So here we are six years later and Donovan is coaching a team that lacks marquee players. If you go by McDonald's and Parade All-Americans, then the Florida recruiting machine is obviously spinning its wheels these days. Only Corey Brewer made the McDonald's team and the depth only goes nine deep with two of the nine first year players who mingle rare flashes of brilliance with far too many freshman moments. When the season began, the lack of respect for Florida's stockpile of talent was evident in the preseason predictions, some of which had the Gators finishing fifth in the SEC Eastern Division and ranked number 75 in the nation.
The prognosticators who predicted a burst bubble for the Gators are trying to explain away Florida's 15-0 start to the season about now. Not only are the Gators one of only three unbeaten teams left in NCAA Division I, they're ranked second in the nation and the only Southeastern Conference team in the Top 25, doing it with a roster chock full of players who flew under everybody's recruiting radar yet it's a roster than 98 percent of the teams in Division I would love to have.
This version of the Gators isn't nearly as talented or as deep as that 2000 team but what they may lack in talent or numbers they more than make up in chemistry, confidence and coachability. Somewhere along the line, you see, old all-recruit, no coach Billy learned a thing or two about coaching and those same people who have been trying to label him as a coaching lightweight for years are eating their words. They should have learned their lesson last year, the seventh straight year that the Donovan-coached Gators won 20 or more games and the seventh straight year they made it to the NCAA Tournament. The only coaches in SEC history who ever had 20-win streaks longer than Billy are named Adolph Rupp and Tubby Smith. You win 20 or more seven straight years in the SEC, you're more than an ace recruiter. You can flat out coach.
Donovan led the Gators to a 24-8 record and the SEC Tournament championship last year. How they did it was living proof of how Donovan has matured as a coach. Instead of doing it with Billy Ball, the helter-skelter, press till they puke style that Donovan wants all his teams to play, they walked the ball up the court and ran a three-man offensive game designed around the talents of Anthony Roberson, Matt Walsh and David Lee. They were three of the most gifted offensive players in Florida basketball history for sure, but not the kind of guys best suited for the running game on offense or the pressing game on defense even though Donovan thought they would do well in that style when he recruited them.
When Donovan recruited Roberson out of Saginaw, Michigan, he envisioned him as the ultimate point guard for his system but it became obvious that A-Rob wasn't a pure point and certainly not a natural in the transition game. Donovan had two choices: he could either force Roberson into his style of play or he could find a way to adapt to the things Roberson did best.
"I always believed that I've got to take a player and try to change, adjust or tweak maybe what our system is to get the most out of the player," Donovan said at a Friday press briefing. "There probably isn't a guy who epitomizes that more than Anthony Roberson. I envisioned Anthony Roberson as a guy who would be racing up and down the floor, a pressure guard but that really wasn't who Anthony Robersoin was. People were maybe critical that he's not a pure point guard but I had to look at what Anthony Roberson could do well, how Anthony Roberson could serve the team. I had to make some adjustments and do some things to bring out the best in Anthony Roberson."
Similar adjustments were made to bring out the best in Lee, a tweener who was somewhere between a power forward and center, and Walsh, a long range bomber who had the ability to get to the foul line. Like Roberson, they had plenty of offensive talent but they weren't a good fit for the run and shoot approach and their defense in the open court had a few too many gaps to be effective. So Donovan tweaked, adjusted and finagled until he found a way to win with what he had rather than do what he really wanted to do.
"I could sit there and be stubborn and say we're going to run and press all over the place but we're probably not going to win as many games if I don't take a step back and use these guys in a way that fits them," said Donovan. "I can't say I wanted to play the last two years the way we played but if I'd played the way I wanted to play we would have never won an SEC championship."
Roberson and Walsh would have been seniors if they had returned for one more year in the orange and blue but in their absence, Donovan has a group that has allowed him to go back to playing Billy Ball, the style he much prefers. In the absence of the talented scorers he had last year, Donovan has an unselfish team that compensates for the lack of dominating scorers by distributing the ball so well that all five starters are averaging in double figures. The Gators lead the nation in assists and in field goal percentage. Brewer, Al Horford, Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey may not be household names but collectively they've made the Gators a national force to be reckoned with. The bench of Adrian Moss, Chris Richard, Walter Hodge and David Huertas may not be deep but it's proven plenty effective.
Some might say that Donovan has used a smoke and mirrors approach to get the Gators through the first 15 games unbeaten but there's no mystery here. It's just a combination of good coaching and chemistry for a team of best buddies that just likes to hang around together when they're not in class or playing basketball. They really don't care who is the leading scorer or rebounder as long as they get a win.
They play hard. They play smart. They play tough. They play unselfish. They play together.
"These guys play exactly how I would like to see the game played, no question," said Donovan.
The offense is all about the passing and unselfishness but it is the defense that has really set this team apart. In terms of willingness to get after people this bunch is the closest to playing the style that Donovan likes better than any team the Gators have put on the floor since the 2000 team. While certainly not as talented or as deep as the 2000 Gators, this team is every bit as relentless and they are versatile, too.
They have proven that they can play the pressing style of defense that Donovan likes because it creates plenty of transition points or they can grind it out in a roll up your sleeves and sweat half-court contest. Some games start out as grind it out possession by possession contests and end up a track meet. Others, like the Miami game, are hand to hand combat nail biters. They seem to adapt to whatever the situation calls for, an indication of both growing maturity and coachability.
"The one thing I would say about these guys is that when I am coaching them and showing them film and trying to make teaching points, they try to absorb and pay attention and try to get better," said Donovan. "Defensively, they understand that if they are not shooting the ball particularly well they have to have something to fall back on and hopefully that's our ability to defend and rebound."
Probably the closest thing Donovan has to a star is Brewer, who established himself as one of the SEC's premier defenders last year as a freshman. He has continued in his role as the team's designated stopper while expanding all the other aspects to the point that he's second on the team in scoring, rebounding and assists and has recorded the only triple-double in school history.
He is a threat to score 20 points any night yet he can't even tell you how many points he averages per game. There are nights when he could light up the scoreboard yet he will defer to teammates, concentrating on getting the ball to them so they can score and playing his usual lock down defense.
"It doesn't matter who gets the glory or what," he said. "I don't even know what my average is right now."
Told it's 13.7 points per game, he just shrugged and laughed. He really doesn't care if he's a big time scorer or who leads the team in any one category as long as the Gators win. He's just happy to do whatever it takes to help his team get another victory.
His shot wasn't falling Tuesday night against Mississippi State but he was getting to the foul line (10-13), rebounding and playing tough defense. His game mirrored the one his teammates were playing.
"We like to play defense because some nights we're not going to score…just like the other night we were off but we still won by 15," he said. "You never know what nights you're going to have so you still have to play defense."
Brewer hasn't let Florida's record setting start affect his approach to the game. He isn't thinking into the future, only to Saturday night's game against Auburn. He looks at the Gators and while he likes what he sees, he knows the team has a long, long way to go before it's really hitting its stride.
"We haven't played our best game yet defensively or offensively," he said. "Somebody's always been off or we just get beat on certain plays. We're waiting to play our best game. You can still be 15-0 and you haven't played your best game."