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Florida Basketball Searches for Answers, Finds the NIT

Billy Donovan

Billy Donovan

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For most of Tuesday’s game at Vanderbilt, Florida coach Billy Donovan appeared to operate at a simmer.

He spent stretches of the second half seated in his folding chair on the Florida bench at the baseline. At least twice, he slouched back into his seat while Florida played defense on the far end of Memorial Gym.

As the clock ticked to the end, Donovan had pulled aside Michael Frazier, one of the few players who had a good game in this 67-61 drubbing. As he talked to Frazier, Donovan shook his head and then rubbed his forehead when sent his junior guard back to the bench.

By the time Donovan exited the players’ locker room on the way to the coaches’ locker room after the game, he adequately summed up his assessment of the Gators’ play in a critical game of the season.

“It’s a joke,” he told his team as the locker room door swung closed behind him.

After three Elite Eights and a Final Four, Florida all but punched its ticket to the NIT with a loss to Vanderbilt, a team that had won only one SEC game entering Tuesday.

Perhaps the loss wouldn’t have been so frustrating for Donovan if Florida hadn’t picked up a new lease on the NCAA Tournament in the last two games. The Gators have been a Tournament reach since November and December, but defeating Alabama on the road and Arkansas at home in back-to-back games moved Florida onto the fringe of the NCAA bubble.

Florida went to Vanderbilt at a crossroads. A win over the Commodores would continue the Gators’ hot streak and solidify them as a team worth monitoring. A loss to sub-100 RPI team would mark the Gators’ 10th loss this season and effectively end Florida’s at-large hopes.

Even with those stakes in mind, Florida showed up like a team whose season had already come to an end.

Vanderbilt jumped to a 15-0 lead, and the Gators missed their first nine shots from the field. Florida spent most of the game chasing a Vanderbilt of at least five points. The Gators couldn’t defend without fouling, allowing Vanderbilt to amass more made free throws (29 on 42 attempts) than Florida made field goals (21-of-57).

The Gators were “annihilated” on the glass, in Donovan's words — Florida grabbed nine offensive rebounds to Vandy’s 29 defensive boards and 17 defensive rebounds to the Commodores’ 13 offensive boards.

“We were frustrated that we didn’t come out ready to play and we got beat,” Frazier said. “That’s not our culture, and (Donovan) expressed that to us. We’ve got to come out with more energy to start the game.”

Florida is talking about a lack of passion and energy at a critical juncture in February, which is another reason Donovan is so befuddled, even if he saw all the warning signs.

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“Things just have to change,” guard Eli Carter said.

Things have changed for Florida. Unless the Gators can win the SEC Tournament — a feat that would require them or someone else knocking off undefeated Kentucky — Florida is going to the NIT for the first time since 2009.

The loss to Vanderbilt gives the Gators their third loss to a team ranked outside of the top 100 of the RPI, compared to a 1-3 record against the top 50.

Internally, this isn't a total shock. Donovan anticipated falling below the preseason rankings. Despite losing four senior starters, Florida had enough role players and highly touted prospects and transfers in the pipeline to be ranked in the preseason top 10.

What outsiders in the preseason saw was five-star recruits ready to breakout as sophomores (Kasey Hill and Chris Walker), two key returnees with Final Four experience (Frazier and Dorian Finney-Smith) and two transfers ready to make an impact in the frontcourt (Jon Horford from Michigan and Alex Murphy from Duke).

What Donovan saw were players who were coming off the bench or playing less than 10 minutes per game for a reason.

“Last year’s team covered up a lot of these returning players’ inconsistencies,” Donovan said. “That’s what you’re seeing is a high level of inconsistency.”

Even if it’s not a surprise that a team of former role players is struggling to find its way as a team of starters, that the problems have continued into February is a source of frustration.

The Gators can defend. They are ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency on KenPom. Even in a game in which nothing went right for the Gators, the defense was a spark for the offense. When Florida started to close the gap on Vanderbilt, the Gators picked up turnovers on the press (18 total) and were able to get into transition.

But this is still a team that can’t seem to figure out how to score enough to string together wins in SEC play. 

“For our guys, there’s a difference between performance and competing,” Donovan said. “Our guys get wrapped up in performing well, but we don’t compete well. That was the difference.”

In other words, Donovan has a bunch of players who believe they need to perform individually for the team to win. That’s a long way from last year’s team that went 18-0 in the SEC with four players averaging double figures but none more than 14 points per game.

After this latest loss, though, Donovan has seemed to resigned himself that those answers haven’t come in time for an NCAA bid this season.

“They’ve got to learn and they’ve got to grow, and they’re not...” Donovan trailed off. “Sometimes it takes going through a season like this to really understand how far we have to go as a team and how far they have to go as individuals.”