Starting Saturday it gets tougher

Now we get to see what happens when Billy Donovan’s young Gators get kicked out of the nest and have to fly on their own. They had their final tune-up in front of a friendly O-Dome crowd and now they get to find out what life is like on the road in a hostile environment against a team that should prove much better than the Charleston Southern Buccaneers they faced Wednesday night.

The Gators got another blowout win, taking down the visiting Bucs by an 89-64 count in front of an announced crowd of 10,012 at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center, improving their record to 11-1 on the season. Next up is Ohio State in Columbus Saturday afternoon, their first time to play a game outside the state of Florida and only their third time away from the O-Dome.

Donovan doesn’t know what to expect from the Gators Saturday, particularly after their Wednesday night showing. Sure they won by 25 points and they did shoot 57.6 percent from the field, which was very impressive, but they also gave up 12 three-point shots and allowed the Bucs to hit 54.5 percent from long distance. It wasn’t the all-around good performance that Donovan wanted to see.

“I’m happy we won but every day is an adventure with these guys,” said Donovan.

Wednesday’s adventure began with an 18-0 run to start the game, the best start the Gators have had in any game this season. It was 23-3 when the Bucs got hot from the three-point line. With freshman Omar Carter going on radar-lock to lead the way, the Bucs hit eight of their 11 three-point shots in the first half but even with their hot shooting the closest they could ever get to the Gators was 42-32 with 39.8 seconds left in the half.

Carter, a freshman from Charlotte, hit all three of his first half three-pointers. For the game he was 6-9 on three-balls and he finished with a game-high 20 points.

Donovan certainly wasn’t happy with the defensive effort the Gators made on Carter.

“A lot of these guys [Gators] were recruited at a high level and had a lot of opportunities, a lot of choices,” said Donovan. “I wonder how many choices Omar Carter had? That guy is a great player — a great player — as good as any freshman in America. That guy is a competitor, he makes shots, he’s tough. Never heard of the guy in my entire life. Never heard of him. I’ve seen the guy on film. He’s been doing that all year long.”

The reason Carter couldn’t get the Bucs any closer than 10 points was because the Gators forced 15 first half turnovers and 23 for the game. That was Florida’s only saving grace defensively. Donovan certainly wasn’t happy with the way they defended the shots.

“I’m not thrilled with our defense right now,” said Donovan, who liked the way the Gators came out of the gate but was unhappy when the defensive intensity began to lag.

The Gators got some points out of a full court press which had its brilliant moments. That same press also betrayed the Gators a few times because of problems with the traps.

When the Gators were getting their traps at or around midcourt, they got steals and forced turnovers. When they were too late executing the traps, Georgia Southern got easy shots from the three-point line.

“There were a couple of times when we were trying to trap when the ball was like three dribbles across half court,” said Donovan. “You never want to trap in that situation because the next pass out of a trap leads to a direct shot and we gave up some direct shots out of the traps out of the press. When we trapped right at half court or right across half court, we were able to rotate and recover. You don’t want to give up easy baskets.”

Fortunately for the Gators, there were plenty of easy baskets to be had when they got the ball in their hands. Five Gators scored in double figures led by freshman Nick Calathes, who scored 18 points to go with nine rebounds, five assists and three steals. Junior Walter Hodge had 16 points, six assists and five steals.  Marreese Speights hit six of his seven shots from the field and finished with 14 points, while Jai Lucas added 12 points and Chandler Parsons had 10.

The Gators dominated in the paint, 42-18, outscored the Bucs 24-5 off turnovers and had 14 fast break points to six for Charleston Southern.

This was a game in which the Gators played on cruise control. Any time Charleston Southern hit a few points in a row, the Gators would assert themselves and keep the game out of reach. There weren’t a lot of challenges and that’s what Donovan really needed to see.

Georgia Southern gave the Gators some challenges when they played in Jacksonville last Saturday just as Florida State presented some serious challenges in the only game the Gators have lost so far. The Gators beat Georgia Southern by three points and North Dakota State by 10. All the other wins were by 15 points or more so there haven’t those been close game experiences that could be classified as character checks.

“When you are dealing with a young team, every game you play is an event and events mold and shape these kids in terms of how they view themselves as a player,” he said. “We haven’t had enough of these games where we’ve really had a chance to battle and challenge our internal confidence when things aren’t going well.”

The Gators have probably learned as much as they can learn from the first 12 games on the schedule. They have seen a variety of offensive philosophies and plenty of different defenses. While it has been a schedule that has presented very few challenging games, the ease in which the Gators have won has allowed Donovan to get plenty of playing time for all of his players to prep them for the upcoming 16-game Southeastern Conference grind.

He knows the schedule hasn’t been loaded up with top teams, but it’s been a good enough schedule that his young guys have had a chance to grow.

“We’ve had some really good opportunities to learn and you want to be able to do that in your non-conference schedule,” he said.

Now the Gators go on the road to face Ohio State. This isn’t the same Florida team that beat the Buckeyes in Gainesville last December and then beat them again in Atlanta for the NCAA championship back in April. This isn’t the same Ohio State team, either. Like the Gators, a significant part of last year’s starting lineup plays for pay these days.

Still, Ohio State represents a step up from the competition that Florida has been facing so far and the game is in Columbus so it’s going to be the first time Donovan sees how his young team of five freshman, three sophomores and a junior responds to a hostile crowd.

“I thought the Georgia Southern game was a game to learn a little bit but we’re going to find out a little bit more as they get into a hostile environment and there’s a run and the crowd gets loud,” Donovan said. “How do we respond to a run on the road the first time in a hostile environment? I don’t know.”

He knows his young guys believe in themselves and they genuinely think they are a very good team, capable of meeting whatever challenge that comes their way. He will find out Saturday how the confidence holds up against better competition.

“They are naively confident,” Donovan said. “I don’t think they’ve seen enough. We haven’t lined up against a top five team. We haven’t lined up and seen a team with a lot of these different things.”

They will see different things starting with Ohio State Saturday. Then they will face Temple in Sunrise in the Orange Bowl Classic and have a game with High Point at the O-Dome. After that it’s the 16-game SEC grind.

They are confident now. The key will be can they maintain that confidence as the schedule toughens up considerably.

“As a team they have belief in themselves but I don’t want it to be false belief,” said Donovan. “I see this air of confidence; I see this air of belief and that’s a good thing. I want them to keep it.

“I want to see the air of belief when they get punched in the teeth or in the mouth and they get backed up. Do we still keep that air of confidence? Do we still keep that air of belief? That’s what I think the key to our team is right now. How do we respond to adversity when our confidence maybe gets rattled or shattered a little bit?”

The answer to those and many other questions will begin Saturday in Columbus, Ohio. Billy’s done what he could to get his team ready for bigger challenges. Now it’s time for the kids to leave the nest and see if they can fly a little bit.

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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.