For a week, at least, the Florida Gators (25-2, 14-0 SEC) are the nation’s top-ranked team. That will be a big deal in Nashville Tuesday night when the Gators face Vanderbilt (15-11, 7-7 SEC) and no doubt Saturday it will provide incentive for an LSU (16-10, 7-7 SEC) team trying to play its way into the NCAA Tournament. Billy Donovan is hoping that Florida’s #1 ranking is a bigger deal to Vandy and LSU than it is for his Gators. Without trying to downplay the national recognition, Donovan tried to put the #1 ranking in proper perspective Monday morning.
“I think it’s a nice compliment, but let’s be honest right now: The only reason we have garnered #1 and we would have never, ever been #1 if it had not been for the teams in front of us losing,” Donovan said at his weekly press conference.
Arizona held the #1 ranking four weeks ago but after a loss to California, the Wildcats lost the top spot to Syracuse, which lost twice last week and opened the door for Florida to take over at #1. The Gators couldn’t have made it to the top without winning, but Donovan was quick to point out it took some help.
“A lot of times when you get that ranking, a lot of times it has nothing to do with about what you do,” Donovan said. “It has to do with what other people do. When you start to be affected by what happens to other people, you get focused on the wrong things and your focus gets a lot broader where you really need to narrow your focus this year in terms of what we do need to do.”
Keeping the Gators focused on the moment – in this case Vanderbilt – is Donovan’s priority. He uses the phrase “staying in the moment” often and with good reason. As a team he wants the Gators to forget what happened Saturday at Ole Miss and avoid the distractions that come with the number one ranking to focus all the energy on a Vanderbilt team that plays its best basketball at Memorial Gymnasium where the team benches are at opposite ends of the court.
Breaking it down further, Donovan wants each of his players to focus on the next play. It’s all part of a process and for the player to be at his best, he has to stay in the moment and avoid picking and choosing where he places his focus.
“Every time anybody takes a shot on our team – and I can probably say this for every other player in the country – they wanna make it,” Donovan said. “They want to make it. And what happens to me is guys get very, very convicted on results. They want the result, and they lose total perspective of the process. It’s the process that ultimately puts you in the best situation to get the kind of results that you’re working for and when you skip steps in that process – whether it be through practice or in the game or with your mind – you miss a shot and you come back down the floor on defense and you’re still living in the last shot.”
Whenever a player has difficulty putting that last shot behind him, Donovan sees a potential breakdown. Immediately the potential is for a defensive breakdown, but if the missed shot lingers even further it can affect the next offensive possession where that same player might hesitate to take an open shot because he’s still thinking about the last one he missed.
And when the player fails to put the past behind, he isn’t the only one at risk.
“You’re putting our team and you’re putting yourself in a position that you’ve avoided that process,” Donovan said. “Normally in a game, there’s probably going to be for both teams about 65 shots, somewhere in that range. So we have 65 times that we’ve got to come down the floor and play defense. Of those 65 possessions, are we going to play a half of them, a third of them, three-quarters of them distracted and focused about the past? Or distracted and focused about the future?”
Donovan preaches control: you control the things you can control and you let go of the things you can’t. A player can only control the here and now, how he plays right now and how he reacts to the present situation. The past cannot be re-lived and there is no way to control what will happen in the future.
To do that it takes discipline and that is both an individual and collective effort.
“That’s what I really have tried to work towards with our team is to get them to understand what’s in front of them right now, and the process in front of them right now, and doing they’re job to the best of their ability right now,” Donovan said. “And you need five guys that have the mental discipline and the mental toughness to be able to move past past successes and past failures to focus on what’s in front of them now.”
Donovan used the example of Dorian Finney-Smith and his inability to knock down 3-pointers. Finney-Smith had missed 17 straight from beyond the arc prior to hitting one in the second half against Ole Miss.
“Most of our time is spent either living in the past or looking forward to the future,” Donovan said. “It’s just human nature. You’ve got to be able of having an awareness of when you are doing that. And you can see it in our players, a guy like Dorian Finney-Smith missed a three, he’s carrying it into the next possession. He’s got to get better at that. That’s over with. Listen. I wish it went in, too. It would have helped our team. But you’ve got to get to the next play.”
KASEY HILL UPDATE: The Gators might have to face Vanderbilt without backup point guard Kasey Hill, who missed the Ole Miss game with a strained groin.
“He’s getting better,” Donovan said. “It’s probably going to be a decision that’s going to be made tomorrow if he’s going to be available. My guess right now, I don’t think he will play.”
With Hill unable to go against Ole Miss, Scottie Wilbekin played 38 minutes, about eight more than Donovan would like. DeVon Walker moved up a spot in the rotation off the bench and played a couple of minutes at the point, but mostly on the wing where he delivered seven points.