The Gators looked so good against Vanderbilt earlier in the season and then had Tennessee on the ropes in the first half up in Knoxville a month ago. But just like the second half in the meeting with the Vols, the Gators' inability to consistently play defense and make smart decisions on offense has plagued the team all season long.
Fortunately for Billy Donovan, he's come to expect it 29 games into the season. Florida entered Saturday's game against Mississippi State with a game plan that included being patient on offense and not playing into the hands of the Bulldogs' talented frontcourt. Instead, the Gators did everything MSU hoped they would do.
"I'm not surprised because I see it everyday," Donovan said. "I'm surprised that these guys have won 21 games so far. I'm not surprised because we don't have strength, physicality and length so we can't simulate that in practice. They're not consistent and they haven't been consistent all year. The last word that I would use with our team is consistent."
After a quick start to the conference schedule, the Gators have hit tough times in recent weeks. Florida has lost five of their last eight games, but it's not because of a lack of effort. Donovan said his team works hard in practice, but their youth and inexperience give them some level of pigheadedness.
"They pay attention and listen real well," Donovan said. "[Mississippi State] was a game where there was a specific way we had to attack offensively and we didn't do it. I don't think they're lost. They have a high basketball IQ. We tried to come in and run up and down the floor with them and the last thing you want to do against the top shot blocking team and maybe the best rebounding team in the nation is by playing their game."
Donovan has obviously experienced a ton of success over the last two years and then turned down a lucrative offer in the NBA to come back and rebuild the Gators from scratch. He had to know the challenge in front of him was massive, but every season brings challenges so the youthful inconstancy of this year's squad is no different. It's just that the results will look different at the end of the season.
"The team is different through every experience," he said. "The team in 2006 was different from the team in 2007. Every team is a little bit different, even if you have guys that are coming back. Last year, the focus for me was what could get in the way of not reaching our potential, whereas my laundry list of things going into this season was probably longer than any other list I've had going into a season because I didn't know what the best situation was for them offensively, how we wanted to play and who we could rely on."
The hardest part for Donovan this season has been to maybe get his current players to buy into everything that he is trying to sell. He's seen just about every situation before and knows how to handle it, but conveying those messages to a bunch of underclassmen is a tough job.
"You try to take your experiences and give it to your team, but some things you have to learn on your own," Donovan said. "I can't give them my experiences when they have their own experiences."
"I think there are a lot of things that you're trying to piece together and trying to take a stab in the dark," he said. "Sometimes you get it right and sometimes you don't, but I think no question there has been a lot to get ready for these guys. These guys have never experienced this."
And that's why it may be so important for the Gators to reach the NCAA Tournament because nothing can be traded for playing in the Big Dance than experiencing it first hand. But Florida most likely has some work to do to solidify their NCAA resume. With an RPI in the 60s, the Gators need a signature win, and Wednesday night they get a chance when the face a Tennessee team that currently ranks No. 1 in the RPI.
Questions or comments? Contact FightinGators.com's Chris Chmielenski
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