About this time last year the Florida Gators came back from Tuscaloosa, losers in overtime to Alabama in a game that could have been the Waterloo if Coach Billy Donovan had dwelled on all the negatives. There were plenty of negatives in that game, but instead of looking back, Donovan used this loss as a springboard to turn the Gators into the team he knew they could be.
Back in Gainesville, Donovan simply showed the Gators the film and let it be known that if the Gators didn’t defend better, take care of the ball better and take better shots, the season would be ending abruptly. In those couple of practices prior to a home game with Georgia, Donovan knew the sting of defeat would motivate his troops. He had the team’s undivided attention so he sold the Gators on living in the moment and controlling the things they could control. From that moment on, Florida took each game possession by possession until they had run the NCAA table for the national championship.
That’s the same approach Donovan is taking this week following Florida’s loss to Vanderbilt in Nashville Saturday. It’s not that the Gators are in the midst of a big slide — the loss to Vandy ended a 17-game winning streak — but Donovan needs to get the Gators in the right mindset with four regular season SEC games remaining before tournament play starts in March. He can’t have his team dwelling on losses and getting into bad habits at this stage of the season.
Donovan has a couple of practices to get the Gators (24-3, 11-1 SEC) past the Vandy game and motivated for a South Carolina (13-12, 3-9 SEC) team that will come to the Stephen C. O’Connell Center brimming with confidence Wednesday night after a stunning 17-point win over Tennessee.
“I think our players take losses very hard,” said Donovan Monday. “They play to win. Winning is very important to them. They play the game the right way and the whole team is important to them. We’ve got to be able to look ahead and get past it and learn from what we did, but today our total focus is on South Carolina. That’s a challenge right now for us coaches and players — trying to get past last Saturday, not letting that game linger in our minds.”
The Vanderbilt loss bore striking similarities to that loss to Alabama last year. Alabama shot better than 50 percent from the field and an even 50 percent from the three-point line while Florida took too many ill-advised shots and turned the ball over way too much. Saturday in Nashville, the Commodores shot 57 percent from the field (32-56) and they were one made three-pointer away from 50 percent on three-balls (10-21). The Gators turned the ball over 22 times and 14 second half turnovers killed any chances Florida had of staging a successful comeback.
In addition to Florida’s problems on defense and ball handling, there were some extra-curricular activities that left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. There was an on-the-court incident when Vandy Coach Kevin Stallings slapped Joakim Noah’s hands away when Noah was reaching for the ball to try to start an inbounds play under the Vandy basket. Stallings not only made contact with Noah, but he cursed at him. When the final seconds clicked off the clock, Vandy students stormed the court. Florida freshman Brandon Powell was caught in a rush of students as he tried to leave the floor. Pushed and shoved, Powell retaliated by throwing a punch.
Donovan limited his comments to the incidents with a few comments Monday at his weekly media luncheon. He said he didn’t fault Stallings and called the storming of the court an issue that Vanderbilt will have to deal with internally.
“I think that the issue is not really a Florida issue, but it’s a Vanderbilt issue — a Vanderbilt administrative issue,” said Donovan. “It’s not our home court. I think it’s important that we, as an opposing team, get to and from the court safely, and it’s an unfortunate situation that they have to deal with that.”
Because it was the second storming the court incident in two years, Vanderbilt was fined $25,000 by the Southeastern Conference Monday.
Donovan refused to take further questions about any of the incidents and turned his attention to South Carolina. South Carolina beat the Gators twice in the regular season last year before losing to Florida in the finals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. Florida has already beaten the Gamecocks in Columbia but Coach Dave Odom’s team is in much better health now.
“I think the first time we played them, they were a really banged-up team,” said Donovan. “Brandon. Brandon Wallace was having foot issues and it was a question as to whether he was going to play or not. Tre Kelley had a knee issue and was not 100 percent because at that time it was not apparent to them that he had that knee issue, and (Dominique) Archie, their power forward, had an ankle issue. We’re facing a team that’s totally different from what they were in the middle of January, when we faced them.”
South Carolina lives on the three-point line so this will be a good test to see if Donovan has been able to get the Gators re-focused on the defensive task that he considers the most critical to winning basketball games. Vanderbilt got off to a good start shooting threes and the Commodores never lost their confidence.
“I really thought at the Vanderbilt game, we did not do a great job of getting to the shooters right away,” said Donovan. “I thought we gave them pretty good looks to (Derrick) Byars and (Shan) Foster early in the game. When they made their first couple shots, it kind of snowballed for them and snowballed in the wrong direction for us because those guys really started shooting the ball with confidence.”
Coming into the Vanderbilt game, the Gators had held 10 straight opponents below 40 percent from the three-point line. The Commodores’ 10 three-pointers were the most by a Florida opponent since Western Kentucky back in November. Donovan was not pleased with the way the Gators played defense on the perimeter, especially in the first half when Vandy took control of the game.
“We didn’t take advantage of our ability to defend the three-point line as well as we should have in the first half, which allowed them the confidence to make tough shots and get into a rhythm,” he said.
South Carolina presents a new set of challenges but Donovan hopes the Gators are ready, having learned from the Vanderbilt loss. He sees Wednesday’s game as a chance for the Gators to get back on track and improve. He’s already had a long talk with his team about what the Gators need to do to win.
“Any time you play a game and you have a chance to watch yourself and what you’re doing, there is always a way to improve,” he said. “We talked a little bit about handling the ball better. We talked about shot selection, we talked about defending. I think there are a lot of things that we can take away, and there are positives. It’s all about how you look at it right now. This could be what contributes to our team growing and developing.”