Florida Gators aim to provide mental toughness against the UConn Huskies

The Florida Gators basketball team finished off 2014 in heartbreaking fashion and look behind at a 7-5 record with one non-conference game remaining on the schedule.

It’s a new calendar year and Florida looks to begin 2015 on a positive note as they face the UConn Huskies (6-5) Saturday, a team the Gators loss twice to last year — with one game ending in a buzzer beater.

But as both teams have struggled this season after coming off of Final Four campaigns, what the Gators understand this time around is they’re not facing that national championship team from last year.

“It’s two totally different teams, two totally different set of guys. There are some returning players on both teams. But the reality is this game has its own set of challenges, so to speak,” head coach Billy Donovan said. “And I think what ends up happening a lot of times is this illusion that you get back something that happened last year or a couple of years ago, I don’t believe in that, there’s nothing to that.”

Donovan said what happened last year is over and done with and what the team needs to focus on now is something that has been their kryptonite this year – mental toughness.

It has become a habit for the players on Florida to not let a play go. Turnover the ball, make a bad pass, take a bad shot and never letting it go. Moving ahead of the previous play is the mental identity Donovan speaks about when it comes to his players focus on the court.

Donovan used an example of guard Michael Frazier II getting beat on a back door pass and feeling bad about it and then turns the ball over on the next possession. Same with Jon Horford when he misses a lay up, to then commit a turnover on the next trip down the court.

Playing in the past is a factor Florida needs to overcome.

“You’ve got to be able to have a mental toughness to be able to compete from one play to the next, especially when the game’s going on,” Donovan said. “It’s something that we’ve got to bring to their attention, keep working on it, keep trying to drive that point home and hopefully they’ll continue to grow from it.”

Now Florida has a chance to redeem themselves and play with that mental toughness that can enable them to turn the season around. With the last non-conference game Saturday against UConn at home, the Gators can defeat a quality opponent that has had their own share of ups and downs and enter SEC play with a better approach.

Donovan said when he looks at UConn, it’s like facing his own roster of players. He said Huskies head coach Kevin Ollie is similar to his coaching style, the team is offensively similar and philosophically the belief in how they think their team should play.

The Gators-Huskies game is set for 2 p.m. and with UF having a 5-1 record at home this season, Florida has the chance at earning a victory in front of their home crowd that can set them on the right path for the remainder of the season.

But it all starts with playing the team on Saturday, not the one from last year.

“We’re not playing against last year’s UConn team and probably the same can be said for them,” Donovan said. “They are not playing against our team last year, they are playing against our team this year.”