After the Florida Gators lost a tough road contest to Kansas State on December 22 where the Gators uncharacteristically broke down offensively and defensively, head coach Billy Donovan let his team relax for the holidays then quickly went back to work refocusing his team. Donovan used an eight day layoff between Air Force and Yale to work on the Gators and it paid off.
“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 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.”
“I thought our guys with having eight days off (between Air Force and Yale) we got better,” added Donovan. “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.”
“I think getting our guys to understand the process of trying to get better, trying to improve is something that we’ve been focused on.”
Since that point the Gators have played focused, consistent defense and patient, determined offense which has helped lead them to an eight game winning streak pushing them up to #4 in this week’s AP and USA Today Coaches basketball polls. It’s the highest regular season ranking for the Gators since February of 2007.
For this Gator’s team the name of the game is defense. Tough, stifling defense. The Gators are currently ranked third in the nation and first in the conference in scoring defense giving up only 51.2 points per game (ppg) on average leading to a second place ranking nationally in scoring margin at 22.6 ppg. They’ve been in the top three the entire season in both statistical categories. In conference play they’ve been even better giving up only 48.2 ppg on average with a league leading 26.5 ppg scoring margin.
According to coach Donovan, those huge scoring margins are directly a result of the tough brand of defense these Gators are playing. Getting stops and forcing bad shots is this team’s M.O. right now and it has paid off.
“We’ve been able to play and maybe build on some leads and get some stops and maybe build some large margins of victory” Donovan said. “Those things just kind of happened because we played well and we defended and got stops and teams didn’t shoot a good percentage against us. When a team shoots 35, 36 percent against you and you shoot over 50% there’s a going to be a chance there’s going to be a wide margin of victory.”
It’s not just the Gator defense, however, that is clicking right now. The defense has been strong all season. It’s the Gator offense that has been improving considerably since their last loss to Kansas State. The players are executing much better and much more cohesively within Donovan’s offense leading to more open looks, better shot selection, and, as a result, more assists.
“I think the biggest thing is guys recognizing what’s open,” Donovan said in today’s media conference. “I think our guys have gotten better and we’ve improved in that area. I think when you go back to before the holidays, we had a lot of games where we’d have ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen assists. You like to be up above seventeen, between seventeen and twenty two is an ideal number. But the guy with the ball in his hands has got to make good decisions, good reads and he’s got to find the open man. When we do that we become difficult to guard.”
One guy that has really stepped up his level of play during this eight game win streak is point guard Scottie Wilbekin. After working his way back into the lineup and into the starting point guard position coming off his five game suspension to start the season, Wilbekin has become the facilitator that the Gators needed him to be after losing three year starting point guard Erving Walker after last season. Since the Kansas State loss, Wilbekin has stepped up to make the offense go, driving the lane, breaking down defenses, and finding the open guy for good looks in rhythm. This has been the catalyst offensively for the Gators to make this eight game run and six consecutive victories to open the league schedule.
“I think he’s gotten better, he’s improved,” Donovan said of Wilbekin. “His assist to turnover ratio is really good as is Kenny Boynton’s. Those guys have done a good job back there taking care of the basketball. Scottie’s done a really, really good job of finding people when they’ve been open and he’s made really good decisions. I think he’s made the game easier for other people around him. And then on the other side of that we’ve also gotten some really, really good defensive performances out of him against some really talented players inside this league.”
Despite the leap in the rankings don’t look for the players to high five themselves just yet. They understand what can happen if they let down their guard, and they can simply refer back to that Kansas State game if need be. They know they have to continue to stay focused each game.
Shooting guard Kenny Boynton said, “(we) try not to worry about it. The rankings change every week. We just got to keep trying to play the right way as we’ve been playing.”
Adding, ““Honestly, it’s (the top five ranking) good for the school-wise, but as a team it’s better we not worry about it. Whether we’re ranked or not we are going to get a team’s best game. So we just got to go out there and play.”
Junior Center Patric Young acknowledged the high ranking is great but they can’t get complacent or relax just yet. They have to continue focusing on doing things the right way and to continue improving.
“It’s nice to be recognized for the hard work we’ve been putting in,” Young said. “It lets us know we’re doing the right thing so far that we need to keep improving. No championships have been won in January or in February so hopefully we can keep this thing going and have a one seed going into the tournament. But that’s down the road and later on but we’re going to worry about this game coming up this Wednesday.”
He added, “I know coach Donovan’s going to humble us. He’s going to find something to make sure we don’t get too lifted up on the attention that we’re getting now. We want to be great and be recognized as a good team, but we want to make it all the way, we want to win it all then we’ll finally be satisfied with what we got.”
Billy Donovan surely won’t let this team get complacent, instead focusing the player’s minds on continuing to do all the little things that got them where they are right now.
“I almost liken it to driving a car,” Donovan said about handling national attention. “You’re out driving in the country field and there’s nothing to look at so you’re looking at the road, then all of the sudden you get into a city and now all of the sudden there’s a bunch of sights and sounds and things you start looking at. If you’re not paying attention to what’s in front of you you’re going to drive the car right off the road into a pole. So our guys got to understand that the chatter and stuff around them is on the peripheral. It’s got nothing do to with us preparing to get ready for the next game. It still has nothing to do with our preparation or like I said earlier our responsibility to do what we need to do game in and game out.”
So the focus remains what’s ahead on the schedule and that is a home match-up with the South Carolina Gamecocks. After playing nine of their last twelve on the road, the Gators begin a stretch of four out five home games. For sure, it’s a great feeling for the players to be back at home for a stretch.
“I think it means a lot,” Boynton said. “I think we have good energy as a team when we’re home. The crowd gets us excited. It definitely means a lot to be home. Travelling is good but we’d definitely rather be home.”
Tip off for the South Carolina game at the O’Connell Center is scheduled for 8 pm eastern and the game will be broadcast live on the SEC Network.