Florida lost four starters from last year’s team, which finished third nationally in scoring defense (57.8 points allowed per game). The four seniors knew what Billy Donovan expected on the defensive end and fit together well in the scheme.
Thursday night was only an exhibition game, but allowing Division II Barry University to score 70 points and attempt 26 three-pointers was a concern for Donovan. The Gators were also outrebounded 42-39.
“What I’m trying to figure out right now is, are we even talented enough to play defense? I think we’re better than what we showed, but we’re just not tough enough in my opinion,” Donovan said.
The Florida coach was quick to point out that he doesn’t mean physical toughness. He wants his team to have the mental toughness to be unselfish on defense. Donovan used the example of a player being a few feet out of position but thinking it’s too convenient to be lined up in his current position to move.
That kind of selfishness is what sparked his rant about the Florida defense on Thursday.
“When you do that, to me sometimes that’s actually a reflection of how you feel about your teammates,” Donovan said. “We’ve got to get much, much better at becoming a cohesive unit.”
Donovan singled out two players with the right mindset on Thursday. Dorian Finney-Smith and Kasey Hill were counted on for important minutes off the bench last season, and that helped them understand the unselfishness necessary to contribute to a dominant defense.
More than anything, Donovan believes those two are driven defensively by not wanting to let their teammates down.
“We need some of the other guys on our team to have that disposition where they don’t want to let anybody down,” Donovan said. “And we don’t.”
The players remain optimistic that it can happen. Eli Carter, who was one of the players Donovan was disappointed in defensively, said the group still has a high ceiling. After the team met in the locker room following the game, Donovan quickly mentioned how much the defense needed to improve.
Carter grinned and said he knows the team is going to hear about its poor defensive performance when they watch the film together on Saturday, but he still believes this team’s defense can be effective.
"The sky's the limit,” Carter said. “We know what we have to do. We've just got to do it."
NO POST PRESENCE: Florida outscored by Barry 22-18 in the paint on Thursday. That might not be a rare occurrence this season. Jon Horford, the starting center, isn’t a scorer, and while Finney-Smith can score from the power forward position, his strength isn’t scoring with his back to the basket.
When Chris Walker returns from a three-game suspension on November 21, that won’t help much either.
“That’s not his game,” Donovan said. “That’s not who he is. He’s good around the rim in terms of athletically running, jumping and that kind of stuff. But he’s not a physical post presence. We just don’t have one.”
Patric Young has been that player for the last three years. When the Gators needed to go into the paint, they could do it and trust Young to go with one of his trusted moves near the basket.
“That’s something we’ve got to really try to figure out in terms of putting pressure at the basket,” Donovan said. “We don’t have a back-to-the-basket post player at all that we can throw the ball inside to. (Finney-Smith and Horford) are uncomfortable there. Doe-Doe’s probably the best that we have.
“What we have to do is we’ve got to move the floor around a lot. We’ve got to create penetration, we’ve got to hit guys rolling to the basket. We’ve got to try to do some of those kinds of things in terms of putting pressure on the basket. You don’t have to necessarily always put pressure at the basket by throwing it inside. There’s other things you can.”
The lack of a post presence was a big reason the Gators attempted 37 three-pointers. They hit 12, but a 3-12 night from distance for Michael Frazier hurt the team’s percentage. As usual, Donovan told Frazier to keep shooting, and the junior guard did just that.
“If Michael Frazier can get off 12 3-point shots a game, I will be really happy,” Donovan said.
LITTLE DONOVAN MAKES A DECISION: Billy Donovan’s son wasn’t on the bench on Thursday night. Instead, he sat in the film room with other team personnel, preparing the film and getting it ready for the team to watch. He’ll be used in different ways this year. If the team needs a body in practice, they’ll throw him in. He’ll also continue assisting the video staff and do anything else the team needs help with.
Donovan did confirm that this means his son, Billy, would like to pursue a career in coaching.
"Against the wishes of his mother, yes it is,” Donovan said with a smile, making sure to note he was joking. “That's what he wants to do. He wants to coach."
The younger Donovan is still trying to make a decision about what level he wants to coach.
“It’s one of those professions where you really have to be passionate about it, and he appears to be that way about the game,” Donovan said. “He has really kind of gravitated back to basketball and coaching and he appears to have that passion. If he does, I think you can really make a great impact and I think it brings great value to your life in a lot of different ways.”
KURTZ UNDER FIRE: Jacob Kurtz has been an important part of the Florida basketball program, but Donovan doesn’t want him to settle this season. Teammates and coaches rave about how nice Kurtz is on and off the floor. That’s what has Donovan frustrated after Thursday’s exhibition win over Barry University.
“I think sometimes Jake views himself as a walk-on and doesn’t want to step on anybody’s toes,” Donovan said.
Kurtz played 17 minutes on Thursday and will be counted on for minutes at the beginning of the season. Florida will be without Chris Walker for two more games and Alex Murphy won’t be eligible to play until the middle of December. The 6-6, 210-pound walk-on will play an important part in the beginning of the season.
“He can do more, and he’s not doing more,” Donovan said. He’s got to stop being this nice guy and just happy to be here. He’s got to start getting back to the things he did a year ago. Because this time last year, we had the suspensions and guys weren’t playing, we had to utilize him. He’s a far better player a year ago than he is right now, and I’ve got to find a way to get him back to where he was before.”