Slumps are usually characterized by losses, poor play and a dip in team morale among other things. It's true that the Gators have gone 5-4 in their last nine games, but other than the loss in Columbia to South Carolina, they haven't played poorly and even in that loss, the Gators had a chance to pull out a win.
The Gators lost by four (80-76) at Tennessee, by six (68-62) at South Carolina, by four (71-67) to South Carolina in Gainesville and by four (85-81) in overtime at Arkansas Saturday. In each of those losses, Florida had its chances to win the game in the final minute. Only 18 points separate the Gators from a perfect, 26-0, record. Only 18 points separate the Gators from a perfect 12-0 in the SEC East. Instead, the Gators (22-4, 8-4 SEC East) are two games behind Wednesday night's opponent, division-leading Tennessee (19-4, 10-2 SEC East).
In each of Florida's four losses, the Gators can point to a handful of plays that could have made the difference in a win or a loss. For example, in the first loss of the year in Knoxville, one sequence in the final 30 seconds spelled doom for the Gators. With the score tied 76-76, Corey Brewer grabbed a rebound and burst out of the pack to lead a two-on-one fast break. In most situations, Brewer would have either taken the ball all the way or at least taken the ball another two or three dribbles before passing but earlier in the game he sprained his ankle. Lacking the explosion and the confidence to finish, he tried to pass to Joakim Noah way too early in the break. The ball was intercepted by Chris Lofton who threw a length-of-the-court pass to Dane Bradshaw for the go-ahead layup. Florida still had a chance to tie or win, but Lee Humphrey's three-pointer didn't go down, Tennessee rebounded, got fouled and hit the free throws.
It was ever so close to a win but instead, Florida was tagged with its first loss.
Another good example is Saturday at Arkansas. With the score tied at 73-73 with less than 20 seconds to go in regulation, Taurean Green worked around a high pick and roll screen to get into the lane. No one got open under the goal for UF so Green took the shot himself only to have Eric Ferguson get his first blocked shot of the season, sending the game into overtime. Florida also had a chance in overtime to tie the game and send it to a second extra period but the Gators turned the ball over and just like at Tennessee, the students stormed the court when the final horn sounded.
The losses have been heartbreaking but at the same time, they've been heartening for Donovan. There is a fine line between the Gators ranked ninth nationally at 22-4 and the 26-0 and number one that they could be … a shot that goes down here or there … a defensive play or one critical rebound … a critical turnover in the final minute. Every loss has been so close and that's heartbreaking. Yet in each loss, the Gators have been within a play or two of pulling out a win. That part has been heartening.
"I look at teams across the country … good teams, teams that started and have been ranked in the top ten top 15 and they go on the road and lose by 18-25 points," Donovan said Monday at his weekly press luncheon. "We've been right there."
Florida has played each game close because Donovan trusts the effort he will get from his team each time they take the floor. One of his constant themes this season is that he knows each time out, the Gators will play as hard as they can play for him.
Playing hard translates into games in which everything goes right for the Gators and stretches in games in which their play borders on spectacular. And, there are moments in games, such as the one Saturday in Fayetteville, when the Gators gave up a 14-0 scoring run. But that lapse wasn't caused by a lack of effort. Even in the South Carolina loss when Florida played poorly, the Gators didn't suffer from lack of effort.
"I've said this before, we're not the most talented team and we're not the best team and there are ugly moments in games but you always going to feel good as a coach walking off the floor coaching these guys is they're going to give you everything they have," he said. "That was said by me all the way back in October but as you win you forget about those things and you start to focus on other things.
"I really believe these guys give everything they have. Whether that's good enough to win every game, we'll go out and see but for 26 times this year it's been good enough to win 22 of them doing what they're doing."
Donovan believes that if the Gators were truly slumping, there would be lapses of effort and games when the intensity level was poor throughout. If the Gators were slumping, there would also be lapses in confidence and that's something that hasn't happened, either.
"Confidence levels dip when you start getting beaten by 25-30 points and you say 'Geez, we weren't even in the game,' " said Donovan, using the Arkansas game as an example.
"… 42 free throws to 20 and we had 19 turnovers …that's the game. When one team takes twice as many free throws as you it's hard to win but the fact is that we were right there with a guy like Lee Humphrey shooting 2-11 with a guy like Corey Brewer and Noah being in foul trouble."
The outcome in four games hasn't been what Donovan hoped for, that's for sure, but a slump? He'll disagree.
"What our team has done up to this time and point with what things they've had to battle through is pretty impressive," he said.