You could tell it was coming.
As Billy Donovan rattled off a extra politically correct answer on his feelings toward the rest of the SEC’s performance thus far — reciting vaguely familiar phrases such as “their teams are going to get better” — the impending follow-up question was inevitable.
“So do you think the scoring margin says more about your team than it does really about the rest of the SEC?” a reporter asked.
I leaned forward on the edge of my seat to grab an even closer listen to Donovan, interested to see if he would indeed admit that his team, at this point, is simply better than everyone else in the Southeastern Conference.
Alas, I was disappointed.
“I never look to evaluate the scoreboard as much as the process of what’s going on and our guys being consistent to what’s their responsibilities and what their job, regardless of what the scoreboard says,” Donovan said.
Through six SEC games, Florida has outscored opponents by an average of 26.5 points. The closest margin of victory was a 17-point nail-biter at Georgia this past Thursday.
“We played well and we defended and got stops and teams didn’t shoot a great percentage against us. When a team shoots 35 or 36 percent against you and you shoot over 50 percent. There’s a chance there’s going to be a wide margin of victory.”
As I leaned back into a normal sitting position, it became clear Donovan has done this before. Apparently, it’s nobody’s fault.
Just because his team is hot enough to induce sweat stains simply by standing next to them during an interview — or maybe that’s just me, I’m not sure — Donovan, as surely most coaches would do in the same position, refused to put his fellow-conference mates down, or boost his team’s ego, despite the statistics being astoundingly in his teams’ favor.
Basketballprospectus.com’s John Gasaway is far better at mathematics (or at least compiling advanced statistics) than I’ll ever be. According to Gasaway, both the Gators’ average of 1.20 points per offensive possession and the holding of opponents to a mere 0.77 points per trip — exactly 0.14 better than the next closest SEC team, Ole Miss in both categories — is usually a sign of a Final Four team.
Said Gasaway on his website Tuesday:
“Keep in mind +0.15 is a very healthy scoring margin. This is not the strongest SEC we’ve seen come down the pike by any means, but in most seasons outscoring a major conference by 0.15 points per trip is a serviceable enough synonym for Final Four potential … Florida has opened the SEC season by playing about as well as the sport permits.”
As impressive as the Gators have been at times on the offensive end of the floor, a healthy chunk of their success in scoring the basketball has often been a byproduct of good defensive play.
Donovan broke down his team’s defense on Monday, citing the freedom he has given his squad to call out its own coverages when defending. Donovan said that handing over the decision making to his team has resulted in a mixing of defensive setups often confusing opposing offenses.
However, as big of a role as coaching and schematics play in defensive success, it also comes down to personnel, and players’ willingness to play defense, which Donovan also touched on.
“The one thing I admired about Kenny Boynton is the other end of the floor, him trying to guard defensively, was just as valuable,” Donovan said. “I’ve seen a lot of guys who can really score in great bunches, but they rest at the other end of the floor and they have no interest on the other end of the floor. I think Kenny was committed to that … I don’t really go in and say I want to build our team with defense. I think when you get a guy that is competitive and a guy that wants to win, he understands that both ends of the floor are important.”
During the back-to-back championship seasons of 2006 and 2007, many outside the Florida program often marveled over the home run that Donovan ostensibly hit when he signed his 2004 recruiting class.
The “Oh-Fours” consisted of Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Taurean Green and Corey Brewer — players who as the championship runs went on, seemed to be perfectly suited for Donovan and his vision — making Donovan appear to be a clairvoyant matchmaker in some eyes, as he was able to bring together players who ended up seamlessly gelling together.
Although Donovan’s current crop has yet to draw too many comparisons to those championship teams, Donovan was still asked on Monday how he brought this Gators team together.
“From a recruiting standpoint, I’ve never really looked at how to go about building a team,” Donovan said. “I’ve been much, much more about what kind of an individual am I coaching … You can go into a high school gym or an AAU tournament, watch a guy play, and it doesn’t take you too long to figure out this guy is really, really good. But there is another element to that that really enables that guy to fit into a team because at every point in time with a player you bring in here there has to be a level of sacrifice that goes on.
“Sometimes you have to a little bit less for the team to be better. I’m more building a team where if we are going after a point guard, power forward, or center, I’m trying to find out what are these guys made of, what is it about them, what do they want, what is our program about, is this a good match, is this a good fit.”
As it stands, Donovan is finding out so far that he has a group of players who so far this season, have shown they are willing to sacrifice quite a bit for the greater good, including points and perhaps most importantly, their health, as the Gators have seen a number of players fight through injury this year.
It remains to be seen how this season will end for the Gators, but it’s evident at this point, whether by accident or design, that Florida is seemingly head and shoulders above the rest of the SEC.
And it’s nobody’s fault.