Florida’s transformation into the defensive nightmare that turned Georgia from confident to dazed and confused in a matter of minutes Tuesday night had its origins in the offseason following Patric Young’s sophomore season. That’s when Billy Donovan did a total team makeover to change the image of the Gators from a free-wheeling offensive team with hair-trigger release on the 3-ball into a team capable of playing intimidating, smothering defense.
It began with a breakdown of every possession the previous season complete with charting the results. How did the Gators guard the pick and roll? How good were they on the double team? Who could stop dribble penetration and who couldn’t? What changes needed to be made in defensive rotation to cut off passing lanes and eliminate open shooters?
“It came from transition defense; It came from pick and roll action,” Donovan said Tuesday night after the 7th-ranked Gators destroyed Georgia, 72-50, at the O-Dome. “A guy’s guarding the pick and roll and didn’t guard it effectively. The three guys away from the pick and roll didn’t cover the right way and you break these plays down and show the percentages and we’ve got to get better in pick and roll coverage; we’ve got to get better shrinking from behind. What we did is we broke it all down for them.”
A firm believer that the film doesn’t lie, Donovan was able to take the analysis to his team with a not so subtle message.
“This is the truth; this is what we’ve got to get better at,” Donovan told them.
Donovan spared no one’s feelings. The film exposed every flaw, every single mistake in detail.
When evaluating Patric Young’s post defense, for example, Donovan was able to see where his talented big man was picking up cheap fouls.
“He fouled 80% of the time on the post person’s second move,” Donovan said Tuesday night after Florida’s 72-50 win over Georgia. “We’re showing these things to Pat and now we’ve got to work with him – once they show the second move it’s not time for you to jump and block shots. You still have to maintain your level of discipline.”
Exposing the flaws was just the first step in the makeover. The next phase was teaching the Gators how to avoid the mistakes. So often it was a matter of a breakdown in communications, but other times it was being a step or two out of position. That may not sound like much but take a look at what happened after one season of the makeover.
In the 2011-12 season, the Gators made it to the Elite Eight game where they lost to Louisville to end the season. The Gators averaged 75.9 points per game but gave up 65 a game. The Gators were 12-1 in games in which they gave up 60-69 points, 3-7 in which they gave up 70-79 and 0-2 in which they gave up 80 or more. Opponents shot 42.3% from the field and 34.2% from the 3-point line.
Last year, the Gators once again made the Elite Eight game where they lost to Michigan, but the defensive numbers were vastly improved. The Gators averaged 71.4 but gave up only 54.4 per game. Opponents shot 38.2% from the field and a poor 31% from the 3-point line. Florida held two opponents in the 30s, 11 in the 40s and 13 in the 50s. The Gators were 4-6 in games in which they gave up 60-69 points, 0-1 in the only two games they gave up more than 70 (79 to Michigan and 80 to Arkansas).
The defensive numbers have dipped slightly this season but there are some explanations for the dropoff. The Gators replaced three starters who were exceptional defenders – Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario and Erik Murphy – plus injuries and suspensions have left Billy Donovan often playing with a short bench and some odd lineups. While reloading his team, Donovan has had the advantage of two returning senior starters who are All-SEC defenders in Patric Young and Scottie Wilbekin, plus seniors Will Yeguete and Casey Prather have three years invested in the system and know exactly what Donovan wants. The fifth starter is sophomore Michael Frazier, who honed his defensive skills playing for Donovan and the USA national team that won the FIBA World 19-and-under championship last summer.
It is a new lineup and a good one when everyone is healthy, but despite the issues with injuries, the Gators are only giving up 59.6 points per game through their first 16. Opponents are shooting 39.4% from the field and 35.1% from the 3-point line and those numbers are improving as the team understands the subtleties of what Donovan is trying to get them to do defensively.
“I think when you get to a point with these guys that they understand how important possessions are and they understand how critical coverages are,” Donovan said. “A lot of times when Patric is in foul trouble or our front court is in foul trouble it can be traced back to one of two things: we didn’t handle the pick and roll coverage and the ball got driven down the lane and our big had to step up and he fouled or we didn’t rotate correctly or someone got beat on coverage.”
The Gators are 2-0 in the games in which they’ve given up more than 70 points – a 77-75 win over Memphis and an 84-82 win over Arkansas in overtime – and they are 4-1 in games in which they’ve allowed 60-69 points. They’ve held one opponent to 34, another to 49 and eight opponents in the 50s.
If you take away the Arkansas game from the last five, opponents are managing an even 50 a game. In the SEC wins over South Carolina and Georgia, Florida’s press was lethal and so was the communication, which showed in rotations that allowed the Gators to close quickly on ballhandlers and shooters.
Donovan says it’s all about focus, position and communication.
“If they’re in the right position and they see the ball and they see their man and they communicate that covers about 80% of it,” Donovan said. “Just doing those four things covers about 80% of it. Now to get into and be in the right position as the floor is moving, that’s hard because your position constantly changes. Getting to see the man and the ball, that’s another thing. To be able to talk and communicate through screening … that’s where the majority of the problems lie there. That’s where it is.
“It can generally be traced back to one of those things. Someone gets beat on a back door cut, someone didn’t communicate the pick and roll coverage and the guard gets slammed on a screen, someone doesn’t see his man and is not where he’s supposed to be. That’s most of the problem there, getting them disciplined to do those things.”
The Gators are only three games into an 18-game SEC schedule and after that there will be the SEC and NCAA tournaments. There is plenty of basketball to be played, but that also means there are that many more opportunities to get to that point where Donovan knows his team is disciplined enough to carry out a defensive game plan that had its origins in the offseason in 2012. If there is continued improvement this could be the year that the season doesn’t end at the Elite Eight game.