Focus shifts as Gators prep for SEC tourney

The reward for a job well done for Florida’s #1-ranked basketball (29-2, 18-0 SEC) team is two well-deserved days off. When the Gators return to practice Tuesday they will be shifting gears to a one-and-done mode as they begin preparations for their first game in the Southeastern against either Texas A&M or Missouri (Friday, 1 p.m., ESPNU) at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

Florida’s historic unbeaten 18-game run through the SEC regular season took a predictable course. For nine straight weeks the Gators knew they were going to play two games a week. It was easy to compartmentalize scouting and preparation because the schedule was set long ago. Heading into their first game in the SEC Tournament the Gators are only certain they will be playing the winner of Thursday’s Missouri-Texas A&M game and know that from this point onward in the season you have to win to advance.

“You could sit there and try to look at Texas A&M or start to try to evaluate or guess who you’re going to be playing in a game like that,” Donovan said at his Monday morning press conference. “You could want to look at Missouri and try to figure them. Ultimately that game has to be played on Thursday and then we’ll figure out who it is. You can get caught wasting a lot of time saying, ‘Tuesday we’re going to look at Missouri and then Wednesday we’re going to look at Texas A&M.’ You’re throwing stuff out to guys that may not even happen.”

The Gators have already played and beaten both Missouri and Texas A&M so there already is an element of familiarity. It will be the same personnel for both teams although both have had mixed results since February when the Aggies and Missouri were in Gainesville back-to-back. Since falling, 69-36 to the Gators, the Aggies have gone 5-5 against the rest of the SEC, finishing the regular season with a 17-14 record and an 8-10 mark against the SEC. Missouri lost to Florida. 68-58 and since then has gone 5-4, finishing 21-10 overall, 9-9 in the league.

So there is no lack of tape on either team, allowing Donovan to take an introverted approach to preparing for the tournament. Rather than spending an inordinate amount of time thinking Aggies or Tigers, he wants his team to think about the Gators.

“To me, the point is going forward, what do we have to do that’s going to definitely take place in the game on Friday, regardless of who we’re playing against?” Donovan said. “That’s where the focus comes on us and what we need to do better and focus in on to try to improve. There’s a lot of areas we can do to be able to do that.”

At this point in the season and with a team this successful, Donovan knows he doesn’t have to make radical changes. His team understands and grasps concepts and knows how to implement them. So when it comes to practice time, the devil is in the details.

Donovan pointed out a number of areas where the Gators can improve. As good as the Gators have been in running off 23 consecutive wins, they are not a perfect team and have yet to play a perfect game. As good as Florida’s 84-65 win over Kentucky looks on paper, there was that stretch when the Wildcats ran off 15 straight points to narrow the margin to six points as well as other mistakes made throughout the course of the game.

So, for the next three days, the emphasis will be on the details.

“Coming down the stretch of these last four or five games in the SEC we’ve turned the ball over and taken a bad shot, teams have gotten out of the break this amount of times and this is what they’re shooting,” Donovan said. “So we have to understand that we have something to do with our transition defense by what we do in our half-court offense.

“Rotational block outs …  we’re playing against Dakari Johnson, Julius Randle and we’re double-teaming the low post and we get two guys on the ball. Our backside guards being able to block out. When you guys have not gotten in there here’s how many points we give up when you guys don’t do this, okay? Pick and roll actions, that we run in the half-court, you know we don’t set the correct angle of the screen, guards you don’t use it, this is inevitably what happens.”

There is that old saying that the devil is in the details but Donovan knows the team that takes care of the details is the team that wins the close games that are inevitable once the season goes into the one-and-done tournament mode.

“I always say we need to get better and we can get better and we can improve but that’s a pretty broad statement,” Donovan said. “So how do I get with those guys to make it very, very clear we’re working on this because we need to get better at this because when we don’t do this, this is what happens to our team?”

Another example was offered up.

“When we are in transition and we don’t get a piece of the paint on the dribble of the pass, and we throw the ball around the perimeter and we just jack up a three-point shot, we’re shooting 25 percent when we do that,” Donovan said. “And what’s happened is teams are getting out on transition and we can’t balance the floor.  So we’ve got to make sure in transition we run hard, and we want to get a piece of the paint because when we do get a piece of the paint, here’s what we shoot and here’s what happens. Breaking it down into those small compartments, so they can see clearly when they’re in those situations what they need to do. So those would be the trends that I would be talking about.”

From a physical standpoint, the Gators are in decent shape. The only gimpy player is Casey Prather, who will benefit from two days off followed by a 3-day wait before the next game. It will also be a re-charge time for Patric Young, Will Yeguete and Kasey Hill. Young has periodic problems with tendonitis in his knees, Yeguete is still just nine months removed from microfracture surgery on his right knee, and Hill missed three recent games with a strained groin.

The bigger concern for Donovan right now is fatigue between the ears.

“There’s a fine line between your team looking tired and it not being physical fatigue but it being mental fatigue,” Donovan said. “We are probably no different than a lot of teams right now. The 2.5-hour practices we had back in October, we’re not doing that now. We’re doing a lot of skill development, skill work, execution and working on our defense getting pick-and-roll coverages down where we’re understanding rotations in the press. We’re trying to shore up those areas where we can get better at as a team.

“This time of year, I never go into the tournament saying, ‘Okay, we’ve got to practice here on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday because we could be playing on Sunday.’ All we get is one game. We’ve got to worry about the next game if we’re fortunate enough to move on past that.”

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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.