Three days into practice and Billy Donovan has already seen some red flags he wasn’t anticipating. With a team this young and this inexperienced, Donovan is expecting the players with a year or more in the Florida system have to show a level of consistency. He gets the consistency from junior Walter Hodge, but Hodge hyperextended a knee Saturday and missed both of Sunday’s practices. It’s sophomores Dan Werner, Jonathon Mitchell and Marreese Speights that have caused concern so far.
“All three of those guys so far have been inconsistent,” said Donovan, who put the Gators through one practice Friday night, then two practices on Saturday and another two on Sunday. “Dan Werner did not have a real good practice Friday, which was surprising to me since it was the first day. He had some flu symptoms and he was battling some illness so that could have been part of it because he was in and out of practice. Marresse practiced very well on Friday and Jonathon practiced very well on Friday and then we come back on Saturday and Werner was very good on Saturday and Marreese and Jonathon were not very good. To me that’s a little bit alarming.”
It’s alarming for Donovan because this is the youngest team he’s ever had. Hodge is the lone junior on the team and he averaged about 17 minutes per game last year. He represents the only experience on the team that has seen significant playing time in tough situations. Werner, Mitchell and Speights saw only limited action last year. Werner averaged nine minutes a game, most among the three although Speights was called on for some minutes against Ohio State in the national championship win over Ohio State.
Donovan needs the players who have time in his system to know how to do things and to set the standard for hustle and effort every day in practice. The coach can tolerate mistakes from his players but what he can’t tolerate is a lackadaisical attitude, especially from a player that went through every day in practice last year with a group that never took a day off.
What Donovan is looking for from his sophomores isn’t necessarily great shooting or ball handling. What he’s looking for is hustle and determination and going as hard as possible even when fatigue starts to set in.
“You can have a great practice every day, in my opinion, because the things we’re looking at and holding you accounting to you can take care of,” said Donovan. “You can block out, you can rebound, you can run the floor, get on the floor for loose balls, screen … there are things you’re in control of that can make you have a good practice.”
When he doesn’t see those things consistently, Donovan gets very concerned.
“I get alarmed on a consistent basis when Alex Tyus (freshman center) is outrunning Marreese Speights consistently every time down the floor, beating him down the floor,” said Donovan. “There is a point where that has to become important to him to run back in transition to shut off transition. It’s got to be important to him. Jonathon Mitchell seeing freshmen jump over his back for rebounds has got to come to a point … I understand you’re tired. We’re all tired.”
The hustle, determination and leadership by example are needed because Donovan has five freshmen he will have to rely on this year. With only nine scholarship players, all nine will have to contribute right away.
Donovan said he’s getting the leadership he’s looking for out of Hodge, who is expected to practice at full speed Tuesday.
“Walter knows,” said Donovan. “He knows what it’s about. He gets it. He understands. He’s been working at trying to lead but Walter himself has done a good job.”
While Werner, Speights and Mitchell all had some moments in the early practices in which they gave the kind of effort Donovan was looking for, it wasn’t on a consistent basis. Donovan made it perfectly clear that it is consistency he is looking for from the sophomores.
“Werner Mitchell and Speights for Friday Saturday and Sunday were up and down and that, to me is alarming,” he said. “Here you are starting a new season with a new opportunity to come in and you have an opportunity to be ready from the get go … and you’re playing against freshmen.”
IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT: Donovan keeps emphasizing that the Gators have to learn the things that can cause a team to lose a game. This is a team that won’t have the size or physical presence of the past two seasons so it will have to work hard at the small things that make a difference in the outcome of a game.
“I think the biggest thing since we started practice is to get them understand the things that we’re really going to have to do well,” Donovan said. “We’re going to have to be, because of our lack of size and shot blocking ability, a great blockout team. We’re going to have to be a team that’s great in transition, getting back. We’re going to have to be really, really good at taking care of the basketball.”
He intends for the Gators to play at a frenetic pace. He wants a fast tempo game that takes advantage of the strengths of his players but playing that kind of tempo means the Gators need to be a floor burn team, i.e.; they win the hustle plays by diving for loose balls and keeping the ball alive.
Donovan also wants to his team to fully understand what gets you beaten.
“We’ve got to first sure up the things that will get us beat,” he said. “If we don’t do those things then we don’t have a chance of winning so we have to figure out first what are the things that are going to get us beat and then we have to master those things and take those things away and get those things resolved. We have some guys that do a good job of blocking out on every possession and some guys who are still, ‘oh, I forgot.’ We have guys that do a good job of getting matched up, we’ve got some guys who do a good job of taking care of the ball and guys that turn it over too much. There is a lot of work that’s in progress right now for us to be in a position to compete.”
TOUGH GUY: One freshman that has truly stood out so far is 6-8, 225-pound Adam Allen. Allen has a blue collar mentality. He will play anywhere on the court and guard anyone without backing down. He’s a floor burn kind of guy.
“Adam Allen in terms of blocking out and terms of physicalness and toughness and those things, he’s got it,” said Donovan. “That’s an area he’s got. In terms of understanding all the things we’re trying to do right now, he’s probably lacking a little bit there.”
Allen can actually play four positions — the high and low post, plus the small forward and two guard positions. He played center in high school and learned to play the game going against his dad, Randy Allen, a former NBA player who is a member of the FSU athletic hall of fame. He’s got a strong inside game that is complemented by outside shooting that is good all the way out to the three-point line.
FRESHMEN LEARNING THE ROPES: Donovan knows his five freshmen have a lot to learn, but he’s happy with the way they hustle and how coachable they are. What he’s eager to see is how well they handle things once the grind of practice starts to get to them.
“The freshmen right now have done a good job,” Donovan said. “We’ll see how they handle the fatigue as it continues to go forward and we continue to add things.”
While Allen has shown he’s a tough guy, he’s got things to learn. On the other hand, Chandler Parsons understands completely everything that’s being thrown at him but he doesn’t have the physical strength yet to go inside and bang even though he’s almost 6-10.
“A guy like Chandler Parsons gets everything we’re doing mentally, really has a great feeling and great understanding but he doesn’t have that physicalness of going in there and banging and doing the things we’re going to need him to do at the position he’s going to be playing,” Donovan said. “The freshmen have added different pieces and you can see it but they have to get better. All those guys have areas they have to concentrate on and get better at. Nicky (Calathes) and Jai (Lucas) have to do a better job at times of taking care of the basketball and making simple plays but they have a good feel and understanding offensively and defensively of what we’re doing. Chandler has to work harder on trying to rebound and physically block out and defending. Alex Tyus has a lot of energy and he adds a different dimension to our team athletically, but sometimes he forgets some things he’s doing.”