Win number nine was one of those drive the coach crazy kind of nights. The Gators turned the ball over 21 times Friday night and made far more mental errors than Donovan could probably count, yet they showed plenty of unselfishness and a willingness to play hard nosed defense as they routed outmanned Bethune-Cookman's Wildcats of the Mid-East Athletic Conference, 88-58, before a crowd of 8,922 at the O'Connell Center.
The win for the Gators capped a perfect night for Florida's basketball team. Coach Carolyn Peck's women's team got key steals from Brittany Davis and Dalila Eshe in the final minute of the game to hold on for a 69-64 win over Illinois. The victory pushed Florida's record to 7-1, the best start in the four years Peck has coached the Gator women.
Donovan will be the first to tell you he's having a blast coaching this team, not that he didn't enjoy last season's 24-8 record that included a SEC Tournament championship. That was a special team last year, but this one is so young and so inexperienced, still feeling its way through so many aspects of the game. They have far more talent than anyone gave them credit for and they are very, very coachable.
When all the talent is playing up to a high level, they do a lot of very good things, but they also hit this speed bumps along the way and go into periods when they can't seem to do anything right.
"We have a lot of highs and lows during the game," said sophomore power forward Joakim Noah, who turned in 12 points and five rebounds against Bethune Cookman. "We stay in the lows too long and that's something that has to change."
When things are hitting just right, they'll rip off 10 or 12 of the most spectacular points you could ask for, doing it on offense and defense. Friday night it was like they were toying with Bethune-Cookman, which was hanging way too close at 34-22 with six minutes left in the half. In a little over two and half minutes, that lead was 22 points. A dunk by Al Horford, a pair of free throws by Corey Brewer, a layup off a steal on the press by Taurean Green, a layup by Brewer off a steal by Adrian Moss and a Moss jumper from eight feet away and the game was over for all practical purposes.
Then they will have stretches when they can't get off a good shot or they'll turn the ball over several times in a row without ever launching a single shot.
"It's pretty remarkable that we've had two games (Bethune-Cookman and Tuesday's win over Providence) with 45 turnovers and we've scored 88 and 87 points with the field goal percentage that we're shooting," said Donovan. "It kills me as a coach that we're not getting more shots at the basket with the field goal percentage that we're shooting."
They hit 62.5 percent from the field Friday night and once again flirted with 50 percent from behind the three-point stripe with a solid 8-17 performance. Their unselfishness showed with 27 assists on their 35 made baskets, which is a stratospheric 77 percent assist-to-shots made ratio.
"They really have bought into being part of a team, being unselfish," said Donovan. "I haven't had a lot of teams here that have had 27 assists in a game."
Every player that logged more than one minute of playing time got at least one assist Friday night. Brewer didn't hit double figures in scoring for only the second time in nine games, but he had six assists, eight rebounds and three steals to go with his nine points.
Lee Humphrey, known for his radar-accuracy from behind the arc, showed his unselfishness with four assists to go with his 13 points that included 3-7 from three-point range. Freshman Walter Hodge came off the bench to nail 3-4 on threes for a career-high 11 points but he also dished out five assists.
Even the big guys got into the ball sharing. Chris Richard, who had 11 points and seven rebounds off the bench, had three assists while Horford (17 points and seven rebounds), Noah and Moss each made a pass that led to a score.
The unselfishness on offense and the intensity on defense help Donovan to somewhat overlook the exuberance of youth. Many of the mistakes and turnovers this team makes can be attributed to the fact there's only one experienced senior on the team (Moss) and he's a career backup for the better part of his career at Florida. Humphrey and Richard are juniors who have spent most of their careers coming off the bench. Horford and Brewer were starters last year but they are sophomores as are Green and Noah. The backups off the bench are true freshmen, Hodge and David Huertas.
Their hustle and willingness to play hard nosed pressing defense has allowed Donovan to settle back to the style of play he brought to Florida 10 years ago. Billy Ball was AWOL the past two or three years as Donovan deferred to the talents of Matt Walsh, Anthony Roberson and David Lee, three of the more gifted offensive players in school history. With those three, press till they puke defense wasn't an option and the offense catered to getting shots for those three stars.
Donovan doesn't apologize for the way the Gators played the last three years. He's the first to tell you it was a necessity.
"People were critical of our style or the way we played or the level of selfishness maybe of some of our guys," said Donovan. "It wasn't that at all. Blame me because I wanted Roberson shooting, Walsh shooting, David Lee shooting … that was their job, their role, their responsibility. That gave us the best chance to win.
"Last year we won the SEC Tournament Championship and I don't know if we could have won an SEC Tournament Championship or 24 games playing the way we play now. My job as a coach is to put us in the best position to win."
The best position to win now is to press full court defensively and jump start the offense by pushing the ball every chance. That's most evident whenever Horford or Noah grab a rebound. Instead of holding the ball for a point guard, they put the ball on the floor and start a fast break. Sometimes it results in an easy score at the other end but even when it doesn't it puts Florida in a position to start the offense before the defense is set.
That wouldn't have happened in the previous three years. The way he has the Gators playing now is the style he has always preferred.
"This is a team I like coaching because we can play more how I would like to see our team play," he said, noting that the walk it up and get shots from the half court offense of the previous three years was "the best way for us to win."
The Gators won more than 20 games in each of the last three years and made the NCAA Tournament each year largely because Donovan played to the strengths of Roberson, Walsh and Lee.
"Roberson, Walsh and David Lee did exactly what I wanted them to do and that's the way we needed to play," he said. "They were great offensive players. They were not great defenders. "They had a hard time playing at the tempo and the pace we're playing at right now … they just did.
"I could have forced it and taken three really good players and never would have maximized their ability and their potential of what they did good. I felt my job as a coach --- I know what they do well, we all know what they don't do well --- was what do they do well and how can I maximize their talents to the best of their ability?"
With this team he doesn't have three offensive superstars. Instead he has a group of guys with talent who share the ball well and work hard to get each other shots. He doesn't have a dominating scorer but has five players averaging in double figures and three coming off the bench who have all had at least one double figures scoring game. It's rare that the same player leads the team in scoring on two straight nights.
There will be more ups and downs with this team. That's the nature of playing with so many young ones, but Donovan knows that he won't ever have to worry about getting less than a maximum effort from this bunch. It's a wild ride already for a team predicted to struggle for an identity before the season began. Now they're 10-0 with a chance to enter SEC play with a 13-0 mark, which would be the best start ever for Florida.
Donovan says he knows that at some point he will have to see how this team learns from a loss and how they bounce back from adversity.
Noah, on the other hand, says "I would rather win and learn through winning."
It's unlikely they will go an entire season without tasting defeat --- that hasn't been done in Division I since Indiana did it back in 1976 --- but these guys believe. They really believe and the way they're playing, they're making a lot of believers out of those who started the season with so many doubts.