The Gators will need a high energy game Saturday in Fayetteville (2 p.m. EDT, Jefferson-Pilot TV) when they face an Arkansas (16-8, 5-6 SEC West) team that is trying to play itself into an invitation to the NCAA's big dance. Arkansas needs three wins, perhaps four, to get into the NCAA Tournament so you can expect that they will come out fired up and feeding off the energy of the rabid fans at jam-packed Bud Walton Arena. This is not the kind of place a team playing on fumes can expect to survive so Florida will have to match the Razorbacks level of emotions.
To ensure that the Gators have the necessary energy to get through this tough time of the season, Coach Billy Donovan has cut way back on the physical practices that were commonplace back in October and even during the first month of the season in November. But it is more than just about conserving physical energy as March lingers on the horizon.
"For everybody it's a lot more mental [at this time of the year] than it is physical," said Donovan, who earned win number 250 of his 12-year coaching career Wednesday night at Vanderbilt. "Nobody today is practicing like they did in October and November. Things have been drastically cut back with the physical contact."
Donovan doesn't just alter the physical nature of the practices he changes the daily routines at this time of the year to keep things interesting and lively. It is little things like altering routines that help his team keep the mental edge.
"As a coach I'm trying to do different things to keep practice different," he said. "[We are] doing different things so it's not the same old grind every single day but there is something new where we can still get better as a team but we add something to practice."
Cutting back on the hard practices during the season helps, particularly once the Southeastern Conference schedule begins and teams settle into a Wednesday-Saturday game day routine. For example, the Gators got back from their Wednesday game in Nashville at 2:15 Thursday morning. All of the players on the team had classes at either 8:35 or 9:35 and after classes, there was practice Thursday afternoon. The Gators flew to Fayetteville Friday afternoon.
They will play Saturday's game then fly back to Gainesville Saturday evening. Sunday will be a rest day and then it's back to school along with practice Monday and Tuesday to prepare for next Wednesday's game in the O'Connell Center with Tennessee. It's all part of the grind of a long season and why it is that this is the part of the season when a lot of high-flying teams start to flame out.
"People I don't think truly understand that when they see teams wear down, it's not the physical part," said Donovan. "It's the mental preparation that it takes every two days. We got in last night [from Vanderbilt] at 2:15 in the morning and they had to be in school at 8:30. We have practice today and we leave tomorrow at 3 again and they have to take care of school responsibilities. They've got papers and tests and things that they've got to do right now. They're out of town. They've got to play catch-up. That is also part of the mental."
Mental fatigue often shows up for teams in the latter stages of the season in the form of uninspired performances. Teams that can maintain the emotional edge late in the year are the teams that usually finish seasons strong and advance in the tournaments.
"Our team has to get to such a high emotional level and has to be so prepared to play and our passion and energy and enthusiasm has got to be at an all-time high every game for us to have an opportunity to win," said Donovan. "That's a strength of our team. As our season goes on that strength of ours can get zapped."
It was much easier for the Gators to play with highly-charged emotions early in the season. The newness of the season and the desire to establish a team identity was early motivation that fired up the Gators for each new chance to prove themselves better than the number 75 national ranking some publications gave them. They have proven that they belong among the nation's top ten teams for 25 games but there are still five regular season games to go and they have to check the tank each game to see if there's enough left for one more outing.
"The season can take it out of you," said Donovan. "It's easier going to New York on your third game against Syracuse or playing against Wake Forest. Now all of a sudden you're 25 games into it. You've played Wake Forest. You're played Syracuse. You've played on the road at Providence. You've played on the road at Miami. You've played Kentucky. You've played LSU."
And now the Gators play Arkansas, a team that has a Jekyll and Hyde personality, capable of beating teams it should lose to and just as capable of losing to teams that it should beat soundly. Donovan is well aware that Arkansas has the talent and ability to beat the Gators. If it's only about talent, though, the game's a dead heat and Arkansas has the home court advantage. Where Florida will have to find the edge is with its ability to play with emotion and passion. If Florida comes out fired up and emotional, it's a good sign that the tank is not empty and the Gators have something left to finish off the season strongly.