It’s the only way to explain what happened to the Gators. Coming off their only top 50 RPI win of the season over Arkansas, Florida had to get through a midweek matchup at Vanderbilt before facing Kentucky with College Gameday in town.
Instead, the Gators looked completely disinterested in Nashville and fell behind 15-0 to start the game, and they were unable to fight back late in the game. The team wasn’t focused and struggled to move the ball offensively, then got crushed on the glass by the Commodores.
After that disappointing effort, the Gators came out of the gate and delivered the first blow against Kentucky. Florida jumped out to a 28-20 lead after 15 minutes of play against the nation’s No. 1 team and battled through foul trouble and Michael Frazier missing a majority of the second half with a high ankle sprain to stick with the best team in the nation.
None of what happened last week can be explained other than the Gators are motivated by the name on the opponent’s jersey. It’s this problem that has Donovan worried as Florida heads down the stretch of the regular season.
“When you’re an externally motivated team, that’s a problem because you’ve got to be internally motivated, inspired by yourself, and it can’t be me every game giving some rah-rah speech, or who we’re playing against or are we on TV,” Billy Donovan said. “That’s, as a competitor, it’s really, really dangerous when you’re dealing with guys that are internally motivated by different things.
“How do we go from one of our poorest performances on Tuesday to one of our best performances on Saturday? Why is that? That’s what’s going to be interesting going forward to see what those reasons really are. I have my thoughts, ideas and opinions on it, but some of that stuff will play itself out.”
Donovan’s concerns were obvious when Saturday’s game ended. The Florida coach can usually contain his disappointment in his postgame press conference, but it was easy to see how upset he was when speaking to the media late Saturday night. He called it the team’s first time playing to win in their 23 games this season.
For the first time, they saw what effort and mindset is necessary to play to win. Donovan said early in the season that this team would have to take its lumps and go through difficulties to understand what winning costs. Saturday was the first step in what has been a long process of changing his players.
“I am trying to change the mental disposition and habits that these guys have had their whole entire life, and these experiences are hopefully changing their mental approach to competing,” Donovan said.
Every player has their unique story. Donovan pointed to sophomore Chris Walker, who the head coach says has “never had to work for anything.” He was much better than the competition in high school and got by with his elite athleticism. In college, his motor and effort haven’t matched his talent.
He was thrown into the fire on Saturday against lottery pick big men Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns, both projected to be selected as high as the top 10 picks in the 2015 NBA Draft. A year ago, Walker was supposed to be in that range, but he is nowhere near there now. It showed on Saturday when he was called for more fouls than points scored against the Wildcats’ elite frontcourt.
His struggles are only the beginning for a team still searching for its identity.
“There are games where the game sometimes is bigger than yourself,” Donovan said. “That was a game that was bigger than them. I’m not so sure the games that we’ve played this year, they haven’t thought at times they’re bigger than the game.”
Some coaches could overlook the mental problems of a team and focus on improving things on the court more. Donovan isn’t of that mindset. He has felt a responsibility as a coach that includes the off the court learning as much as it does on the court.
With 21 years of head coach experience, Donovan shared one of his biggest fears on Monday. He never wants a player to leave the program, return and ask why Donovan never told them the way things were in the real world when college is over. He sees his years with his players as time where he can mold them as players and future production citizens.
“This is a lot bigger for me as a coach than just these guys winning and losing a game,” Donovan said. “There is a personal investment I have in them to teach them what goes into being successful, what goes into bringing value. When these guys leave here, wherever they go next, they have to be able to bring value somewhere. We all want to win, I want that but there’s 12 human beings in there that don’t have it all figured out and need help figuring it out. This is not a group that’s belligerent, uncoachable or this. They’ve just got this disposition about them that’s a woe is me, doesn’t go there way then there’s not a lot of fight. I’ve got to help them see that’s not the way the world operates. You have that attitude (after graduation), there’s no problem someone writes you a pink slip and saying ‘go find a job somewhere else.’
“They’re going to be part of a team the rest of their life, whether they get married or a job or they go to church somewhere. They’ve got to be able to learn how to bring value. My question to them is, who on this team are the players you’re playing with better off because you’re on the team? Who makes somebody else better? I think really great people bring value somewhere. They’ve got to learn how to bring value in terms of their skillset, strengths and talent. If it’s always going to be about them and how it’s going for them, you can never get out of yourself and help somebody else. That’s the greatest lesson these guys can learn from going through this right now.”