Team Meeting Helped Turn Gators Around

One of the side benefits of a family is that it's possible for everyone to get mad and yet everybody still loves one another. That may be a simplistic but adequate description of what went on at a team meeting the day after the Florida Gators lost to Alabama in Tuscaloosa. There was some yelling, maybe even a little screaming, but in the end this team that is family-close did what families do --- they hugged and made up. Then they took to the practice floor with new determination.

The subject du jour after that loss to Alabama --- the third in a row that dropped the Gators to 22-6 after that eye-opening, school record 17-0 start --- was defense or more appropriately, Florida's lack of it. Just the day before, Alabama hit 50 percent from the three-point line, nearly 50 percent from the floor overall, and outrebounded the Gators, 42-33. Florida's lack of defensive intensity was startling.

What happened at Alabama was the same song with a different verse from a few days earlier when Tennessee came to the O-Dome and lit up the Gators for 11-21 shooting from behind the arc as part of a 50 percent night from the floor.

And then there was that debacle at Arkansas when the Gators couldn't get stops at critical junctures. That was the loss that started the three-game tailspin that had the same basketball experts who had been praising the Gators for their 17-0 start just three weeks before questioning if Florida had the heart to finish the season strong.

"We knew when we lost to Alabama --- that was our third loss --- we knew we were losing close ball games because we weren't doing a lot of little things that would help us win," said junior guard Lee Humphrey. "We weren't containing the ball very well, we weren't getting rebounds very well or stepping up on drives."

So the Gators did what teams have always done and should always do on the brink of a crisis that has the potential to erupt --- they called a team meeting, only in this case, it was sort of like a family feud. Coaches and players were there and suffice to say, once a few issues were raised it got ugly before it got pretty.

"There was some yelling and screaming," said Al Horford. "We had to get through to some people but at the end of the meeting, everybody was smiling and happy."

Smiling and happy translated into a team metamorphosis. Maybe old dogs can't learn new tricks but young teams that finally get what the coaches have been preaching all season long can. A team that needed a total makeover, looked in the mirror and decided that change was not only good, it was necessary.

"I've never been on a team that changed this late in the season," said Corey Brewer. "If you're an offensive team, you're an offensive team all year and if you're a defensive team, you're a defensive team all year.

"In the beginning of the season we were talking that we were going to be a defensive team but we got hot, started scoring a lot of points and we kind of got away from playing defense. When you lose a couple of games you realize that you have to play to your natural identity and defense is what we do."

Taurean Green said that change was made possible by each member of the team taking a long, close look at themselves and then making a conscious decision to do what Donovan and his assistants had been preaching all season.

"[At the meeting] we emphasized the reasons why we lost games," Green said. "I think everybody looked at themselves and bought into what would win this game. I think we did a good job of listening to coaches and going out and executing the game plan, just playing smart."

So the Gators shed their skins and what emerged was a new-look team with a an intense mindset on the defensive end of the floor.

"When you lose three games in a row --- what was so frustrating was that we knew we could play so much better on the defensive end --- it wasn't about one or two individuals having good defensive nights, it was about everybody being on the same page, doing the right thing, playing the right way," said Joakim Noah.

The transition from laissez-faire defense to irritating, sand in the jock, stick like glue defense started with the Georgia in the O-Dome two days later. Florida defended the perimeter ferociously, held the Bulldogs to 4-21 shooting from the three-point line and outrebounded Georgia, 42-29. The losing streak came to an end.

Then came the trip to Kentucky. Senior Day at Rupp Arena is like a boneyard in the jungle, a place where good teams go to die. The good team that died that day wasn't the Gators, however. Florida strangled Kentucky on the perimeter and with Noah rejecting four shots, made the inside a most unpleasant place for Big Blue. Kentucky hit only 6-24 three-pointers and shot 37.9 percent for the game.

Florida followed that up with three extraordinary defensive games in the SEC Tournament in Nashville. Arkansas, LSU and South Carolina combined for 16-67 behind the arc (23.8 percent) and 68-176 from the field (32.9 percent).

In two NCAA Tournament games, Florida limited South Alabama and Wisconsin-Milwaukee to 41-116 from the field (35.3 percent) and 16-40 from the three-point line (40 percent), making it seven straight games that the Gators have held opponents below 50 percent from the field and way off their normal three-point production.

"We figured it out and put everything together," said Horford. "We said that in order to win, we had to play defense and get stops and get back to playing the way were playing earlier in the year on offense."

If there has been a silver lining to the dark cloud that the Gators have hung over opponents with their smothering defensive work, it has been the re-emergence of the offense operating at a high level of efficiency. Florida has shot 187-368 in the seven-game winning streak, 50.8 percent, which is the kind of shooting that it takes for teams to win championships.

"I feel like that really creates energy on the offensive end by getting stops and getting blocked shots and steals," said Horford. "I think that's been the key. We want to play possession by possession and I think we're doing a good job of making stops."

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