Donovan sees Gators struggling to connect

The Florida players understand the leadership that needs to be replaced on this year’s team, but they’re all trying too hard to make it happen.

It’s a strange balance for Billy Donovan. He learned years ago that leadership develops naturally. During the last year of Erving Walker’s career, Donovan tried to push his point guard into a vocal leadership role. The soft-spoken Walker wasn’t comfortable with it, and it was an awkward fit.

That’s when Donovan stopped trying to force leadership on players and it worked perfectly last season. Casey Prather, Will Yeguete and Patric Young led the team while Scottie Wilbekin served his suspension at the start of last year, but once Wilbekin return, he naturally took over the leadership role.

This year’s team doesn’t have that.

Michael Frazier -- the team’s only returning starter -- is a natural fit to serve as the leader, but through preseason practices, there are too many players trying to lead. With the exhibition season opening on Thursday night at 7 p.m. when Florida hosts Barry University, that’s a concern.

“When they look at the fact that we lost four seniors that had a lot of experience, (this year’s team looks) at it from the standpoint of ‘what do I need to do to replace that stuff?’ We don’t need that right now,” Donovan said. “That happened last year organically. They just need to be connected. When you get in the huddle, (I want this team to) have this feeling of ‘I don’t want to let down the guy next to me.’ They’re not at that place.”

Instead, conversation in the huddle has multiple players speaking up about what others should do on the court to be in better defensive position. Donovan has seen multiple times where that happens and the player speaking becomes so consumed with what his teammates are doing on the floor that he gets out of position and gives up an easy basket.

Having too many players trying to lead might seem strange, but when multiple players are talking in the huddle and trying to take charge of the team, it creates some awkward moments.

“What they need to be doing is lifting each other up instead of trying to explain what they need to be doing,’ Donovan said. “I can handle telling them what they need to be doing. They need to worry about playing and doing their job effectively and doing it together.”

They’re showing steps in the right direction. Florida had a scrimmage against VCU on Saturday, and the NCAA tries to keep coaches from talking openly about what happened. Judging from Donovan’s comments this week, the concern was centered on leadership. Tuesday’s practice was a step in the right direction, but it’s still something the group has to improve on before Thursday’s exhibition game.

Frazier is the emotional leader of the team. Even with four seniors last year on the court, Frazier isn’t afraid to show emotion on the court. Dorian Finney-Smith, Kasey Hill and Chris Walker have also been more vocal in practices. It doesn’t come from a bad place. The players are trying to make up for what was lost on last year’s team and Donovan still raves about the team chemistry.

“I think we’ve got guys who are kind of getting out of who they are because there are guys trying to step up and lead,” Donovan said. “There’s a lot of different voices and I think for good reason and wanting to do more. I think one of the things that we’re struggling with is them being really connected as a group, and I think if you start talking about a group being connected, it doesn’t necessarily have to be one person.”

What made last year’s group special was their ability to care for each other. When vocal players had to back off and listen as one of the vocal leaders took charge, they weren’t afraid to do that. This year’s team has to improve their connection and accept their roles on the court.

“I think any time I’ve been around a really good team that’s always been the main staple of really good teams -- there’s been an incredible connection, bond, care and a love inside the team that they’re playing for one another,” Donovan said. “We’re not doing that right now at all.”

Tuesday’s practice was the first time Donovan felt like that was starting to happen.

After a scrimmage to end practice, the losing team had to run sprints. Freshman Devin Robinson was exhausted and didn’t make the last sprint in time. Donovan made the team run it again, and Robinson still was late. Eli Carter, who didn’t have to run because his team won, jumped off the bench and lined up with the losing team next to Robinson.

Once the whistle blew and the sprint started, Carter put his hand in Robinson’s back and pushed him to the line in time.

“Your best teams always have a great love and care for each other,” Donovan said.

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