Youth, inexperience rear their ugly heads

Florida’s youth and inexperience had a head-on collision with a freight train Friday night at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. Billy Donovan’s Gators discovered what happens when adversity comes at you from every possible angle as the Florida State Seminoles flattened them, 65-51, putting an end to Florida’s 15-game winning streak that stretched back to a win over Kentucky in the final regular season game last season.

Give the Seminoles (5-2) credit for playing to their strengths. The Seminoles have four fourth-year guards — three seniors and a fourth-year junior — that set the pace for what Coach Leonard Hamilton wants to do both offensively and defensively. On the defensive end, the Seminoles wanted to be aggressive and physical to force the Gators out of any kind of offensive rhythm. On the offensive end, they wanted to put the ball on the deck and drive the lane.

Florida State forced the Gators into their first sub-50 percent game of the season (21-54; 38.9 percent) and the Seminoles out-rebounded Florida by a 39-28 margin. On the offensive end, led by Jason Rich (20 points, 11 rebounds), Florida State’s four guards combined for 45 points, 23 rebounds, 10 assists and five steals.

The Gators were dominated on the inside by Uche Echefu, Ryan Reid, Julian Vaughn and Cassan Breeden, who took away the paint on the defensive end and established their presence offensively, particularly in the first half. For the game, the Seminoles scored 36 points in the paint and had 14 second-chance points,.

On the perimeter, where the Gators (5-1) made their living in the first give games of the season, Florida shot a woeful 17.4 percent, hitting just four of 23 three-point shots.

“I think it’s something we’ve tried to talk to these guys a long time about is when you don’t shoot the ball well, are you still going to give yourself a chance and opportunity to win?” said Donovan in his post-game remarks. “Tonight, clearly, with our lack of productivity offensively, we gave up transition fast breaks, we were I think dominated on the backboard in the first half — it was plus 11 or maybe plus nine — and I think 23 of their points in the first half came off second shots or transition points.”

It was obvious in the first few possessions that Florida State’s game plan was to get the Florida offense out of synch by forcing Florida’s guards farther out on the perimeter than they’re used to. That affected Florida’s shooting on the perimeter and it also took Marreese Speights, Florida’s only true inside presence out of the game. Speights managed only four shots on the night. He finished with four points and six rebounds, easily his worst night of the season.

“We would have loved to have gotten the ball to Marreese Speights more,” said Donovan. “I think the first five games, Marreese, based on his height and reach was able to do some things that maybe other teams didn’t have some answers for. There’s no question that Ryan Reid placing a body on him, Uche placing a body on him and Julian Vaughn placing a body on him … he’s got to figure out that you cannot play finesse all the time. I think Marreese has great hands, great touch and great offensive skills but there are times when you have to get in there physically and bang and compete and it’s not always going to be easy out-jumping and putting your hand up in front of the ball against big people.”

That physical style paid dividends from the outset. Florida got the lead at 7-6 with 15:43 on a jump shot by Walter Hodge but it would be almost five full minutes before the Gators scored again. By the time Hodge scored again, the Seminoles led 15-9.  Over the next three minutes, FSU outscored the Gators 12-0. A Jai Lucas free throw with 6:39 ended that run but the Gators were already down by 17, 27-10.

When Echefu hit a short jumper in the paint with 5:38 left in the half, the Seminoles were up 31-12 and they cruised into the half with a 34-21 lead.

The Gators weren’t all that bad in the half court from a defensive standpoint but their inability to stop the Seminoles from getting second shots was crippling. Donovan felt that the Gators lack of success on the offensive end had an adverse effect on the defensive effort.

“We were pretty good in the half court defensively,” said Donovan. “But, there is no question our lack of offense affected our energy on defense and we did not have the maturity, the toughness or mental toughness to battle through a woeful shooting night and have that internal fortitude to find a way to get stops, make the game an ugly, low scoring game and find a way to at least keep it close.”

Florida came out of the half with more energy, getting a defensive stop and then converting on the offensive end to bring the score back to 11 (34-23) with 19:34 remaining in the game. That was as close as it would get. On FSU’s next possession, the Gators got a stop when Echefu was called for an offensive foul but Hodge got called for a technical foul for throwing an elbow on the same play.

Instead of Florida basketball and a chance to get the lead under 10 points for the first time since 8:39 in the first half, the Gators gave up two free throws and then a Toney Douglas runner on the inbounds play. Just like that, it was 38-23.

“We got a little momentum and cut it to 11 and Walter got a high elbow call — and it was probably the right call by the officials with all the new rules and stuff – but where we get possession of the ball down 11 and then we get possession of the ball down 15,” said Donovan.

The Gators mounted one more threat in the second half, cutting the lead down to 11 a second time after a Chandler Parsons three and a layup by Hodge with 9:53 remaining in the game, but FSU answered that mini-run by the Gators with 14-6 run over the next five minutes that stretched the lead back to 19, 61-42.

Considering the way the Gators played last Saturday night against Rutgers, when they did almost everything right against a team as big as Florida State and equally as physical, it was a letdown although Florida State should be credited for doing its part to create problems.

Donovan thought Florida problems were almost too numerous to name.

“We didn’t have a post presence,” he said. “We got caught running around the perimeter. We didn’t screen well. A lot of things through missed shots affected our team. I thought our team showed a lack of maturity in a lot of ways which maybe, as young as we are, is to be expected.”

Donovan knew coming into this season that there will be bumps in the road. Florida doesn’t have any senior presence on the team and only Hodge has serious minutes with games on the line.

“I think it was going to happen,” said Donovan. “A lot of times dealing with a young team it’s not going to be rosy and these kids have never been through it. I think Florida State is a good team that played well tonight. They have an experienced backcourt. They have physicality and they have experience.

“Going on the road at Ohio State, going to play at Kentucky, going to play at Tennessee and going to play at Arkansas … there are some teams we’re going to play against going forward where it will all depend on what do we learn from what happened tonight. I think that’s going to be the big key, do we learn from it?”

Donovan said getting the young Gators to respond starts with the way he coaches them.

“I’ve got to find a way as a coach to get to these guys to get them the level of experience they need through my words,” Donovan said. “There are some guys — Joakim Noah was a guy … Jo don’t touch that, it’s hot … He was going to touch that to find out what hot meant … that’s who he was. Al Horford was a guy that was really able to learn through other people’s experiences, listening and taking things in.

“I’ve got to find a way and we’ve got to find a way as a coaching staff to get these guys as much experience through our words as best we can. I tried today and maybe I didn’t do a very good job of preparing them for a rivalry and the emotion because I think the emotion of the game took our focus off what we needed to do when things weren’t going well. There’s no question that our team in a lot of ways looked out of it tonight because we weren’t making shots and we have to have a little more internal depth as a team than for our team based on making and missing shots.”

GAME NOTES: Hodge led the Gators with 11 points while Parsons had 10 … Adam Allen scored eight points and he was the only Gator to hit at least two-three-pointers … Speights led the Gators with six rebounds, while Parsons had five … The loss was the worst for the Gators since a 14-point loss to Manhattan in the NCAA Tournament in 2004 … Florida’s next game is Tuesday night at home against Stetson.

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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.