Men's Basketball Headline
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Billy Donovan met with the local press for nearly 30 minutes Monday and probably spent 20 minutes answering questions about the Southeastern Conference and its ESPN partnership that has most league teams playing games on both Thursday and Saturday during the season for the benefit of television exposure.
The quick-turnaround certainly puts teams in difficult situations with regard to preparation and becomes more difficult when there is travel involved. It’s controversial because not everybody school has to deal with the 48-hour blitz of two games, but as Donovan said more than once Monday, “It is what it is.”
So you do what you do.
The 14th-ranked Gators (15-4, 3-1) are on the road to face a very tough foe in Ole Miss (13-6, 3-2) Thursday night, but regardless what at the raucous “Tad Pad,” Donovan and his staff already have taken steps to make sure UF’s sneakers don’t get caught in the Mississippi mud, given they’ll have just one day to prepare for Saturday afternoon’s visit from No. 18 Mississippi State at the O’Connell Center.
That old cliché` about “taking ‘em one game at a time” applies to players, not coaches.
“Your players are only going to be as prepared as you are,” Florida assistant coach Matt McCall said. “You have to become an expert on that [opponent] very quickly because they’re relying on the information you give them.”
It’s called scouting and it’s part of the lifeblood of a program’s success, especially when a team hits a rapid-fire succession of games on its schedule.
Take the game against Ole Miss. The UF players may have gotten their first nuggets of information about the Rebels on Monday, but the Florida staff has been piecing together a game plan for them for nearly two weeks. Same goes for the Mississippi State game Saturday.
Before the start of a season, UF assistant to the head coach Darren Hertz gives the staff a rotating scouting schedule that assigns each opponent to the assistant coach team of McCall, Norm Roberts and John Pelphrey, and their work on an opponent usually starts 10 days to two weeks out. It begins with studying tape. Lots of tape.
“You’ve got to look at at least five games, but probably more like eight,” Hertz said. “Sometimes even 10.”
In those games, of course, are the games within the games. Every player, set, situation and nuance needs to be broken down before the designated scout coach can sit down with Donovan to begin formulating the final plan. Getting to that point takes some serious man hours, whether it’s working behind the desk in his office, taking DVDs home or even watching games on laptop computers in airports are on jets during recruiting trip.
UF’s basketball facility has a lounge with some cushy couches and a giant flat-screen television. “The Dungeon,” as the staff likes to call it, is where Pelphrey grabs a sandwich, the clicker and goes to work.
The initial reviews are about making observations and taking notes on each game. This late in the season, the scout won’t go back too far. He wants to keep things fairly recent. Case in point: Ole Miss was a different team in November and December when guard Dundrecous Nelson was leading the team in scoring and 3-point shooting. Nelson was dismissed from program earlier this month.
“They were running a lot of dribble-weave because they were more of a perimeter-oriented team,” Roberts said. “Now, they’re more of a throw-it-inside, isolation, one-on-one attack basketball team.”
Roberts came to UF from St. John’s, where scouting the Big East Conference and its 16 teams was practically an art form. A team could face Syracuse and that vaunted 2-3 match-up zone Saturday, Louisville’s full-court press on Monday and Georgetown’s wick backdoor, Princeton-like cuts on later in the week.
“Every game was physical with so many different styles of play that sometimes you were like, ‘Oh my God, what is this?’ “ Roberts said. “You had to do your homework.”
They do it here, too. By the time the coaches come to Donovan with reports, they have to be ready for his third-degree inquiries.
“I ask a million questions,” Donovan said. “My favorite is, ‘Why?’ I want to hear why. I want them to explain to me why we’re going to do that. I want answers.”
UF scouts will huddle with an assigned member of the support staff to come up with points of emphasis specific to the opponent.
Two weeks ago, Pelphrey scribbled notes on a grease board in the “dungeon” a week before UF’s road date at South Carolina. He highlighted the Gamecocks’ length and athleticism, their offensive rebounding, their preference to fast-break and need to pressure their ball-handlers. In another column, he jotted down a practice plan that emphasized offensive execution (especially spacing, screening and ball movement), plus transition defense, overloading USC’s zone defense and rebounding.
“There’s got to be specifics with the plan,” Pelphrey said. “Everybody goes into a game saying, ‘We’ve got to take care of the ball.’ Or, ‘We’ve got to make shots.’ Well, no kidding. Of course you have to do those things. But you’ve got to find maybe three things on offense and three things on defense to give [the players] that they can focus on.”
Donovan calls them “absolutes.”
As in, “We absolutely have to do these things to win the game.”
“You’ve got side-in out-of-bounds plays, zone offense, man offense and all this information coming at them and you’re telling them they have to do this and that -- but what is really important?” Donovan said. “That’s why we try to clean it for them.”
The “absolutes” heading into LSU game last weekend:
* On offense: 1) Avoid driving the ball down the middle of the lane against the Tigers because they’re excellent at reaching in and creating steal opportunities; 2) Initiate the offense through ball movement, starting in the post; 3) Keep good space the floor so the “alley” can be exploited.
* On defense: 1) Don’t get hurt on the offensive glass; 2) Guard the 3-point line; 3) Do not bail ball-handlers with unnecessary fouls.
These specific points are introduced to the team in what’s called a “first look.” Oftentimes, the look will come on the big screen inside the practice gymnasium, and probably last 10 minutes while the players stand after (sometimes during) practice and get a quick lesson on the opponent from the scout.
In a normal week, most “looks” will last probably no more than 10-20 minutes. Most are after or before practice. Some are in the lounge, some in the locker room. They’ll get more at team meetings on the road and during meals. All told, maybe five or six quick film sessions before a game. Each will spoon out a little more specific information about individual players, offensive sets, defenses and late-game situations.
And then there are the unique -- read: difficult -- scouting circumstances like the one that must be presented on the Friday of a Thursday-Saturday turnaround.
“You can’t give them too much,” Donovan said. “It confuses them.”
Added Pelphrey: “Never go crazy with new stuff, either. Put in a 1-3-1? Um, no.”
The designated Mississippi State scout is McCall. Lucky him. The Gators will get back from Oxford probably in the wee hours of Friday morning and report for practice 12 hours later to be downloaded with intel about a ranked Bulldogs bunch fresh off a huge road win at Vanderbilt and not a month removed from a two-point loss to Baylor.
McCall’s take: piece of cake.
That’s because McCall spent the previous three seasons at Florida Atlantic, where the program played Thursday-Saturday routinely, and flew commercial doing it.
“Sometimes, we didn’t get home until Friday night at 9 o’clock, so this is a big difference,” McCall said with a smile. “Basically, you just have to hit the high points on Friday and break it down for them as simple as a possible. You can’t toss a playbook at them and say, ‘Read it.’ It’s three four or things we have to do really, really well.”
None of it can be done without Donovan trusting his staff to do it really, really well.
“I like my guys, like what they do,” he said. “I always feel like we’re prepared, and that’s a credit to them.”