Monday July 7, 2014 Summer Basketball Notes: Team USA, offseason conditioning, softball, etc.
Updated: 12:41pm, July 8
Updated: 12:41pm, July 8
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Billy Donovan last week was named the best college basketball coach in the country by a 45-member panel of experts at ESPN.com.
Makes you wonder where he’d rate in the world rankings.
The University of Florida coach two weeks ago led Team USA on a rampage through the FIBA Americas U18 Championship at Colorado Springs, Colo. The Americans won their five games -- over Uruguay, Mexico, Argentina, Dominican Republic and Canada, respectively -- by an average margin of 56.8 points, with a couple 34-point victories making for the closest contests.
Donovan’s record as a USA Basketball head coach now stands at 19-0, to go with his three gold medals, including last year’s run to the U19 title in the World Championships, a competition Americans had won just three times over the last 26 years.
Like the previous two championships -- he also led USA to the 2012 U18 FIBA Americas gold -- this one made for a rewarding summer excursion.
“Getting a group of talented guys who all could have a chance to one day play in the NBA and getting them to see the bigger picture -- a chance to play for something bigger than themselves -- I really enjoy that,” Donovan, pictured above with USA assistants Sean Miller (Arizona), Ed Cooley (Providence) and Mark Daigneault (UF), said last week. “My goal with these kids, first and foremost, was to win the gold medal. After that, you want to give them an experience where they can grow and develop and accomplish something they’ve never experienced before.”
Given the lopsided outcome, winning the gold sounds easy.
But don't tell Donovan that.
While basketball is truly America’s game, the USA goes about fielding teams differently than its international counterparts. The programs in other countries establish a system, overseen by a committee, that moves its athletes through that system -- same offense, same defense, oftentimes the same personnel -- from age group to age group over the years, with the idea of being at their competitive peak in time for the World Championships and Olympics on the four-year cycles.
By the time the major competitions roll around, those teams know their systems and teammates like the back of their shooting hands.
The USA, meanwhile, issues invitations for tryouts annually and crunches its teams into a short periods under different coaches playing different systems.
And it has to come together in a week to 10 days.
While clearly superior on the athletic front, Donovan believes it’s the style of play -- in his case, chaos, uptempo and pressing -- that can prove to be the equalizer.
“Sometimes, when you end up playing these teams in the halfcourt, the game can get bogged down and [the opponents] are very capable of keeping it close and out-executing you because they’re a lot more organized,” Donovan said. “So you try to take a group of kids and utilize the talent level of strengths of these 12 guys in a short period of team by implementing a style that is totally disruptive and totally chaotic.”
Only four of Donovan’s players were bound of college this fall: forward Justus Winslow and point guard Tyus Jones, headed for Duke; Arizona forward Stanley Johnson; 7-foot center Myles Turner, headed for Texas.
The remaining eight players -- while all very good players -- were entering their senior year of high school.
“We sold our guys on having the depth and a number of guys we can play,” Donovan said. “Other teams were playing maybe six guys the majority of minutes and bringing two or three off the bench. Their best players were going a few minutes against some of our guys, then in comes another, then another, then another, and over a period of time they got worn down.”
That’s not always the case in international play, especially facing some of the Eastern European countries, but the depth, skill and a 94-foot game plan worked to the USA’s advantage and thus furthered Donovan’s global hoops profile.
A HEADSTART TO THE FALL
Closer to home, Donovan had some thoughts about a certain other basketball team.
His next version of the Gators.
After saying goodbye to a four-man senior class that went 36-3, won a second straight Southeastern Conference title and posted 30 consecutives wins en route to the Final Four, UF returns just one starter in guard junior Michael Frazier II, plus another two players who averaged at least 22 minutes per game in junior forward and SEC Sixth Man of the Year Dorian Finney-Smith and sophomore point guard Kasey Hill.
How the rest of the lineup shakes out -- and certainly sophomore center Chris Walker, Michigan transfer Jon Horford, Duke transfer Alex Murphy, plus a combination other role returning players and incoming freshmen will factor heavy in that equation -- is something to be determined in the offseason and preseason.
Florida opens the 2014-15 season Nov. 14 against William and Mary.
“One of the thing that can a happen is that a player can create a level of expectation in their mind based on someone not being there anymore and getting their minutes. That’s a mistake,” Donovan said. “We have a lot of guys who are good players, but are they willing to accept roles? There’s not one player on our team right now who will be a similar role to what they were in last year.”
The player who needs to make the most significant jump from last season to next just might be Hill (pictured above). That’s not an indictment of his freshman year performance. Hill, despite ankle and groin injuries that cost him seven games, had some terrific moments, including 10 assists in the Sweet 16 round victory against UCLA, and gave the Gators a nice look in allowing senior Scottie Wilbekin, the SEC Player of the Year, to come off the ball.
Hill did struggle to shoot last season (40.7 percent overall, just 14.3 from 3-point range), but his focus needs to be on doing everything better than he did a year ago; and do it all with more consistently.
And he has to emerge as one of the leaders of this team.
The start of the Summer B semester last week meant strength and conditioning coach Preston Greene’s offseason program is in full swing. NCAA rules allow players to get two hours of work per week with the coaching staff for individual instruction, plus another eight per week training and conditioning.
BILLY D TALKS GATORS SOFTBALL
Last month, in the hours before UF was to face Alabama in the second game of the Women’s College World Series championship round, Donovan called his softball coaching counterpart Tim Walton.
What was supposed to be a quick "good-luck" chat morphed into a 30-minute conversation.
Walton clued in Donovan of his plan not to start ace pitcher Hannah Rogers (with Walton left), who was unbeaten in seven NCAA games, including a win over the Crimson Tide the night before. Rogers, the senior and four-time All-American, had never beaten Bama twice in the same series and Walton planned on going with junior Lauren Haeger, with Rogers ready in relief.
But Walton also knew the decision would be questioned and second-guessed ... which it was.
“My point to him was that he had to sell it to the team,” Donovan said. “If they believed it and trusted his decision, nothing else mattered.”
In fact, Donovan relived for Walton his decision heading into the 2007 NCAA title game against Ohio State when he chose to put Joakim Noah on Greg Oden -- with no help in the halfcourt -- in an effort to eliminate the 3-point line.
The tact was different than how the Gators had defended teams most of the season, but Donovan thought Al Horford so thoroughly outmatched the Buckeyes on both ends; he also saw how Oden, OSU's All-America center, and been saddled with foul trouble in the semifinals against Georgetown and the public outcry that followed.
"Everyone was talking about the best player in the country being on the bench too much of that game," Donovan recalled. "I knew [Oden] was going to have maul guys to have fouls called against us."
As such, the Gators were willing to concede a big night for Oden.
Better yet, Noah accepted the challenge.
Oden got Noah in quick foul trouble, which the Gators were able to absorb through depth. Though Oden finished with 25 points on 10-for-15 shooting, the Buckeyes went 4-for-23 from long distance.
Florida won 84-75 to claim a second straight NCAA title.
“I told Tim that he knew his team better than anybody and whatever he thought he should do to do it, but to go to your team and explain it to them and make them understand,” Donovan said. “I don’t know anything about softball, but it was clear from listening to all his players that their heads weren’t spinning wondering what he was doing. They trusted him and they all said so after that game."