GATOR HOOPS: In Search of Identity

Four games into the Southeastern Conference schedule and Coach Billy Donovan is still searching for an identity for his basketball team. Are the Gators the team that showed such moxie in winning in overtime on the road against Auburn and then blew out Vandy in Nashville, or are they the team that played into the hands of Tennessee last week by reverting to what was at times a one-man perimeter game that ran out of gas in overtime?

The Gators are 3-1 to start their SEC season with all three wins accomplished without the services of second leading scorer Matt Walsh, who missed four consecutive games with torn ligaments in his ankle before returning for part-time duty in last week's overtime loss to Tennessee. In the three victories minus Walsh, the Gators shared the basketball, got decent scoring from the inside and while Anthony Roberson had back to back 30-point efforts (Auburn and Vandy), there was balance in the scoring and shooting.

Against Tennessee, 28 of Florida's 59 shots were from three-point range and the inside game practically disappeared. Roberson's hot shooting suddenly went south as he turned out a 5-18 effort from beyond the arc and a 9-26 shooting night overall.

It was a disappointing loss to Tennessee because it was a very winnable game. Florida's inability to get the ball inside and lack of a second scoring threat to help Roberson accounted for the loss and raised questions that the Gators are once again a team in search of a real identity. They've got a chance to show which direction they are heading tonight as they play the second of a three-game home stand at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center. Georgia (tonight) and South Carolina (Saturday) can either be the medicine the Gators need to cure their multiple personality disorder or they can sink the Gators into an identity crisis that may be incurable in one season.

The big question is can the Gators revert to sharing the ball and getting some scoring distribution by moving the ball inside first so the big guys can create space for the perimeter shooters, or do they stay in the jack it up from the arc mode that played into the hands of Tennessee?

Walsh got into last week's game with the Vols for limited minutes after missing four straight games. In his 13 minutes of playing time, he hit a couple of nice threes and dished off to Joakim Noah for a couple of inside scores, but he also turned the ball over three times and was ineffective on defense. Donovan is well aware that a healthy Walsh provides the Gators with a potent 1-2 outside scoring tandem that is as good as any in the Southeastern Conference, but he is also very much in tune with the fact that there is often a tendency by the younger players to let Walsh and Roberson try to do it all. When Walsh was out, the team had to manufacture points from other positions. When the 6-6 junior came returned against Tennessee, there was a tendency for the young players to defer their game to Walsh, and that's something that can't happen, said Donovan.

"Matt is a good player who was taken from our team, and now he is back," said Donovan at his weekly press luncheon on Monday. "How do we incorporate him, because Lee Humphrey, Taurean Green and Corey Brewer have been playing very good basketball?"

Humphrey had four good games in a row including a season high of 15 in the loss at Florida State. When Walsh came into the game against Tennessee, it seemed that Humphrey lost some of his confidence.

"Lee has to maintain a level of aggressiveness," Donovan said. "While Matt was out he stepped up and played very well against Florida State, Vanderbilt and Arkansas. We're going to need him to provide that boost for us whether he is starting or coming off the bench. He can't back up and say 'Matt's back, I need to step back and defer (from shooting).' We need all of our guys to step up and play."

Noting that Humphrey, an outstanding long distance shooter, has to be looking for his shot when he comes off the screens, Donovan also said that Brewer has to be more cognizant of putting the ball on the floor and driving to the hoop. When Humphrey and Brewer are offensive minded, plus when the ball goes inside then back out, the Gator offense gets balance and runs efficiently. Against Tennessee, there was no flow to the offense and no balance.

"I have always been a big believer of having four or five guys with double figures in scoring and being balanced," said Donovan Monday at his weekly press luncheon. "If a team tries to take away one thing, you have other players to step up."

Against Tennessee, other players didn't step up their games. In wins against Auburn and Vandy, Roberson got a lot of points but did it without taking too many shots. With the ball going inside first, there was space for him. He got good looks and with time to shoot, knocked down a nice percentage. Against Tennessee, there was little offense on the inside and Roberson lacked space to maneuver around the arc. He had very few uncontested shots and there was little help because the other perimeter people were reluctant to take up the slack.

"Roberson had a difficult night shooting the ball against Tennessee, but we didn't seem to have another offensive threat step up," said Donovan. ""Against Auburn and Vanderbilt, I didn't mind Roberson getting the amount of points that he got because he did it in a low number of shots. When he is scoring, I always look at his shooting percentage. If he is shooting a high percentage, I don't mind him getting (that many points.)

In the Tennessee game, David Lee, the Gators 6-9 power forward, got only three shots, but Donovan said that Lee can't be faulted since he did go the basket often enough to draw fouls that resulted in 12 free throws. Still, Donovan needs more aggressiveness from Lee and freshman center Al Horford as well as backups Chris Richard and Joakim Noah. While Noah has a natural aggressiveness to his offensive game, Donovan is still trying to coax more consistency from his other three big men.

"One of the things I've been trying to do with Al, Chris and David is when they catch and locate, and there's no double team, they've got to try and score," said Donovan

Horford is just a freshman with enormous potential but he's still trying to find himself on the offensive end of the floor.

"At times, Al has caught the ball and although he's been inside with his back to the basket, he hasn't been in good enough range to go score and be comfortable where he's at," said Donovan. "At times, Al has caught the ball and although he's been inside with his back to the basket, he hasn't been in good enough range to go score and be comfortable where he's at."

Noah is a 7-foot freshman who has shown great quickness and leaping ability to go with a fearless attitude. When he gets the ball, he's the most aggressive of the Gator inside players of taking the ball straight to the rack. That sometimes results in the spectacular, but there are moments when Noah finds himself lost in a crowd because his game is not quite developed enough.

"He sometimes makes mistakes because he tries to do too much," said Donovan. "For him to grow and develop, we have to get him out there and let him play."

So Donovan takes his Gators into tonight's game with Georgia looking like a team with as many questions as answers. If the Gators come out sharing the ball and starting the offense from the inside first, Florida will have a good game and will probably win the game. That's the kind of progress that Donovan has to have from his team and that's the kind of game that Florida plays when the Gators are at their best.

If the Gators revert back to a two-man game on the perimeter with too many three-balls launched, then it's obvious that Donovan's got a team with a serious identity crisis that might take awhile to solve.


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