When the SEC Tournament tipped off on Wednesday, Florida was yet to arrive in Nashville, Tenn.
As the No. 1 seed, the Gators secured a first round bye, allowing them an extra few days of rest before facing off against UGA or LSU on Friday.
Through the first month of conference play, as Florida dispatched opponent after opponent, it became clear the Gators were head and shoulders above the rest of the league.
Ask any neutral observer in late January, and they likely would have said Florida would glide through the SEC Tourney.
However, after skidding to a 3-3 record in its final six games, No. 13 Florida appears to hold no edge heading into competition.
When Florida pulls up to Bridgestone Arena, inside it will find a handful of teams sitting squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble, desperate to reel off as many wins as possible. The Gators have already captured the SEC regular season title, and are mortal locks to get invited to the Big Dance.
On paper, the Gators will be the best team in Nashville, but in order for them to win just the fourth SEC tournament title in team history, they will need to play significantly better than they have recently.
“I dealt with this with (Joakim) Noah and (Al) Horford,” Donovan said. “You are 13-0 in a 16-game league schedule, you have clinched an SEC Championship and you have three games remaining, and it’s like, ‘OK, what are we playing for?’
It would be easy to say the Gators will play with more passion this weekend now that there’s a prize at the finish line. Be the last team standing in Nashville and you get a shiny trophy, a hat and a t-shirt. Heck, there’s usually even the same type of confetti that’s used at the conclusion of the Final Four.
But the cheap thrills that accompany an SEC Tournament win shouldn’t be the fire under Florida’s collective hind-parts this weekend.
Rather, the Gators should be playing for themselves when they get to lace them up again on Friday.
Donovan’s bunch has enjoyed their share of impressive feats over the last three seasons. There’s been two Elite Eight Runs and two regular season SEC championships. But despite the small-time spoils, the Gators have failed to do anything truly remarkable.
Florida didn’t run into any sort of juggernauts when they lost to Butler and Louisville in 2011 and 2012. The Gators simply let both games slip out of their hands.
As Donovan pointed out, a few of Florida’s losses this season were understandable, namely, Arkansas and Tennessee. But in the other losses, the Gators seemed to play uninspired.
Seven minutes and thirty-six seconds without a basket?
However, the Gators have a chance to prove something to themselves this weekend. Despite the perception of the SEC, there are still quality teams within the league. The bad news for Florida is that almost every team in Nashville will reek of desperation.
Depending on who you ask, Florida may be the only team in the SEC Tournament with a feeling of security heading into Selection Sunday. For Florida to win more than one game this weekend, it will undoubtedly need to play its best ball.
If you need a sign of just how confusing this team can be, look no further than it’s regular season. The Gators have not won a single game this season by less than double digits. Not one.
However, the Gators have also failed to win a significant game away from the O’Connell Center this year.
For all of Florida’s problems in the past couple of weeks, Donovan believes it’s been his team’s practice habits which have been responsible for UF’s subsequent poor play.
With two games per week and an endless number of practices and classes and shootarounds, it’s easy to understand if the team is a little tired. But with nearly a full week between games, Florida has no excuses not to be prepared for this weekend.
“Again, we have a great group of kids who won a league,” Donovan said. “What happened in the past doesn’t mean it’s going to happen again because I’ve seen some growth and I’ve seen some strides in the right direction in terms of dealing with those things.
“I’d like to see us get to the free throw line more. I don’t think we’re getting to the free throw line enough. And I also would also like to see us do a better job of taking care of the basketball and not turning the ball over.”
The fact that Donovan could only muster up a few specific changes his team needs to make should be encouraging. As disappointing as the Gators performed down the stretch, they still had opportunities to win every game.
As Donovan pointed out, the Gators won a championship, an uneasy feat for any team.
After they had officially captured UF’s fourth outright SEC title, the Gators broke out the ladders to ceremonially cut down the nylon nets in the O’Connell Center.
As the case has been all season, the Gators celebrated another big victory at home.
With no chances remaining in Gainesville, like an adult leaving his or her parents, the Gators must now prove they can make it on their own away from a familiar dwelling.
There may or may not be a ladder on standby in Nashville, but net-cutting aside, the Gators have a chance to do something notable away from home for the first time this season.
“You have 14 teams that are going to go to Nashville and compete for this,” Donovan said. “The fact is that we have an opportunity for three days to potentially play for another championship.
“The regular season is over and done with. That’s behind us. That’s already been celebrated, talked about, that’s done. This is what’s in front of us right now.”