When Billy Donovan takes the Florida Gators on a three-day, two-game excursion to Canada for a pair of exhibition games this weekend, he knows he shouldn’t expect the Gators to be in anything close to the level they were playing back in March when they made their run to the NCAA title. This is a trip to watch, to learn and to let his team begin to gel.
Chemistry was the rock solid foundation of Florida’s 33-6 season last year but even with all five starters and the top two reserves coming back, there are four new freshmen that have to find their place on the team. More than anything else, the eight practices in Gainesville and the two games in Canada will give Donovan a head start in building that same kind of team chemistry in this year’s team.
“We’re a different team than we were a year ago,” said Donovan Thursday afternoon. “We have four new pieces of the puzzle.”
Gone from last year’s championship team are reserves Adrian Moss (graduation) and David Huertas (transfer to Ole Miss). In their place are freshmen Dan Werner, Jonathon Mitchell, Brandon Powell and Marresse Speights. Donovan likes the way they come to practice every day ready to work hard and trying to absorb everything they can in a short time, but building chemistry is a process and it won’t happen overnight. That’s why these extra practices and games that the NCAA allows are so precious.
The Gators exemplified the team concept last year. The relationships within the team were built on mutual trust, respect and an element of friendship so strong that the Gators were almost like a family. Now, four new Gators have been adopted into the family but it still takes time for those relationships to solidify.
“Any time you add four new players from different parts of the country, from different backgrounds and personalities it takes time for everybody to fit in and gel and mesh,” said Donovan. “That’s the one good thing about the trip. We can get on the floor like we have for the past week and try to build those relationships.”
The big brother system that Donovan has in place helps build the relationships. Just like Florida’s veterans were once wide-eyed freshmen, learning from their “big brothers” on the team, these young Gators are being mentored and cared for by Florida’s returning vets. And, next year when the Gators bring in a new group of freshmen, these freshmen will be veterans and big brothers, there to initiate their new teammates into the way things are done at Florida.
“You’ve got to set that up,” said Donovan. “We’re a different team than we were a year ago. We have four new pieces to the puzzle. It’s good to have upperclassmen overlooking that and taking the responsibility to help those guys. That also bridges the gap in terms of the relationship piece of it where now they have a relationship going back and forth.”
Of course, there’s more to it than just building relationships. The practices and exhibition games give Donovan a measuring stick so he will better know where to begin when practice begins in earnest in October. Florida plays its first exhibition game on November 2 against Northwood University. The first game that counts is November 10 when Florida plays host to Samford University.
The Gators scrimmaged Wednesday, their last full court work before taking off to Canada. The good news was there were plenty of points scored. The bad news was the Gators didn’t play with anything close to the focus that Donovan was looking for.
Florida played four five-minute quarters, the equivalent of half of a college game. The score after 10 minutes, Donovan said, was something like 33-30.
“That obviously right then and there tells you we were on a pace to score 66 points and 60 points so defensively it was not very good,” said Donovan. “The positive thing offensively is that our guys continue to play unselfishly and move the ball and play together which was a positive but in terms of our ability to block out, defending and rebounding and those type of things, it was not good.”
What he saw of the freshmen was typical of what he would expect of newbies still trying to find their way around the campus trying to absorb a lot of information in a very short period of time.
“To be honest with you if it was a regular game that counted I can’t say that I would be comfortable playing any of these guys right now,” he said.
It was pretty much the first good look that Donovan has gotten out of Werner, who had missed most of the previous practices with a painful bone bruise in his shin. He also got a better look at Mitchell, who had dislocated his thumb last Friday. Along with Powell and Speights, they played hard and did their best, but at times they were overwhelmed.
“For me to evaluate and judge them right now in terms of where they’re at, it’s probably unfair,” said Donovan. “I’m probably better off evaluating and judging them on their attitude which has been excellent. They’ve worked hard, they’ve come with a good attitude and they’ve tried…those have been the positive parts.”
The attitude of the veterans was good and Donovan added that they’re in better physical condition this year than they were last. But attitude and good condition didn’t exactly translate into good play on the floor.
“Joakim (Noah) is not blocking out and rebounding like he did a year ago and neither is Chris (Richard),” said Donovan. “They’re not defending like they did a year ago so I think our consistency level of being able to consistently perform — I think that was the disappointing part — the consistency of doing those things. We have to get back to them, but then again it’s still August.”
The fact that it is August is indeed very good news and in some respects, Donovan wasn’t all that disappointed that the scrimmage wasn’t a real work of art. He called it a good thing that the team didn’t have a great scrimmage because “it gives us a lot to correct.”
Donovan used the film of the scrimmage before Thursday’s practice to show each player where they needed to improve.
“I’m happy they didn’t play well,” he said. “It gives me something that they need to see where they need to get better and it’s not just the young guys it’s also the older guys as well.”