Donovan displeased with UF’s defense

It’s not like Beau Beech sneaked into the game Friday afternoon. The Florida Gators had a full scouting report on the 6-8 wing shooter for North Florida and they knew fully well that he’s capable of lighting it up from the three-point line. So when Beech hit 5-8 from long distance, the least surprised person in the building was Florida coach Billy Donovan.

It wasn’t like Beech’s hot shooting spurred the visiting Ospreys to a shocking victory over the eighth-ranked Gators, who won their season opener for the 23rd straight year by a less than comfortable, 77-69, margin before an announced crowd of 10,550 at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center but it did highlight an ongoing problem that Donovan has been working on since practice began almost a month ago.

“It’s not like okay, it was an aberration, they happened to get hot and made a lot of three-point shots,” Donovan said after North Florida went 9-24 from the three-point line. “It’s every day. We’ve got to do some different drills or something because we’re not figuring it out.”

Some of the concerns can be attributed to the makeshift lineup that he will play with at least one more game – Dorian Finney-Smith, Damontre Harris and Scottie Wilbekin will all miss Tuesday’s game at Wisconsin – but Donovan wouldn’t allow the shorthanded lineup that sometimes included two walk-ons (Jacob Kurtz and Billy Donovan III) and three players still not at full strength (Will Yeguete, Eli Carter and Michael Frazier) to serve as an excuse for erratic play. There were some offensive lapses, particularly in the first half when the Gators played the last four minutes with only one player on the floor who has ever played extensive minutes.

It was Florida’s defense that got under Donovan’s skin. After rolling to an 18-point lead on a nice give-and-go layup by Casey Prather (28 points, eight rebounds, one assist, one steal and one blocked shot) from Dillon Graham to make it a 35-18 game with 4:06 to go in the half, the Gators went into a total defensive funk. The Ospreys scored the final 11 points of the half to close to 37-31 at the break, with nine coming from behind the arc.

The lapse had Donovan shaking his head.

“Florida Southern, Georgia Tech, this game … every day in practice,” Donovan said.

“Yesterday in practice we’re in one segment and one team is 9-19 from the three-point line. The basketball IQ of anticipating and reading where is the shooter at and what do I need to do … sometimes we’re just totally lost.”

The Gators got lost again in the second half, which was almost a replay of the first. With Prather combining with Kasey Hill and Michael Frazier to take over the offensive end of the floor, the Gators dominated the first 10 minutes, blowing out to a 58-39 lead on Frazier’s three-ball from the corner with 10:04 to go.

That was almost a cue for North Florida to make the game interesting. Beech nailed a couple of three-balls and it was contagious enough that non-shooter Chris Davenport, whose outside shot is a dunk, even got in the act with a 22-footer from the wing.  That cut the Florida lead to eight, 66-58, but the Ospreys couldn’t get any closer. Frazier made sure of that with a pair of jumpers and four straight free throws.

Donovan seemed unconcerned with the Gators offensively. When he has all his working parts assembled and playing together sometime in the near future, he will have a talented and deep roster that can produce points in bunches. He’s not certain the Gators will be able to stop anyone, though.

“Our pick and roll coverage by our guards is way too loose,” Donovan said. “Our bigs  are calling out the coverage. There are two or three different coverages that we do and the bigs call the coverage where their man is coming from on the pick and roll. Is he coming from the block, is he coming from the top of the key, is he coming from the wing? And what’s the angle? And those guys have to call the coverage. We’ve got our guards telling our bigs what to do. Our bigs are unable to do it. The communication is totally loose.

“Their basketball IQ and understanding of where to be, when to be, what’s going on and how to rotate was at a totally different level to what we’re doing. That’s the frustrating part. I can’t seem to get through to some of these guys.”

With all the frustrations, you would think the Gators were sweating bullets at the end. They weren’t, but they weren’t playing very well, either. It was a win, but it certainly didn’t give Donovan the warm and fuzzies.

“In the second half, I thought we got outworked and outhustled,” Donovan said. “I thought they beat to loose basketballs … I think there was a point in time they had the ball and scored six straight times. Things like that never happened to us last year.

Last year the Gators were one of the nation’s most efficient teams on both ends of the court, but especially defensively. Florida allowed only 54 points a game last year when the Gators made it to the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year

That was an outstanding defensive team. Right now Donovan would settle for simply calling the Gators “good” on the defensive end.

“We are light years away from being even a remotely good defensive team right now and I would think light years away from being a ranked team,” Donovan said.

The poor work on the defensive end overshadowed the outstanding performance turned in by Prather, who scored 17 of Florida’s 37 first half points and whose final total of 28 doubled his previous career high of 14 scored against Virginia in the 2012 NCAA Tournament.

The Gators also got an outstanding effort off the bench by Frazier, who came off the bench to score 19. Frazier, who has been battling mononucleosis, said the past three weeks have been an ordeal.

“I had fever, sore throat, body aches, trying to sleep all day, couldn’t swallow, headaches, no appetite … everything you can think,” Frazier said. “I lost about 12 pounds.”

Thursday, Donovan wasn’t sure Frazier would be able to play. Frazier wasn’t so sure himself until he got on the practice floor.

“I just started feeling back to myself yesterday at practice,” Frazier said. “It was tough and I was sore, but I felt like myself.”

GAME NOTES: Freshman Kasey Hill scored 15 points in his Florida debut, hitting 5-9 from the field, 5-6 from the foul line and dishing out four assists to go with a blocked shot and a steal … The Gators hit their first 17 free throws and finished the game 27-32. Said North Florida coach Matt Driscoll, “When [UF went] 17-17 from the line to start the game and they’re bad free throw shooters, you’re thinking you’re going to be okay” … Florida finished 2-10 from the three-point line … The Gators were outrebounded 37-35.



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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.