"I often feel like the team's focus comes from the focus of the older guys," said Donovan. "They need to do a better job of creating a level --- I don't want to say the word fear --- but a level of concern, an on-edgeness, and awareness and alertness. That's not created every day by those guys."
Those guys are senior power forward David Lee, junior guards Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson, and junior center Adrian Moss. Donovan gave Moss a mulligan for his zero point, one rebound performance since the 6-9, 245-pounder was battling through some back spasms. Lee, Walsh and Roberson were the three he spoke of cryptically, not calling them by name, but calling them out as upperclassmen.
Statistically, the three did well. Walsh and Roberson both hit 18 points to lead the team and Lee added 14 points to go with three assists, two blocked shots and five steals. Good numbers for sure, but the numbers should have been good against Georgia Southern, which was terribly outmatched.
What got to Donovan was the number of near steals, near rebounds and near big plays that could have ratcheted up the intensity of the team from the opening whistle. Instead, the Gators toyed with the Eagles, keeping things close until a late run of free consecutive free throws pushed the Gators to a 50-37 lead at the intermission.
Throughout the first half, the Gators made deflections but only occasionally made the clean steal. Rebounds that didn't bounce directly in their hands allowed the Eagles nine second shot chances. Opportunities for a trap off the press were missed when the second trapper arrived a couple of seconds too late.
Although the Gators played somewhat better on the defensive end in the second half as well as matching their 50-point output of the first half. The final stats show that the Gators hit 57.1 percent of their shots and held Georgia Southern to a 41.9 percent performance. The Gators outrebounded the Eagles 41-33 and they picked up 12 steals.
It made for a nice box score, but Donovan didn't like what he saw.
"There are times you can look at the stat sheet and the stat sheet can't tell you the story," he said. "To me this stat sheet looks overly impressive."
The stats didn't show a performance that obviously missed intensity and energy from start to finish. There were bursts of energy, big plays here and there and occasionally a team that looked like it was hitting on all its cylinders. But there was no consistency and Donovan wasn't about to offer excuses that his team was tired and drained from exam week or not feeling particularly well.
"I'm not going to make excuses for them," he said of his team.
There were bright spots in the play of freshmen centers Joakim Noah and Al Horford, who combined for 24 points. Noah got 14 points with a surprising 8-9 performance from the foul line. Coming into the game, Noah was 6-17 in the previous seven games. Horford hit all five of his shots and gathered in four rebounds.
"I thought Al did a good job," said Donovan of the 6-8 freshman who got his first start as a Gator. "I'm excited about the progress and growth of him and Joakim."
He got good minutes also out of freshman point guard Taurean Green, who had nine points, and fellow freshmen Corey Brewer and Cornelius Ingram stepped it up on the defensive end. The play of the freshmen was once again impressive.
But the freshmen aren't the problem, says the coach.
"You also have four guys [Moss, Walsh, Roberson, Lee] and from a leadership standpoint, those guys have to step it up," said Donovan. "It starts with them. When they're not feeling good and fighting through that stuff, that's what they have to be able to do."
Donovan insists that great teams are built by players who find a way to step up their games even when they are tired, even when they have plenty of distractions. He's not seeing greatness in this team, although he is first to tell you that he loves coaching them and finds them tremendous individuals.
"They're unbelievable kids," he said. "They give a good effort in practice and they try hard, but the bottom line is it's not what you do on your best days. It's what you do on your bad days.
"How do you perform and play when you're not feeling good, when you're a little sick or tired and you're run down and mentally drained. Do you have that level of mental toughness where you tough it out and you still have that level of focus? I don't know if it's something you can develop but we have to get a lot better."
As a player at Providence, Donovan was known as a gym rat, prone to finding a game at any hour or if there was no one to play, spending hours alone in the gym just shooting. He was also known for bringing everything he had any time he played, whether it was a pickup game in the gym or at the Final Four, where he took Providence as a senior.
He's never been one to make excuses for himself and now he's faced with a team that so far hasn't shown the ability to play hard every play of every game.
"I'm not a big excuse guy," he said. "To me when you line up and play, you line up and play. We had no one hurt. Everyone was fine. I can give a whole litany of reasons.
"It's like the same thing last year playing against Manhattan in the NCAA Tournament. We got to the SEC championship game. Walsh had foot issues. We can give all the reasons and obstacles that prevented us from playing to the best of our ability. At a certain point when they're not feeling well and they have all these mental things there has to be a level of toughness and character and intensity and focus and on-edgeness that you know what … we're playing our best game right now and we need to be more focused because we're not feeling our best because we've had a tough week."
The Gators have two more games in 2004, both against opponents they should beat handily. They play Eastern Kentucky at the O'Connell Center on Wednesday and then they'll play host to Sam Houston State. On January 2, there is the annual game with FSU, this year in Tallahassee.
Then comes the SEC schedule.
So it comes down to three more games that Donovan has to get his team in gear before the grind of the SEC hits the Gators. He's been down this road before, strong in December, worn down by the SEC in January and February. If he is going to be better than he's been the past three years, then the team has to find a way to step it up.
"It starts with our upperclassmen," said Donovan. "It's time for them to lead."