The Florida Gators (14-5, 6-2 SEC) are indeed light years ahead of last year's team in so many areas. In eight league games, the Gators have proven they can win even when they're not clicking on all offensive cylinders. They played their first four SEC games without Matt Walsh and it took another three games of struggling before he found himself (18 points, seven assists against Alabama). In the absence of Walsh's A-game, the Gators have relied on better defensive and improved rebounding to offset the offensive shortcomings. Now that Walsh is back to his old self, there is reason to expect a good effort against fourth-ranked Kentucky (17-2, 8-0 SEC) Tuesday night at Rupp Arena.
Even with improvement in so many areas, the one thing that Donovan knows that has been missing is consistency. Last week the Gators (14-5, 6-2 SEC) lost to Mississippi State in a game in which they played decent defense but had no offense. Saturday against Alabama, the Gators played their best game of the season and put the whole package together --- offense, defense, rebounding, ball handling.
"Last year our rebounding and defending was not great and we couldn't offset a poor shooting night," said Donovan, who offered last week's Mississippi State game as proof that the Gators are on the right track when it comes to better rebounding and defense.
"With about six minutes to go in the game it's a three-point game and we've got the ball and we're shooting about 30 percent and we're still in a position to win," said Donovan, noting that with the Gators shooting 30 percent last year, the game would have been a blowout loss.
Against Alabama, the Gators got one of their best defensive efforts of the season, had their best rebounding game against a quality opponent, and the offense had that kind of inside-outside balance that Donovan feels is necessary for the Gators to function well. Florida had put together halves of basketball as well as the Gators played in the first half against Alabama, but this was the first time that Donovan saw the consistency in all areas of the game in both halves.
"I thought we were pretty consistent against Alabama," said Donovan. "We got good shots up, we played the first half with one turnover and we played the game with five. We had 16 assists with five turnovers, we got good shots - 48 percent from the field and 40 percent from the three-point line, we can't play a whole lot better offensively with the teams we are going to play.
"Our execution was a whole lot better than it was against Mississippi State. It was more balanced and the trick is to consistently be like that offensively. It will be a challenge come nine o'clock tomorrow night."
What Donovan would like to see is his team focused and prepared to improve against Kentucky. What set the Alabama and Mississippi State games apart was the level of focus and the fact the Gators played smart from start to finish. Against Mississippi State, the Gators played hard, but not always very smart and that was a point of contention for Donovan with his team in the two days before the Alabama game.
"Our guys focused on what we talked about after the Mississippi State game," he said. "They really focused and we did them better (against Alabama). It should be a level of reinforcement. If we do these things regularly: keep our turnovers down, make the extra pass, rebound the basketball and play unselfishly on offense, this is what we can do. Just because we did it against Alabama doesn't mean it necessarily carries over to tomorrow night, but they have something to look back on in their minds. Hopefully they'll think 'we did this and played well, so here's what we gotta do to play well against Kentucky.' "
The emphasis on rebounding shows in the eight SEC games. In league games only, the Gators average 11.2 rebounds more than their opponents. The Gators also lead the league in offensive rebounds at 13.2 per game. In SEC games, Lee (10.0) and freshman center Al Horford (9.4) rank third and fifth in rebounding. Horford is coming off an 18-rebound performance.
Better rebounding has allowed the Gators to win games even when the shooting wasn't lights out, and the improvement is mainly due to players taking their blockout assignments seriously.
"We just didn't block out last year," said Lee, whose conscious effort to get position on the boards has been a huge factor for the Gators. "Just that one thing, blocking out, is a huge difference this year."
For the Gators to win Tuesday night, Lee will need a strong effort against Kentucky power forward Chuck Hayes, a 6-5, 250-pound strongman who is the key to the Wildcats inside game. Hayes can go out on the perimeter to hit shots, but where he is most effective is in the low post where he is one of the SEC's premier offensive rebounders.
"He really does have a football-type body," said Lee, who added that Hayes (8.0 rebounds per game) gets great position and uses his low center of gravity to keep opponents away from the hoop once the shot goes up. "He's a great fundamental player and he really uses his body to box people out."
Lee has been superb in the eight SEC games in the rebounding department, a job made easier by the emergence of Horford, who is a relentless rebounder with strong hands and long arms. Lately, the Gators have gotten a lot of help on the inside from Chris Richard, 6-8, 245, who has been coming off the bench and playing strong on the offensive boards.
"I thought Chris Richard was the most valuable player in the South Carolina game," Lee said after the Saturday win against Alabama. "What he's done for us coming off the bench is tremendous."
Donovan said it's an entire team effort that is getting the job done from a rebounding standpoint.
"Our guys are making a conscientious effort to block out and rebound the ball," said Donovan. "That was a huge key against Alabama. We did a good job rebounding the ball against them. Last year our rebounding and defending was not great. As much as I look back on last year, because we're always trying to get better, we didn't play a great game against Mississippi State. We didn't execute. We have to get our team constantly being challenged for what's ahead of them. We did a good job rebounding against Alabama. It doesn't mean we're going to do well against Kentucky unless our focus and understanding of where we have to block out (is there)."
The Kentucky game is the third of a three-game set against teams that are nationally ranked. A win would boost the Gators to 7-2 in league play and certainly would give the Gators a huge boost in confidence going into the final seven conference games, but Donovan refuses to see this as a "must game."
"We need to understand that this is one game, just as Alabama or Mississippi State was one game," he said. "We're halfway through our SEC schedule. Our guys have done a good job, but the schedule is a lot more difficult with what's left. I'm not going to get wrapped up in one game being bigger than another one. I treat them all the same. It's a huge game --- because it's our next one. I'll say the same thing about Tennessee."