Donovan wants defensive identity

The growing pains continue for Billy Donovan and the Florida Gators and that’s something that will continue for awhile. Last week, in wins over Stetson and Vermont, it was the Florida defense that showed improvement. Monday night, in an 88-72 win over Jacksonville University, it was the offense that had an impressive night while defensively, the Gators took a couple of steps backward.

Florida shot 50 percent from the field and 19-23 from the foul line against JU as the young Gators improved to 8-1. They moved the ball on the perimeter, they passed well and they did a good job of taking care of the basketball. The Gators had three players in double figures, led by freshman Nick Calathes, who had a career-high 24 points to go with nine assists and six steals. Freshman Chandler Parsons chipped in with 17 points and sophomore center Marreese Speights had 16 points and seven rebounds.

“We were fine offensively,” said Donovan. “I really thought we moved it, we passed it. I thought (Nick) Calathes played very under control — nine assists, two turnovers, his shots went for him but he made better decisions. Offensively, I thought we really did some good things. We had 20 assists, only 12 turnovers. Offensively, we’re fine.”

Defensively is another story.

Jacksonville shot 49 percent from the field, hitting 25-51 shots and the Dolphins connected on 4-5 from the three-point line in the second half, rebounding from a 2-11 first half from long distance. In the first half, the Gators allowed JU to park in the paint as the Dolphins outscored the Gators 18-12 on the inside.

What made the defensive performance so annoying for Donovan was the fact that the Dolphins (3-4 on the season) came into the game as the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.

“On the defensive side, against a team that was shooting 40 percent from the field and 25 percent from the three-point line, you could look at these numbers and you could have a pretty clear, accurate idea of where we’re at defensively and how much room we’ve got to get better at,” said Donovan.

Jacksonville’s game plan was to play Florida tough and physical. While that style caused its share of problems for the Gators, Donovan said it was exactly what the Gators need. Florida has six games to go before embarking on a 16-game Southeastern Conference schedule that promises plenty of tough, physical encounters so games like this are good preparation.

Donovan knows the Gators have to have games like this to toughen them up because they have no way to simulate the tough, physical style in practice.

“This game was a lot closer in my opinion than the score indicated,” said Donovan. “It was a game that was a smash-mouth game and it was a physical game. I think our guys probably took them back a little bit because I don’t know if our team has our ability to play with that kind of physicality in practice against each other. If there is one area that we’re going to need to get better at it’s that area right there.”

Jacksonville muscled its way inside for nine early points to take a 14-12 lead with 13:20 remaining in the first half but that’s when the Florida offense caught fire. Over a three-minute stretch, the Gators scored 15 straight points with Calathes leading the way with a pair of three-point daggers. Calathes also provided a highlight reel play on a fast break when he flipped a one-handed alley-oop pass above the rim to Speights, who made a one-hand catch and dunk. When Jai Lucas knocked down a three-pointer with 10:46 left in the half, the Gators had a 27-14 lead. Jacksonville never got closer than seven points the rest of the game.

Florida went on a 10-4 run to extend the lead to 39-24 with 4:13 left in the half, and the Gators closed the half strong to take a 47-33 lead into the break.

Florida went through a couple of cool spells from the field in the second half, particularly from the three-point line. After hitting 7-13 from long distance in the first half, the Gators were only 2-10 in the second half. They compensated in the second half by dominating on the inside. Florida outscored Jacksonville, 24-10, in the paint in the second half and the Gators got 15 second chance points.

Still, the Dolphins wouldn’t go away. Every time the Gators looked like they were going to put them away and make this game an old-fashioned blowout, Jacksonville would string together a few points to bring the score to a more respectable margin. They did it by hustling for every loose ball and never backing down against the taller Gators which is why JU lost by only 16 points.

“It was great the way they attacked us on the drive,” said Donovan. “They attacked us physically. They went after rebounds. They went after loose balls. It almost reminded me a lot of an SEC game the way it went. I think it was a real wakeup call — I’m hoping — for our front court because Tyus picked up two fouls early, Speights picked up two fouls early and Werner picked up two fouls early and really, we made kind of a run with those guys on the bench which was good to see.”

Donovan knows he has an offensively gifted group of young players. When they heat it up from the outside, they can score points in bunches. They are capable of turning games into track meets, too. In the open court, the Gators are a tough team to handle.

Donovan sees the Gators coming into their own offensively.

“I’m hoping that we’re becoming somewhat hard to guard offensively,” said Donovan. “I think their identity on the offensive end of the floor is unselfishness, ball movement and player movement … 20 assists, we had three guys in double figures.”

On the defensive end, Donovan sees a team that needs a makeover.

“Our identity on the defensive end of the floor has got to change.,” he said. “I think we’re forming that right now. What it would actually be or what I would classify it as would be a hard thing to come up with.”

Donovan is looking for the Gators to develop a real sense of pride in their defensive play. He wants Florida to become a “prideful defensive team.”

“That needs to be our identity,” he said. “We have to play with pride. It has to hurt us when we get beat off the dribble. It’s got to hurt us when we give up a second shot or we miss a block-out. We have little room for error on the defensive end of the floor and I hope we’ll become prideful defensively. I think when you have pride in something you’re doing, when you don’t do it well, it’s something that affects you.”

He sees that pride on offense and he hopes it will carry over at some point.

“I think we have pride on offense,” he said. “I think we have a lot of offensive guys that have a lot of pride there and when they don’t shoot the ball well it hurts them. I don’t know how much pride we’ve got on the defensive end. I think any good team has great pride down there and offense is going to come and go.”

The Gators won’t have much practice time to work on things defensively. They are back on the court Wednesday night against Florida A&M at the O’Connell Center but after that, the Gators will have a 10-day break. That will be the first extended practice time Donovan has had with his team since October.

Hopefully, that time will be used to develop a defensive identity for the Gators. Until they get one, Donovan won’t be a happy coach.

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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.