Basketball Notebook: Defense with Good Start

Billy Donovan is already hearing it from his upperclassmen. What they did in recent years to score the ball isn't coming as easy as it once did. The defense, especially near the rim, dominated the first weekend of practice.

"Right now, our defense is probably ahead of our offense," Billy Donovan said. "Chandler (Parsons) even made a comment to me that he thought in practice it was a lot more difficult to get to the rim and a lot more difficult to rebound. Things he was able to do the last couple years, he sees as more difficult."

The Florida defense is playing better than at this point in recent years, but it's the added length that makes them so much near the basketball. Freshmen Patric Young, Cody Larson and Will Yeguete are creating issues on defense, while returning players have continued to improve.

"We are a better shot blocking team and have more of a presence at the rim," Donovan said. "But when you're constantly leaving your feet to block shots, there are two things that end up becoming a problem. One is fouls from guys being out of position. The second is when they leave the floor, you can break block out situations and give up a lot of offensive rebounds."

The mindset Donovan aims for during the first weekend of practice is just to get through. If players stay healthy and there isn't a complete lack of understanding, the coaching staff is happy. The first week is about getting into a routine that will stick for most of the season.

There have been times when Donovan saw it falling apart from the start.

"If you go through the first week and you're saying, "we didn't have good practices," then you're in trouble," Donovan said. "Three years ago I could've said that."

PHYISCALITY BETTER NOW: Having a full roster helps the depth of the team. While that will be evident during games, it may actually be most important in practices. There is now depth brought together by five freshmen. They are improving by facing veteran players, but the veterans are seeing improvement in their own game from facing a talented group of young players.

"When Patric Young is going up against Vernon, or Casey Prather going up against Chandler, or Scottie Wilbekin going up against Erving," Donovan said. "You're talking about these younger guys who have been doing it for three days of practice, and the older guys that have been doing it for three years. It can sometimes be a little demoralizing for the younger guys to think they're behind. I'm trying to make sure their energy continues to be good."

Since the 2007 national championship, the Gators have been dominated near the basket. Undersized players were forced to play center and power forward because the Gators didn't have any bodies fit for the position.

Donovan calls this year's team "much more physical than a year ago." Part of it is from the level of competition at practice. Veterans can't take any plays off because of the intensity the freshmen bring.

The freshmen worked hard throughout individual drills and their level of conditioning is already showing.

"I even thought the last couple years some of our freshmen have come in and struggle about the physical conditioning part of it," Donovan said. "They're battling and fighting, and they have a threshold to push through fatigue."

IMPROVING FIELD GOAL PERCENTAGE: Donovan wanted his team to focus on improving their shooting over the offseason. Shooting percentage was the stat he wanted to improve, and the team has responded early in practice.

Some of the reasons Donovan is confident that shooting will improve have nothing to do with improving mechanics of a shot. Having a better idea of the offense has a lot to do with it. The added depth this season will also keep legs fresh as the season goes on.

"Kenny, Chandler and Erving will be better at shooting just with a better knowledge of shot selection," Donovan said. "Kenny and Erving, part of their struggles was a lot of minutes and we needed them to score. We were in situations where they had to take more difficult shots. They've shot the ball better."

The team's improved play near the rim will also help. Vernon Macklin averaged 10.6 points per game last season while shooting over 60% from the field. Alex Tyus, Erik Murphy and Young will add depth down low that won't let the opposing defense stay out on the guards. Once they slide down towards the player with the ball, Donovan sees plenty of opportunity to kick out to Boynton and Walker for three.

"It helps your shooting percentage when you can throw the ball inside," Donovan said. "That opens things up. The last couple of years, we've had some difficulties establishing someone inside. When you have that difficulty, it creates that much more pressure. I'm hoping they can get better and cleaner looks because we can go inside more."

BACKCOURT DEPTH: Boynton and Walker struggled shooting near the end of the season and most of it came from exhaustion. They were the only two guards on the team capable of playing important minutes. It showed as the season went on and their legs slowed.

This season, freshman Casey Prather will provide depth at shooting guard and Scottie Wilbekin will provide depth at point guard. The two will allow Walker and Boynton to stay fresh during the season.

WIlbekin skipped his senior year of high school to enroll at Florida over the summer, and he is already gaining the trust of the coaching staff.

"He's mentally and physically tough," Donovan said. "Anytime you miss a year of high school, there are things he's going to be behind on. I don't see him getting tired or totally overwhelmed. I was concerned a year ago with Nimrod and whether or not it could really happen, and if he could really develop into a guy we could bring in off the bench. I really believe that (Wilbekin) will be able to contribute to our team."
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