This is uncharted territory for Dorian Finney-Smith. He’s playing for the #1 team in the nation, the Southeastern Conference champions and he knows he’s going to be playing in the NCAA Tournament. Suffice to say, his outlook has changed considerably since his freshman year at Virginia Tech in 2012 when the season came to an end with a loss to Duke in the ACC Tournament.
“That was the whole reason for me to come here was to win,” Finney-Smith said Tuesday before the Florida Gators (29-2, 18-0 SEC) began practice for their first game in the SEC Tournament Friday (1 p.m., ESPNU) where they will face the winner of Thursday’s game between Missouri and Texas A&M.
The burning desire to win had plenty to do with Finney-Smith’s decision to transfer to Florida following a 16-17 season at Virginia Tech, where the Hokies’ 16-17 record in 2012 got head coach Seth Greenberg fired. He sat out last season when the Gators won the SEC title and made it all the way to the Elite Eight game.
This year he’s been a major contributor for the Gators coming off the bench, averaging 9.4 points per game and a team-leading 6.9 rebounds. That kind of effort made Finney-Smith the only logical choice for SEC Sixth Man of the Year, which was announced Tuesday. Finney-Smith is the first Gator win win Sixth Man of the Year since Chris Richard won the award in 2007.
While some players have a hard time adjusting to the sixth man role, Finney-Smith has handled it well. The only problem he says is the time between pre-game warmups and the first time he goes into the game, usually within the first three minutes.
“The toughest part about coming off the bench is that sweat you get from warm-ups, it dries up, so you’ve got to build your own momentum,” Finney-Smith said.
Finney-Smith was a starter at Virginia Tech. There were no promises of a starting job when he arrived at Florida, just the chance to compete and win.
It’s the winning that is important, not whether he starts or comes off the bench.
“When I came here I just wanted to do anything to help my team win,” Finney-Smith said. “So coming off the bench, if that means coming off the bench with a lot of energy, hitting the open shots, rebounding hard, then that’s what I’ve got to do.”
Energy has never been a problem nor has rebounding hard.
Hitting open shots? Well, there was that stretch when he could have stood at the end of the pier and couldn’t have found the ocean. He missed 21 straight 3-pointers over an eight-game stretch before he got back in a good shooting groove. He hit what proved to be the game winning 3-pointer against Vanderbilt as part of a 3-6 effort from beyond the arc. He went 4-8 against LSU the next game and in last Saturday’s 84-65 win over Kentucky, he was 3-4.
With the ball finding the bottom of the net, Finney-Smith’s confidence is on the rise.
“My confidence level is higher than what it was because I’ve been knocking down shots,” Finney-Smith said. “But my team has been doing a great job – even when I wasn’t making shots they just stayed on me and when somebody stays on your back and your whole coaching staff and team’s got confidence in you, it just boosts your confidence.”
It was during the slump that Finney-Smith discovered what a real team is all about. Nobody go on his case that he was missing too many shots. Instead, teammates took turns staying with him after practice to hoist up shots. They knew and they understood that There are a lot of good players but no super It is a true all for one and one for all group, so when Finney-Smith struggled with his shot they rallied around him, even staying after practice to hoist up extra shots.
“You know, I put so much pressure on myself,” Finney-Smith said. “I want to do so good for them guys out there. I just feel like when I miss a shot I let them down. But they told me, by me just playing hard, that’s not letting them down.”
If there is a concern for Florida coach Billy Donovan, it is keeping Finney-Smith’s confidence at a high level. Donovan says that it has been a struggle for Finney-Smith to stay positive if he doesn’t get off to a good start.
“I think if you looked at him going back to early in the SEC if his first one or two possessions don’t go well for him it ended up becoming a downward spiral for him,” Donovan said. “He’s gotta be mentally strong enough that when the first couple of possessions don’t go his way that he still stays the course in trying to fight through some of that. That’s been our biggest challenge as a coaching staff with him. He’s done a pretty good job I think coming out of that Vanderbilt game. He’s had some consistent performances.”
If Finney-Smith can continue to play with consistency, it will be a huge boost to the Gators, who are favored to win the SEC Tournament this week before setting their sights on a national championship after that. At Florida, Finney-Smith has experienced long winning streaks and capturing a conference championship.
He’s never played in the NCAA Tournament, however, and that will be a first.
“It’s a great feeling,” Finney-Smith said. “I have never made it to the tournament. At Tech, our season was over after the ACC Tournament. So right now, I’m just standing in the moment.”
A moment he hopes won’t end anytime soon.