Donovan Trying to Solve the Team Puzzle

It has been another one of those years for Florida basketball head coach Billy Donovan. He has spent a lot of time trying to manipulate the different pieces of his team to solve the puzzle that is the basketball season. Unfortunately for Donovan, a few pieces of the puzzle seem to be missing and therefore he is trying to fit them any way he can. Youth is not helping.

The Gators face a dilemma this year with a very limited roster. For most of the SEC schedule there were eight and nine players at most available to play and that could be counted on to contribute solid minutes. In a mirror of last season, the Gators have really had a hard time recovering from attrition.

"We really got caught with a team, that last year with four returning players being Walter Hodge, Dan Werner, Marreese Speights, and Jonathan Mitchell, Donovan told the media Monday. "Then Mitchell and Speights were gone so it is in a lot of ways a rebuilding process to get the right pieces. There is no question that...some of the areas that we are lacking is in athleticism."

The Gators have found it extremely tough at times on the defensive side of the ball defending against teams that are bigger than them and then get caught sometimes when teams try and out athlete this undermanned squad.

Donovan does put part of the blame on recruiting and the lack of athleticism displayed at times, but it isn't an easy cure in this day of college basketball.

"I think there is always a balance there. You have to have a balance and I think that some of our deficiencies are probably due to a lack of recruitment on my part and ...sometimes it's hard to sign guys because you can't forecast the future. Some guys are concerned with and need to be told how much of a role they will have and how much they are going to play so it is a risk for them because some kids coming out of high school want the opportunity to play right away.

"I also think that you can go to an extreme and have really quick, athletic guys but then you don't have shooting and you don't have passing so I always think there is a balance in trying to piece those things together where you can have good shooting, you can have athletic recruits, and you can have post presence. I think good teams have all of those parts together and certainly athleticism stands out for us but we think our guys within their own physical capabilities are trying."

One thing that can not be sped up fast enough right now is the maturity of his young freshmen who at times have played a lot of meaningful minutes for the Gators this season. One of them that is coming on a bit stronger is freshman guard/forward Ray Shipman. A prolific scorer in high school, Shipman came to the Gators gifted with a defensive presence as well. However, it is a big adjustment in college to turn that skill into positive play on the court and within the framework of the Gators' schemes.

"There is always a transition period for a high school guy coming in, Donovan said of Shipman. "When a guy comes out of high school and he is scoring 25 and 30 points a game and shows that he has the skill level to play at this level and that he has always relied on that, there is a shift in focus in what they really have to do. I think for Ray, understating the impact he could make defensively and then also understanding on the offensive end of the floor that there will be times where he may not be a priority or option on offense but he could go to the offensive back door or we could put him on somebody. I think for those things that has been about as big of a learning curve for Ray as anything else he has had in front of him this year."

For Donovan it always starts on the defensive end and there has been no season where the defense seems to have struggled like this one since Donovan arrived on campus. The Gators rank dead last in the SEC in field goal defense and second to last in three-point field goal defense. They also rank ninth in rebounding margin and last in blocked shots.

"The first thing he has to do is show he can take that kind of a role as this defensive guy we are talking about when in a lot of respects he probably didn't have to do that a lot," Donovan continued about Shipman. "He played defense and came from a great high school program but it is a change and shift from a guy who was a leading scorer to now having this kind of a role."

Shipman has not been alone as a freshman trying to get the defense down. All of them have struggled at times, but Donovan believes that freshman guard Erving Walker has made himself a better defender perhaps quicker than his freshmen brothers.

"One thing for a guy like Erving Walker coming out of high school that he didn't do a lot was he didn't defend like he needed to and I think a lot of high school guys are like that when they get here," Donovan said. "But with Erving, he has been able to see a little quicker and faster his window of having to close that gap of understanding what it is about. Erving has been able to impact games with his defense and has understood how to incorporate that and I think Ray is still trying to figure that out."

One thing Walker has done is put himself in better shape physically so that he can withstand the rigors of SEC competition. Walker has maintained a 23 minutes a game average playing time evidently playing at high enough level over that time to stay on the floor. He needs help from his freshman mates like Shipman who has actually dropped from a 13 minutes per game in all games to averaging 11 minutes a game in SEC play. It is the physical and mental grind of college ball that is a monumental adjustment for some.

"Ray has definitely gotten better but the biggest thing that he has to realize is for him to be a great defender he needs to deal with stamina," Donovan said. "I think stamina is always an issue for younger kids when they get fatigued because the length of a possession, the amount of screens you have to get over, what you have to do defensively, and what goes in to defense. Not only doing all of that stuff, but also understanding what is coming, how complicated a lot of offenses can be and what is getting ready to develop."

It is a lot to soak in for a young guy that honestly should not be asked to contribute more than he has this season. Compounding the issues for this Gator team is the constant problem of interior defense when the Gators play against teams with more than one big inside presence. A lot of the freshmen issues are dictated by the fact that the Gators have to really improvise at the defensive end of the floor. Even the older guys aren't getting it for the most part.

"(Shipman) has gotten better but it's probably not totally fair for Ray in a lot of respects," Donovan said "What I mean by that is because we have some size deficiencies and some strength deficiencies, we have had to play a little bit different on defense in terms of playing zone and matching up and trying to protect the inside. So for Ray, mentally trying to figure out the zone, slide, how we are moving, how the zone changes based on scouting and personnel and who we are guarding, I think that is a lot for him that gets thrown on his plate. Ray would probably be a lot better if we were just straight man-to-man and he could just play somebody man-to-man. That would probably be easier for him but sometimes, that being good for Ray it may not be the best thing for the other four guys out there. You try to figure out how you can balance and work with all of those guys together."

And we have come full circle with the fact that this team is missing some puzzle pieces. An eight-man rotation right now is not enough to really play at a consistent high level. When one of the big men get in foul trouble it just compounds itself into more issues for the Gators. There isn't much left to do this season with the limited roster on hand, but fortunately help seems on the way for future seasons.

It is help that is coming in different forms...from the post and the perimeter. A team looking for inside presence and shooting skill, should get a healthy dose of both next season.

The Gators need help in the paint. Maybe the biggest reason they have lost most of the games they have is because of the defense of the three-point line. Kentucky, Tennessee (twice), Georgia, LSU, and others have all had single outside scorers tear up the nets on the Gators and many on the way to 30-plus point games. Still, the issue isn't the guard play as much as it has been the fact the Gators have had to cheat so much to help on the inside.

Florida has been stuck in a zone for almost the entire season so that teams cannot pound away on the inside. That has created the holes on the outside when the ball gets passed around. Some big time help is coming to make sure the Gators can play a little man on the interior next season.

It all starts with junior Vernon Macklin who is already on campus and waiting out his transfer year from Georgetown to be eligible. The 6-10, 240 pound Macklin is the space eating interior player the Gators lack this season and a guy that can certainly play post up defense against the many post players the Gators see in conference play.

Dave Telep, who is the National Recruiting Director for Scout.com's network basketball coverage followed Macklin through high school and his first couple of years at Georgetown and believes he will be an instant force for the Gators in 2009-2010.

"I think Macklin is a strong addition next year," Telep said. "For starters, he's going to be a leader on this team. He wasn't very assertive vocally in high school but has grown in a lot of areas. Athletically, he'll be Florida basketball's version of Jevon Kearse. Just what the doctor ordered to push the other bigs and bring speed, size and athleticism to the front court."

The Gators will also add two more bigs in forwards Deshawn Painter (6-9, 195) and Erik Murphy (6-9, 210). Telep likes Murphy to come in and make a name for himself early.

"Murphy is more ready in terms of his immediate ability to score in the post," Telep said. "Painter will need time but should be worth the wait."

The Gators will also benefit from the maturity of the handful of underclassmen at the four and five spots along the roster. Allan Chaney, Kenny Kadji, Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus, and Eloy Vargas are all young players that should physically and mentally mature to help on the inside next season.

With all this help on the outside the Gators will add the best shooter on the team next year. McDonald's All-American Kenny Boynton can create his shot, take anyone off the dribble, and shoot from downtown like no one on the current Gator roster. A capable defender, Boynton will add that dimension that is missing at times when certain Gators aren't on the floor this season.

"Kenny Boynton is a marksman," Telep added. "He's the guy with the ice water pumping through his body when the game is on the line. He's used to getting his pulls so he'll have to adapt to the team in that regard, but this kid is a weapon. He's a sneaky athlete and above all, a competitor. I think he'll be a surprisingly solid defender and impact scorer."

Two huge keys that are missing from this team and should be a quick fix for a team that has been in almost every single game it has lost this season. Still, there is probably one element that will be missing. The Gators still don't have that long and athletic wing player. The Corey Brewer, Mike Miller type of player that can create his own offense and shut down other wings and make life difficult for outside shooters.

According to Telep, that will likely have to some in the 2010 class.

"Wing help could come in the form of Harrison Barnes but that's two years away," Telep said. "Florida's looking all over for a wing athlete in 2010. Candidates are Shaquille Thomas, Barnes, Roscoe Smith, Mychal Parker and Travis McKie. However, I think Florida will attempt to broaden its horizons at that position with the spring 2010 crop."

Billy Donovan knows and recognizes the deficiencies on his basketball team. Basketball recruiting is tough when you have a large amount of turnover like the Gators have had for the last three years. Still, Donovan has shown to be a crafty recruiter and has shown to be able to correct roster imperfections in short time. From the outside, it looks like he is heading in the right direction.

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