There isn’t even a hint of panic in Billy Donovan these days. Sure, his Florida basketball team has lost a couple of games and there is no certainty when Corey Brewer is going to be well enough to play, but that’s no reason for concern. It is only the first week in December and Donovan sees the big picture. It is a long season and there is still plenty of basketball to play.
The Gators started the season as the number one ranked team in the country but losses to Kansas and Florida State have dropped them to seventh in the national polls as they play host to Donovan’s alma mater, Providence (6-1), tonight at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center (7 p.m., Sun Sports TV). In both the losses, the Gators have fallen behind by double digits only to rally late in the game. Against Kansas, the Gators forced overtime and lost by two points. Florida came back within two points late in the game against FSU before falling by four.
In both games, the Gators had problems with the physical play of their opponents. Playing physical opponents wasn’t a problem for Florida last March when the Gators battled their way to 11-straight wins and the NCAA championship, but that team was healthy. This one is battling through some illnesses.
Brewer (6-9) is out for at least another couple of weeks with mononucleosis, depriving the Gators of their most versatile defender and best on the team at creating his own shot. Joakim Noah (6-11) hasn’t missed a game, but he’s fighting his way through a lingering upper respiratory infection that saps him of his energy. Brewer was averaging 11.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.2 steals per game when doctors put him on the sideline indefinitely. Noah is averaging 12.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game but it is obvious that he’s struggling to keep his energy level high with the respiratory problem.
Donovan needs both players
“Corey’s situation is positive because his spleen was not enlarged,” said Donovan Tuesday afternoon. “He’s got to get better. I still don’t believe that Joakim’s 100 percent just watching him coughing up and down the floor when he’s playing.”
There are other players with colds and flu-like symptoms so the overall team energy isn’t what Donovan would like for it to be but he’s not making any excuses for the way the Gators have played.
“We don’t have any excuses,” said Donovan. “There are a lot of teams dealing with injuries. Providence has one of their front court players out. Kansas, when we played them, had a couple of players out. Everybody is going through it at this time of the year but you have to overcome it and deal with it and battle it. Are we as healthy as we need to be? No, we could be better.”
There is also the weight of high expectations that the Gators are learning to live with. Because all five starters are back from the NCAA championship team, fans are disappointed if the Gators don’t play at their highest level every game and opponents are going to give Florida their best shot every game. Sunday night, the combination of playing their big in-state rival (Florida) and the fact the Gators are the NCAA champions fueled Florida State to play at a highly charged emotional level for 40 full minutes. That also ignited a full house at the Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center to make it an electric, big game atmosphere. When the game ended, the FSU students stormed the court and celebrated as if this was a championship game.
Donovan says the Gators have to expect the other team’s best shot every game and that means Florida has to find a way to respond.
“It’s not mental focus or a lack of focus or a lack of caring or trying or anything like that,” said Donovan. “I think it’s just dealing with this season and all that comes with it right now and getting ourselves to understand every little thing. There is little room for error when you have everybody playing the very best they possibly can against us. Last year I thought we had very little room for error because of our lack of experience and we were playing so many guys for the first time.”
There are always higher expectations of teams the year after winning a national championship. In Florida’s case, the expectations are even higher because the Gators are returning their first seven players from that championship experience. The Gators started the season ranked first and they’ve had to learn to cope with all the media attention to go with the higher level of expectations. Already there have been plenty of stories written asking if the Gators can handle the weight of expectation and the distractions that they will face along the way.
“All the questions that were raised before the year started were very legitimate and very accurate,” said Donovan. “There are things they have to deal with. I told them that all of this is going to be the most challenging year of their basketball life up until this point in time because of what happened last year makes it this year more challenging. You’ve got to embrace that. You have to enjoy that. You have to accept that because it’s going to make us a better team, make you a better player having to go through something like that.”
For all the pressure put on the team by the media and fans, Donovan thinks his team puts more pressure on themselves than anyone else.
“These guys are a team to me that they put more pressure on themselves,” he said. “I’m not one bit worried about them just showing up, hey this is easy. They understand how it’s going to be but when you go through it the first time you don’t know what it’s going to be like. For our front court players and the rest of our team, these teams are playing at such an emotional level and that’s the way it is right now. It’s something you have to deal with. I would be hopeful that it will bring out the best of our team and the best in them.”
With Brewer out at least until Christmas — Donovan is hopeful he will be back by the time the Gators play Florida A&M and Ohio State — and Noah slowed with his respiratory infection, the Gators have been forced to play several different combinations in a search to find good team chemistry. In Brewer’s absence, sophomore Walter Hodge has stepped in as Florida has played a three-guard lineup. Against Florida State, Hodge responded with one of his best games in a Florida uniform as he knocked down 17 points including a 3-4 effort from the three-point line.
Noah has had to spend more time on the bench than normal and that has Donovan shuffling the lineup to find a good combination inside. Chris Richard (6-9) is the first player off the bench and he teams well with Horford on the inside, but if Noah can’t go and Richard or Horford have some foul problems, Donovan has been forced to experiment.
Freshmen Jonathon Mitchell and Dan Werner have seen some minutes at the small forward and power forward positions. Mitchell (6-7) has not looked comfortable on the offensive end. Quite often he’s been reluctant to shoot the ball. Werner (6-8) isn’t shy about shooting but he’s not found any consistency with his shot. He is hitting 29.4 percent of his shots and only 19.2 percent of his three-point attempts.
Another option on the inside is 6-11 freshman Marreese Speights, who is averaging 6.1 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. Speights is an aggressive defender and shot blocker who has shown a lot of skills on the offensive end of the floor. Donovan likes the progress the big kid is making but says that it’s still a learning process.
“Look at the stat sheet when he gets in there for a period of time and there’s a lot of positive things when you look at rebounds, when you look at points,” said Donovan. “There are so many things defensively that he has to get out of the habit of. He stands directly behind in the low post. He wants to jump up in the air and block every single shot and he gives up defensive rebounding position.
“Offensively, when we come down and call plays, there are times when it’s happening too quick for him and he’s trying to figure out what he’s supposed to go and where he’s supposed to go. The biggest thing for him right now is that there are things that he was able to get away with in high school that he’s not able to get away with now and it has nothing to do with his talent. It has to do with a lot more of understanding what he’s got to do within our system.”
Donovan said that Speights will continue to get more minutes at critical points in the game but it is still a learning process.
“I do like putting him on the floor because offensively he gives us another scorer in the post,” said Donovan. “He is active. He is rebounding but you also you have to look at — and I went through this with him on the tape yesterday — tip in and jump hook that’s great but now let’s look at these six plays here.”
GAME NOTES: For the season, the Gators are hitting 54.9 percent from the field and 42.7 percent (73-171) from the three-point line … Taurean Green is Florida’s leading scorer at 13.4 points per game … If there is one critical area that the Gators must improve it is at the foul line. Florida is hitting 66.5 percent from the line. Green, who shot better than 88 percent from the foul line last year is hitting just 70.4 percent so far (19-27) … Through nine games, Lee Humphrey is hitting 42.6 percent from the three-point line (20-47). Humphrey led the SEC in three-point shooting last year at 45.6 percent … Walter Hodge is hitting 73.3 percent from the three point line (11-15), while freshman Brandon Powell is 7-10 and Green is at 46.5 percent (20-43) … Donovan is two wins from tying Norm Sloan as the school’s winningest coach all-time. Donovan is 233-100 in his eleventh season. Sloan took 15 years to win 235 games.