The Gators have been on a run that seemed impossible at multiple times this season. Since falling at Mississippi State in late January, Florida has won eight of its last nine games. The inconsistencies were plentiful in the first two months of the season, but the Gators finally seem to be coming together at the right time.
It came as head coach Billy Donovan finally saw his team grow sick of losing. They heard all offseason about how good the team should be since they returned all five starters, but that allowed them to be too relaxed.
After the early season losses, the team became focused on doing whatever necessary to win.
“I think the team has the best chance to grow when winning is most important,” Donovan said. “Winning has been important to these guys. I’ve always felt like when you win at a high level, it opens doors of opportunity. Some guys didn’t understand about winning, but we’ve gotten better because of a focus on what we had to do to get better.”
The chemistry on the team helped, too. The three senior starters were the leaders of the team as far back as the summer when the freshmen class came to campus. Instead of making it difficult for the freshmen to feel welcome, the seniors accepted the younger players immediately.
It took some time for the older players to mix and the chemistry to be positive when they first arrived on campus years ago, so their ability to accept the freshmen into the team right away came from their appreciation for chemistry.
“I think we’ve come more connected as a team,” Donovan said. “The hardest thing that no coach can control is that when you recruit, you have all these different personalities that come together. The hardest thing to create is chemistry. We all want it, but the guys on the team have to be willing to sacrifice and give something up to enhance the chemistry. We’ve gotten more connected as it has gone on.
“Our freshmen have fallen into some roles that they know what they have to do, and our old guys are providing leadership. We may not always play well, but I don’t think we’re a team that is divided. We have great guys that understand the importance of being a team. They have tried to work at that going forward.”
PHYSICAL PRESENCE: The key aspect that the Gators missed last season was a big body to bang in the paint. That came to campus in the summer when center Patric Young came to Gainesville. Vernon Macklin was entrenched as the starter because of his advanced offensive skills, but despite his 6-10, 240-pound frame, the senior has struggled to guard physical players in the post.
That was no clearer than on Saturday when Vanderbilt center Festus Ezeli started the game by scoring nine of the Commodores’ first 13 points of the game. Donovan was forced to bring Young into the game and serve as the bruiser in the paint.
In fact, they’ve actually bettered each other in practice since the start of summer.
“There are certain guys who like physical confrontation and Patric is one of those guys,” Donovan said. “For your frontcourt to get better, you have to have guys who like it. Patric came in and, it’s not that they don’t get along, but Vernon would probably like for it to be a little easier, and then Vernon uses his skill and intelligence in practice to drive Patric nuts, too. The competitive part can divide the team, but if they use it in a mature way, it helps the team.”
DONOVAN HESITANT: The head coach has warned people all season, despite the success his team has had, that they are still a work in progress. The team has played better while handling success, but it’s still an issue they are fighting every day.
“Don’t fall in love,” Donovan reiterated with a grin. “What I mean by that is that I love coaching these guys, but the ebbs and flows of a big win and tough loss, we still haven’t conquered it. We’ve gotten better, but we’re not quite where we need to be. I’m not willing to get over to that side. I love them and coaching them, but we can’t embrace that. They need to understand that when you win like these guys have won, it becomes more difficult, not easier.”
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