For the No. 11 Florida Gators’ men’s basketball team, the non-conference portion of the schedule was a seesaw affair.
Before the season, Florida’s murderous lineup included teams from every region of the country, each differing in terms of style and strength. After casually cruising through their first few contests with ease, the Gators (10-2) surged up the rankings, landing in the nation’s top-5 a month into the season.
After losing twice in a week, Florida tumbled back down in the polls, a victim of a struggling offense and haunting miscues. However, with two straight victories to close out the non-conference slate, Florida has again found its offense heading into its SEC opener against Georgia, which tips off at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
According to Gators coach Billy Donovan, he learned quite a bit about his squad through the ups and downs of the season’s early stretch.
“Really, the first 12 games we’ve had a couple games where we’ve had a full complement of players,” Donovan said. “I learned that we can still get better, and that’s an encouraging thing. The hard part is when you go in and watch your team play in November and December and say, ‘Gee, we really can’t play much better than this.’ There is still room for improvement for our team on both sides of the floor and it could be a lot of different things.
“When you’ve played a schedule like we’ve played up to this point in time, some of those things you don’t do well get really exposed and I think we really had a chance going into the Air Force game and in this last week or eight days.”
Donovan broke down a number of things the Gators can improve upon, citing Florida’s half-court defense, shot selection and finding post-players Erik Murphy and Patric Young more often on the offensive end of the floor.
However, with several long breaks between games during December, Florida used two-a-day practices to work on a plethora of things and, according to Donovan, a few different items the Gators have been working on in practice showed up in a 79-58 victory against Yale on Sunday.
“It was good to getting back to 19 assists in a game because I think when we make the game easy for each other we’re a lot more difficult to guard,” Donovan said. “I think going back to Kansas State where we kind of broke away from that a little and we didn’t have the high number of assists and didn’t do a great job defensively.
“[Yale] is a game where I thought our guys with having eight days off we got better. We got better at moving the ball, passing the ball. I thought our press, which we spent a lot of time on these past eight days was effective in the game yesterday, so what you try to do is continue to carry on.”
One player Florida may have to carry on without for a few games is forward Erik Murphy. The 6-foot-10 senior sat out of the Yale game with a fractured rib. Donovan said Monday that his injury has been quite painful. He’s doubtful to play against Georgia.
“It is in a really bad spot, the injury, because it is right by his lateral so anytime he raises his are up or lifts his arm up it is a significant amount of pain,” Donovan said. “I can say he is probably doubtful for Georgia as of right now … He is cleared to play right now, but it is all up to him, how much pain he can tolerate.
“I had broken two (ribs) in college and it was probably a good 4-6 weeks before I was pain free. When it is a bruise, it is probably going to be a week to ten days. That’s all we are trying to find out right now.”
While Florida may be without the services of Murphy — who has especially been a spark on the offensive end — one player who has appeared to regain his offensive form is senior guard Kenny Boynton, who matched a career-high of 28 points against Yale. He was 8 of 10 from three-point range to become UF’s all-time leader in made three-pointers.
Donovan said a changed mentality for Boynton when manning the point guard position contributed to his recent slump, but a simple waning of confidence also contributed to Boynton’s struggles. After recently breaking down film with the coaching staff, Boynton has done “a better job of doing the things that he needs to do to shoot at a higher percentage.”
Boynton’s reemergence will be key for a Gators team with a tough in-conference stretch on the horizon. Even though the Gators will play two of their first three conference games on the road, Donovan said the team is excited for what lies ahead.
“I think our guys are excited now to get into [conference play]. It has been a long non-conference schedule for us, it really has,” Donovan said. “A lot of it has to do with the amount of travel. We had one home game in the month of December … We haven’t really played in the O’Connell Center in quite some time. I think our guys need to get rejuvenated and refreshed from these first 13 games.
“I think everybody is excited because it is almost like this is a new start to the season for everybody, not just us but everybody across the country.”