Alabama wasn't ready for that kind of intensity from bell to bell Saturday but it was more than just the intensity behind the sound whipping of the ranked team. What made the intensity all the more imposing was that the Gators chose to play smart, too. Unlike some of the teams the past two years, this Gator team can usually be counted on to play hard, but it's not always a sure thing that they will show up, brain engaged, intensity heightened, ready to rumble.
Against Mississippi State, if the Gators' brains had been a transmission, they would have been permanently jammed in neutral. They kept trying to drive the ball on Marcus Campbell and Lawrence Roberts and it seemed that every time they did, the shot got rejected. Mississippi State finished the game with 12 blocked shots and it's not like the shots were totally the result of brilliant defense. The Gators just played right into their hands.
Against Mississippi State, the Gators seemed to forget that there are players on the wings. Every time they came off a pick with the ball or got an offensive rebound, there was this gung-ho determination to take the ball to the rack every time, and usually when that happened, the 7-0 Campbell or the 6-8 Roberts simply swatted the ball away. The offense was totally disrupted.
This was particularly frustrating for Al Horford, Florida's 6-8, 245-pound freshman center. Horford is a tough kid with great hands, a natural rebounder who is determined to be a good offensive player. The rebounding part is easy for him. He's got long arms and big, strong hands. If he touches the ball, he'll bring it in.
It's what happens after he's got the ball in those massive hands that is sometimes an adventure. He hasn't mastered when to take it back up or when to pass the ball out. Against Mississippi State, he kept trying to go back up with the ball. Add that to perimeter players continually trying to drive the ball to the hoop and Florida found its offensive game stalled out.
After the Mississippi State fiasco, Donovan and the staff told Horford that if he didn't have a clear path to the basket to either dunk or lay it in, to bring the ball down and look for a pass to the perimeter where Matt Walsh or Anthony Roberson or Lee Humphrey would be spotting up. Against Alabama, Horford was far more efficient in getting the ball back out to the perimeter. He came down with nine offensive boards, and though only one of his passes resulted in a basket (three-pointer from Matt Walsh), he kept the ball alive and that's what mattered to Donovan.
It wasn't just Horford who paid attention, though. The passing was crisp throughout the night and nothing was forced on the inside. When the Gators came around picks, if the opening wasn't there, they passed the ball instead of trying to jam it inside. The passes created space and the space allowed for a great inside-outside balance to the game, the kind of balance that Donovan knows his team needs to win games.
Florida finished the game with 16 assists against just five turnovers. Alabama, on the other hand, had 10 assists and nine turnovers. Combine a plus five margin in turnovers with a plus 14 (19-5) margin in offensive boards, and the Gators wound up with 19 more chances to score points than Alabama, a telling statistic.
Donovan had to be satisfied that the intensity combined with the smart play to produce another stepping stone in the building of this team. He loves coaching this group and in particular, he loves the energy and enthusiasm he gets from a team that has just three players dressed who aren't freshmen or sophomores. The willingness of the young guys to play hard every play has rubbed off on the big three, David Lee, Walsh and Roberson.
But with youth, there is always that one small drawback. They will play hard, but will they always play smart?
"I think sometimes our young guys, their mentality if I play hard it will overcome it all," said Donovan. "They have to understand that I have to play hard and I have to play aggressive, but you know what? I gotta know what I'm doing on this play. I gotta how I'm going to guard this player. I gotta know what I'm doing in the press instead of I'm going to run around wild and crazy.
"You gotta block out every time. There's things you have to do. Against Mississippi State, we were much better defensively than we were offensively, but got much better offensively today. We got much better balance."
Florida had four players in double figures. The big three of Lee, Roberson and Walsh all had 18 points while Horford had his best game ever, 14 points and 18 rebounds.
Balance, intensity and intelligent play. Donovan has to have those in abundance Tuesday night when the Gators face Kentucky in Lexington. The Gators will have to bring their A-game into Rupp Arena which will be packed with the usual 24,000 fans. Donovan's not worried that his young guys will be rattled by the crowd or that they will fail to play hard.
The question is will they combine the poise with the intensity and intelligent play to put together an effort like they had Saturday afternoon. The Florida team that stomped Alabama Saturday is good enough to play with anyone and good enough to make a run into the NCAA Tournament. The team that played against Mississippi State will be in the NIT.
Tuesday night's game will be a true test of just how far the Gators have come and just how far they have to go to be a good team. If they show up against Kentucky playing with the same intelligent intensity that they showed Saturday afternoon, Florida has a shot to win and it will be a sure sign that the Gators can make it to the NCAA. If the effort lacks either intensity or smart play, figure it's NIT all the way.