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Wednesday April 10, 2013Something Was Missing: Donovan Ready to Look For It

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Billy Donovan put a wrap on his 2012-13 basketball squad Wednesday during a season-ending news conference.

The Florida coach relived the Michigan loss in the NCAA Tournament, spoke in generalities about his team’s accomplishments, answered questions about the state of the college game and addressed what lies ahead for the Gators in what figures to be another promising 2013-14 campaign.

Afterward, as Donovan and I walked to his upstairs office, he stopped in the hallway and found himself in a conversion that had every bit to do with his previous team as his next one.

“I hate to say it this way ... but there’s just something missing,” Donovan said.

He paused.

“And I don’t know if it’s something we need to do as a staff in terms of practice, but it’s something, you know? I mean, as a coach, and you’ve been dealing with Haslem and Bonner and Horford and Noah and Mike Miller and Dupay and Justin Hamilton ... .”

He stopped again, but he really didn’t need to continue.

Donovan had just reeled off a murderer’s row of some of his all-time killer-instinct Gators.

Yeah, there was something missing from the team that went 29-8, won the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship and advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA bracket for a third straight year. A tremendous season most programs across America would gladly trade for.

Along the way, however, came those losses that were as gut-wrenching as they were confounding -- blowing a seven-point lead in the final minute at Arizona and going scoreless in the final 7 1/2 minutes to lose at Kentucky come to mind -- and put that missing something out there for everyone to see.

As for that 20-point Michigan annihilation? The Wolverines scored the game’s first 13 points and never lost momentum. That one basically was over from the opening tip. The Gators’ body language amid the ambush said as much.

It certainly told their coach something.  

And I’ll even take it a step further and say that certain something wasn’t there last year, either.

Maybe even the year before.

So now comes the annual self-evaluation phase for Donovan and his assistants. The coach with 450 career wins and 13 straight 20-win seasons will gather his staff in the conference room around that same table you see in a commercial that aired countless times during March Madness and commence talking, scrutinizing and breaking down the “logistics” of the Florida program.

In meeting the media Wednesday, Donovan spoke of how the offense got stagnant late in the season (missed shots in the paint were killers) and some deficiencies in rebounding (Will Yeguete’s injury certainly impacted that) while praising an overall commitment and improvement on defense relative to past seasons.

But even in his explanation, you could see Donovan was preoccupied by that something.

“For me, I still look at those moments and those situations where, do our guys really have a relentless and persistent drive and [a] will to win those moments,” Donovan said, immediately noting that even a good UF outing against Michigan may not have been good enough against the red-hot Wolverines in the South Region final. “The last two years, we had the opportunity to win the game.”

Yes, they did.

Case anyone forgot, the Gators led Butler by 11 with nine minutes to go in the Elite Eight in 2011 and lost in overtime. They led Louisville by 11 with eight minutes to go in the 2012 Elite Eight and lost by three.

This year, there was Arizona in December, Missouri in February (up 13 with 11 minutes to go and lost), Kentucky and, of course, the second-half crumbling against Ole Miss in a 66-63 loss in the SEC Tournament championship game.

So yeah, the coaches will meet a bunch in the coming weeks and months. Decisions, direction and debate will ensue. But it goes back to that something else. Something that can’t be hatched in a conference room.

Eventually, the players have to bring a little of that something -- preferably a lot -- to the table.

“I didn’t create Joakim Noah’s passion, energy, intensity, heart, toughness. That was in there. I think as a coaching staff we fostered it,” Donovan said. “That’s an area our guys need to get better. We need to be more relentless. We need to be tougher. We need to be mentally stronger. A mental will. We have to be better there. When adversity hits, when those things hit, we’ve got to get tougher. We have to get more competitive. Get nastier. We have to have more of that internal drive and will in those moments.”

Those traits showed up in a couple games late in the season against Alabama and again in the NCAA Tournament when Minnesota made things dicey in the second half.

For the Florida coaches, it was something to see.

And something they’ll look to cultivate between now and October.

Somehow.

 

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