sometimes.  But I also would like to see our scoring average improve a little bit more than it is right now, and we could do that by getting a few more assists. I think we’ve left a lot of points out there by, one, free-throw shooting at times, by our team, two, I think we’ve missed a lot of shots in around the basket. And then, I think the assist part, where you can get somebody an easier shot so to speak when we’re playing off each other, I think that’s an improvement we can make.”

Donovan is quick to point out, however, that there is plenty to like about this basketball team.

“I do think we have a group of guys who are very, very coachable,” Donovan said. “They’ve accepted their roles. They want to play their roles to the best of their abilities. I think we’re an unselfish team. I think they care about one another. I think we have chemistry inside of our team. I think those things are healthy, they’re good right now.”


Florida’s leading scorer through 13 games is senior Casey Prather, who is averaging 17.3 points per game. Prather has scored in double figures every game this season and he has scored more in Florida’s 13 games (225) than he did in 29 last season (181) when he was the sixth man. The big difference, Donovan says, is Prather’s health.

Last year, he had to deal with two concussions,” Donovan said. “Then he gets a mid-foot sprain. He thought he had broken his foot, so he was out for a while with that. I think injuries and concussions played a factor with him. If you go back, right when we started SEC play, he was playing really, really well and then he got that foot sprain at LSU that kind of kept him sidelined for a while. This year, he’s much freer mentally. I think his experiences here have served him well. He’s playing more to his identity as a player. He’s not doing things offensively that are weakness for him. I think he’s playing to his strengths and that’s been a really good thing for us.”


As of Monday, Donovan still hadn’t heard if Chris Walker will be cleared in time by the NCAA to play in Wednesday’s game with South Carolina.

“I have not heard anything yet,” Donovan said. “As I said earlier, it’s totally out of my hands. Our school, our administration is dealing with the situation with the NCAA. The NCAA has allowed him to play and to practice. He has been admitted to school and started class today. All of that stuff is fine. Really, it’s more than anything else, for me personally, I’m totally out of the situation. I’d like to get an answer as much as anybody would.”

Donovan noted that Walker’s issues are not with Florida admissions but with the NCAA.

He has been admitted by our school academically,” Donovan said. “He started school today. As far as we’re concerned, he’s a qualifier. He has been admitted by University of Florida, but now the NCAA – in terms of his academics and eligibility, that’s in their hands now right now. So based on our admissions and what they looked at with his transcript and the work he’s done in August, September, October, November academically, he made himself a qualifier. But in order for him to be eligible to play, the NCAA has to clear him all the way through on those things. I feel pretty good about his academic things.”

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.