Embracing the grind

On a beautiful Monday in Gainesville with the sun shining and temperatures hovering in the mid-70s, Billy Donovan was in the gym taking his Florida Gators (23-2, 12-0 SEC) back to ground zero. Celebrating a week that was – the Gators beat Tennessee and Kentucky on the road in the same week in the same season for only the second time in school history – ended on Sunday and it was time to start the grind all over again as the Gators began their preparation for Wednesday’s game (7 p.m., Sun Sports/Florida Sports Network) with Auburn (12-11, 4-8 SEC) at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. In their pursuit of a championship season, this is the way it has to be. The Gators will go from ground zero – or starting all over in the practice gym – where they begin the process of building up to a crescendo performance when they put it all together on the floor in a game and then then the process will begin all over again for the next game Saturday in Oxford against Ole Miss.

This is the grind. Its short term reward is a game well played and only a few hours to savor the accomplishment. The long term reward is a potential championship that can be enjoyed for a lifetime.

“The challenge I always talk to them about is are you prepared today to battle human nature?” Donovan asked rhetorically at his Monday press conference.  “Human nature says let’s take it easy. We just had two good wins. Everything is going to be fine. Everything’s okay. You’ve got to constantly battle and fight that every single day.”

The battle against human nature is made more difficult by a winning streak that has stretched to 17 games and a national ranking that reached #2 when the polls came out Monday. The Gators haven’t lost since December 2 and they’ve gone from a team with enormous question marks to a team that many experts believe is the one with the fewest flaws moving forward.

Perhaps the biggest reason Florida is very much in the national championship picture is the way Donovan handles the grind. Florida has played 13 non-conference games and is 12 games into an 18-game Southeastern Conference schedule. Past the regular season, there are a maximum of nine more games – three in the SEC Tournament and six in the NCAA Tournament. However many more games the Gators play, they will all be approached the same way.

That means starting all over again at ground zero the day after the most recent win.

“We obviously had a week where we played two road games — it was two really good wins for our guys,” Donovan said. “But right now they don’t mean anything as it relates to going into this next game against Auburn. So are we willing to take ourselves all the way to the bottom and realize that we’re starting off at the bottom and now we obviously have to build and prepare for this next game, and then after the Auburn game are you prepared to go all the way back down to the cellar again and have to prepare and have to go back up? That is a tedious, grinding, fatiguing, hard process to go through. But it’s one you have to go through in order to be successful.”

There are no shortcuts to success. As part of their practice Monday the Gators went through film breakdown of the win over Kentucky. What happened in Lexington will be part of the building from ground zero process.

That means correcting any mistakes that were made as well as looking at things that were done well and finding ways to improve them.

“Can we build off of that because as a coach here’s where we need to get better, this is what we do well, here are the improvements,” Donovan said. “As a coach sometimes you fail to focus on what you do well, but I think you’ve gotta be able to do both things.”

Monday also included film of Florida’s 68-61 win over Auburn back in January as well as Auburn’s last several games. Auburn has won four of its last six games and is one of the most improved teams in the SEC.

Florida video coordinator Oliver Winterbone will have the practice film broken down in such a way that the Gators can analyze everything Auburn does collectively as a team and individually. On the offensive end, it will show what Auburn did to take Michael Frazier out of the game and how the Gators compensated by getting Patric Young (13 points) and Casey Prather (21) into the flow of the offense. It will show why Scottie Wilbekin got free for 16 points and what he could do better. Defensively, the film breakdowns will show how SEC leading scorer Chris Denson gets his points – how often does he drive left? How often does he go all the way to the rack and what is his tendency to pull up and shoot the ball once he’s in the paint? How often does he catch and shoot? Where are his comfort zones? What makes him uncomfortable?

And then there is the practice itself, which Donovan says has to be challenging. If practice isn’t challenging and doesn’t prepare players for the adversity they will encounter in a game, then it’s pretty much just going through the motions and that’s the last thing Donovan wants.

“I think there has to be confrontation in practice for those guys to grow,” Donovan said. “If I go to practice everyday and it’s just easy for them – there’s no adversity and confrontation – I think it’s hard to grow. There’s going to be challenges presented to them inside of practice. They’ve got to be able to handle those challenges and achieve what they need to achieve together. And it requires a lot of times those guys working together and being on the same page and being connected and getting it done collectively as a group.”

As long as there is another game to be played the process is never ending. It will repeat itself over and over again until the clock strikes zero and the season concludes.

The Gators are in the hunt for SEC and national championships because they have learned to embrace the grind. The willingness to start at ground zero and then build themselves up for the most important game on the schedule – the next opponent, whoever that might be – might not be the most fun way of doing things but this isn’t Billy Donovan’s first rodeo. He does indeed know what goes into building and sustaining success and he understands that championships are possible when a team understands that the grind will take them to places they may have only dreamed about.

“I tell this to our guys all the time: enjoyment and fun are sometimes hard words to use as it relates to practice and doing what these guys do,” Donovan said. “It’s probably fun and enjoyment at the Southwest Rec Center because you’re kind of playing on your own terms. But when you can’t play on your own terms because there’s a level of preparation that goes into this; there is a mental approach that those guys have to have in terms of trying to get themselves ready to play. There just is. I think if you can understand that dealing with that, you can get enjoyment out of the process because you know that going through that process is going to make you better. And if you’re improving, I would think that’s fulfilling and enjoyment when you see yourself get better. But the process of getting better and improving is not always the funnest and easiest process.”

Maybe it isn’t fun and easy, but it does get results.

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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.