Fortunately for the Florida Gators, this was only an exhibition game so in terms of national rankings and such their flat uninspired performance against Northwood University Thursday night at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center won’t change anything as far as rankings and national perception. You can, however, figure it will change how things go at practice the next couple of days.
This should have been such a mismatch of epic proportions. Here were the Florida Gators, the 2006 NCAA Division I champs with their starting five and two of the top three reserves returning facing an NAIA Division II team that was playing the first game in the basketball program’s history. You would expect that walkons Jack Berry. Brett Swanson and Garrett Tyler would see the floor for at least ten minutes of the second half but instead, they sat the bench the entire game and watched with the rest of the announced crowd of 10,783 at the Gators pretty much sleep-walked their way to a 70-41 win.
It was anything but inspiring for the Gators, who started Chris Richard at center because Joakim Noah didn’t do all the things he should have done academically in the last week according to Coach Billy Donovan. Noah played, contributing eight points, four rebounds, a couple of blocked shots, a couple of steals and two assists, but even he was lethargic, a stark contrast to the chest-pounding, hyperactive performances he gave in Florida’s run to the national title last spring.
“I did not start Joakim because he didn’t take care of his academic responsibilities this week,” said Donovan. “And the academic part was me. He’s not in trouble with the school. It’s Billy Donovan.”
Donovan took exception to Noah’s lack of defensive intensity when he was on the floor, saying, “Here’s a guy setting shot blocking records in the NCAA tournament but guys from Northwood were going around him, up and under, getting around him taking layups and making three point plays.”
But it wasn’t just Noah that tanked this game. The Gators, who finished second nationally in shooting percentage last year, shot less than 50 percent for the game (28-60). Almost a third of their shots (18) were three-pointers and the Gators only converted three of them. Lee Humphrey (1-5), Taurean Green (1-4) and freshman Dan Werner (1-5) didn’t lack for open shots but none of them could get anything going with any consistency.
Considering the Gators had such a serious height advantage over the small school from West Palm Beach, Florida’s willingness to jack it up from beyond the arc was particularly disappointing to Donovan, who expected his team to live on the foul line because of the size differential.
“I was disappointed with the lack of times that the ball actually went into the low post to our big people,” said Donovan. “With 3-18 from the three-point line and almost a third of our shots were from there I really didn’t feel like we got to the free throw line enough against this team and I thought we took a lot of bad three-point shots. We’ve got a very big and physical front court and a very unselfish front court but we have to find a way to get them more touches.”
The Gators went inside on the first possession of the game and got an easy two from Richard on a little turnaround move but Florida’s next three shots were all three-pointers that clanked. The Gators missed their first five three pointers and they were just 2-9 from the three-point line at the half.
The first half stat that had to be most distressing for Donovan was that Northwood outrebounded the Gators 19-13. Florida did better in the second half to finish with a 37-34 margin but it shouldn’t have been that close.
The Gators did hold Northwood to 32 percent shooting (16-50) and forced 28 turnovers but that didn’t necessarily translate into points on the Florida end of the floor.
“We forced 28 turnovers tonight but I don’t know how many of those turnovers led to direct baskets,” said Donovan. “You look at the stat sheet you think we should have won by 45-50 points.”
The Gators won by an un-energized 29 with only Al Horford (11 points and five rebounds) scoring in double figures. It was that lack of intensity that Donovan missed most. He looked out on the floor and saw a team that not only didn’t seem focused, but they played as if they weren’t even interested in being out on the floor.
“There’s a level of disinterest to me that they have to basically correct for themselves and I think all the tings that have been brought up about our team are accurate,” said Donovan. “A level of letdown … a level of unmotivated or uninspired or a chip on their shoulder … all of those things … I didn’t see that from a level that I wanted to see tonight from our older guys.”
So Donovan and the Gators will practice for a couple of days before they take the court again Sunday afternoon to face Barry University in their second and final exhibition game. The season starts in earnest a week from Friday against Samford University, a team that makes good teams look bad with its Princeton style offense. Between now and Sunday, and particularly between now and next Friday, Donovan wants to see his team regain focus and intensity.
“I think that for me as a coach right now, it’s all the human elements that we have to deal with,” said Donovan. “Is our team hungry? Are they motivated? Are they driven? Are they passionate? I didn’t see that look in their eye that I’m looking for and I don’t want to say it’s a scared look … it’s that on edge look that if I don’t come to play I’m going to get exposed.”
That was the look that Donovan saw in his team every day last year. He knew from day one that his team would play hard and give him everything they had whether it was in practice or in games. The practices have been good so far but Thursday night’s game left much to be desired.
“If it’s going to be a situation where they’re going to dictate and determine what’s important to them and when they’re going to show up to play and not show up to play we will not be a very good team,” said Donovan. “I think everybody here that watched this game would have to laugh that we’re the number one team in the country. I told them after the game that last year’s team would have beaten this year’s team tonight by 20-25 points. It wouldn’t have even been a contest.”