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Thursday December 19, 2013Ghosts of Christmas Past: Gators Look to Avoid Holiday Letdown

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer


GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The Florida Gators put the finishing touches Tuesday night on an impressive 3-1 run through one of the most demanding four-game non-conference stretches in the history of the basketball program.

When UF went to New York this week and defeated 15th-ranked Memphis in the Jimmy V Classic, it marked the first time in Coach Billy Donovan’s 18 seasons the Gators had defeated back-to-back top-15 teams; and that was on the heels of a one-point road loss to 12th-ranked and unbeaten Connecticut and one-point home win over Florida State the week before.

Time to exhale, right?

Yeah, right.

Some recent Gators teams have enjoyed some joyous and festive victories during the Christmas break. Pounding Ohio State 86-60 like the Little Drummer Boy on Dec. 23, 2006, for one. Or decking the O’Connell Center halls with FSU 82-64 on Dec. 22, 2011. 

But some of the Christmastime scenes Donovan will never forget are not of the nativity variety. They’re the kind the No. 16 Gators (8-2) need to avoid as the players look forward to the four-day break that comes after Saturday’s date against Fresno State (6-5) at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla.

Specifically:

* Dec. 19, 2010: Richmond shocks UF 57-54 in the very same Orange Bowl Classic event the Gators will play in this weekend. 

* Dec. 22, 2010: Just three days later, a South Alabama tip-in in the final seconds sends the Gators to their second straight upset loss 67-66. At the O’Dome, no less. 

* Dec. 20, 2011: Jacksonville steals a 71-68 upset win in overtime against a Florida team that went on to win the Southeastern Conference regular-season title.

* Dec. 22, 2012: UF, ranked eighth, comes out flat in Kansas City, falling behind by double-digits and losing 67-61 against Kansas State.

“It’s very, very humbling,” Donovan said.

More like hum-bugging.

That’s why Donovan and his staff used Wednesday -- mere hours after holding off a tough Tigers team at Madison Square Garden -- to review many of the things the Gators did poorly in that win. Ditto the victory the week before over then-No. 13 Kansas.

Such as maintaining intensity for 40 minutes. Such as better defense. Such as cleaner offensive possessions.

“The thing I’m trying to get these guys to understand -- and it takes a level of maturity to understand it -- is that there’s a certain standard we want to play to,” Donovan said. “And our competition has nothing to do with that standard.”

That standard is, well, standard within the program, no matter the time of year. Donovan will use the same talking points well into the SEC season.

But now they'll come amid the usual distractions rolled into the Christmas holidays. The players already have been out of final exams for nearly week and basically lived at the basketball complex since. So it’s only natural that they’re looking forward to when Saturday’s final buzzer goes off and they can go home to see family and friends. Some of them, in fact, will leave from the game.

But first, they need to play the game.

And win it.

“That’s what I’m thinking about now -- playing Fresno State -- and trying to make sure that everybody is focused on the game, and not what they’re going to do after the game,” senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “I just know what happened last year.”

That was the K-State debacle, before which players were busy finalizing their travel plans and such instead of locking in on the Wildcats.

After the game, Donovan lit into his players, saying they performed as if they were already back home, sitting under the tree, opening their presents and drinking egg nog

“Can’t worry about going home,” senior forward Casey Prather. “We have to worry about the game.”

In this case, that means Fresno State. The Bulldogs may not have the pedigree of UF’s last four opponents -- Florida State, UConn, Kansas and Memphis -- but they have five players who average in double-figures and take more than 21 shots a game from behind the 3-point line.

Closing out shooters is just one of the things that's on Donovan's Christmas list. 

He's checking it twice. Hourly.

“It’s the battle you fight with human nature,” Donovan said. “It’s the holidays. No one is here on campus. They want to be home with their families. Human nature says we just got done playing three ranked teams in a row, we were in Madison Square Garden the other night and now we’re going to South Florida, but those are things that take you to a place of complacency, a lack of focus, and take the edge away. You have to have respect for the game.”

'Tis the season to be on high alert.

 

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