Let’s talk basketball for a moment. The football program is pretty much stuck in a holding pattern until the recruiting dead period is over. Thankfully, we have some Gator basketball to enjoy. The basketball season has gotten off to an inauspicious start for Florida. After being ranked in the top-ten before the -season the Gators went 7-6 in the early non-conference schedule and dropped not only from the rankings but from public interest as well.
This prompted some Gator fans to start bemoaning a season of failure. Many are critiquing the coaching job Billy Donovan is turning in this season. Some say that Billy has, for reasons unknown, checked out on his team this year evidenced by a lack of calling time-outs to stop opposing team’s momentum in games. I have even heard that maybe this season is an indication that Billy will be headed to the NBA next season. I have no idea when or if Donovan will again feel the urge to try his hand in the professional league but I am confident that it will not be the result of one bad season and most definitely not the cause of that bad season.
Billy Donovan is rapidly closing in (if he hasn’t already locked it up) on a spot in the College Basketball Hall of Fame. Billy has taken the Gators to four Final Fours, three national championship games and two national championships. The Gators have been to an amazing four consecutive Elite Eights. He knows how to coach basketball. He did not suddenly forget how to coach. I believe he has refrained from calling time-outs because his charges were not being receptive to the coaching. I think Billy decided that the only chance this team had of putting it all together was to let the players learn that they could not do this their way. They had to learn to do it his way. That is hard to believe with everything Billy has accomplished but eighteen to twenty-two year olds are…well…eighteen to twenty-two year olds. There is rumored to have been a players-only meeting after the FSU loss. Perhaps they have learned the lesson. So where does that leave this season?
Florida has now won their first two SEC games including a blowout victory over Mississippi State Saturday. I believe that Florida must go AT LEAST 10-8 in conference play and with that record they would still need at least two wins in the SEC tournament to make the NCAA tourney. It may well be that the Gators need an 11-7 conference record and two wins in the SEC tourney. Whatever the requirement turns out to be, it is safe to say they have their work cut out for them. There are some pretty good teams in the conference this year. Florida will need to play much better for a full forty minutes each game than they have been this season.
First and foremost, this means that Florida must keep their players on the court and available the rest of the season. That means the nagging injuries and stupid suspensions have to stop. Eli Carter will need to be the consistent scorer everyone believes he can become. This will provide much needed offense and it will open up Michael Frazier III and Kasey Hill to work from the perimeter and drive to the basket respectively. Florida cannot continue to have six to eight minute stretches with virtually no offense if they want to be in the NCAA tournament. A couple of go-to guys must emerge to stop the bleeding in those offensive voids.
I am also very concerned about what will happen against teams with big strong post players that can finish. Florida lacks the beef to go toe to toe inside and withstand real muscle. There will be a few of those in conference play. I am not convinced that the offense is going to be exceptional at any point this season so defense will be the deciding factor in many of these games and that will include defense inside the paint. Jon Horford needs to find his way because he will be badly needed against big strong SEC teams. Hopefully, the short suspension will be a wake-up call for Big Al’s brother.
And then there is Dorian Finney-Smith. DFS is a big part of the defense as well as a potential scorer when he gets hot. As a redshirt junior who has played at two different schools and was a key cog in last season’s success, DFS needs to team with Frazier and senior Jacob Kurtz to be the veteran leadership for this team on the court. The six early losses were virtually all the result of one thing, not being able to close out games when they had the lead. That is where leadership kicks in and this team badly needs a few guys to step up at crunch time and hold it together when adversity hits.
I have a ton of faith in Billy Donovan. I think he gets more out of his talent year in and year out than any other coach in college basketball. Therefore, I believe he will find a way to mold this group of players into a real team. The question is whether he can do it in time to earn a berth in the Big Dance. I absolutely believe this, if Billy gets his squad into the tournament, nobody will want to face them.