Donovan expects improved defense this year


Published: Thursday, October 19, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 19, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
The game inside the game occurred during the long afternoons inside the Florida basketball practice facility.
There, Florida coach Billy Donovan would draw up plays for the offense, while assistant coach Larry Shyatt countered with his strategy on the defensive side. Each possession became a mini-scrimmage, with pride on the line.
"If Coach Donovan ran a play, and they scored a layup, he'd say, 'Did you have anything planned for that shot?' " junior forward Joakim Noah said. "Coach Donovan and Coach Shyatt are definitely competitive in their own ways."
Reigning 2006 champion Florida rode the strength of its defense to its first national title in school history. In six NCAA Tournament games, the Gators held opponents to a combined 34.7 percent from the floor, blocked 44 shots, tallied 28 steals and forced an average of 11.3 turnovers per game.
Yet Donovan expects his defense to not only reach, but exceed the lofty level it reached last March.
"We've got a chance to be better defensively this year," Donovan said. "We're a year older and have a better understanding of what we want to do."
Last season, Florida set a school record for blocked shots (207) and held opponents to 39.9 shooting from the floor. But there were pockets of inconsistency. Badly out-rebounded by Alabama and Arkansas during its three-game SEC losing streak in late February, Florida also allowed South Carolina to shoot nearly 50 percent (10-for-21) from the 3-point line in a home loss earlier that month.
"We had times throughout the course of the season where we didn't rebound well enough, we didn't guard the 3-point line well enough," Donovan said. "Maybe through some of the heartaches from losing some games it really pointed out and emphasized some areas where we need to get better in and we really finished up the year very strongly defending and rebounding."
The emphasis on defense has been consistent this season since Florida held its 10 practices for last month's Canadian exhibition tour.
"We know what we have to do to play defense at that level," said Noah, who set an NCAA Tournament record for blocked shots with 29. "At the end of the year last year, I think we definitely made strides. But I think what coach tells us is there's always room for improvement. That's something I feel like we're all buying into."
Donovan said he intends to press in spots like he did last season, if for no other reason than to pick up the tempo. South Carolina nearly upset Florida in the SEC Tournament title game last season by slowing the pace down.
"I don't want to abandon it because I think it's part of what I believe in and I think it's hopefully our identity here," Donovan said. "But I think we've also gotten to a point where we can defend for longer periods of time, and we can still run and do things offensively."
Florida's four incoming freshmen are adapting to the grinding, defensive intensity of practices. Freshman guard Brandon Powell, who prides himself on his perimeter defense, engaged in a playful game of cat-and-mouse with Noah.
Powell claimed he was a cat, and that everyone else around him were mice he could gather up defensively. That was until Noah burned him on the perimeter with a cross-over dribble, and declared himself the rat, bigger than the mouse that Powell was used to containing.
"We still have a long way to go, not just to get better but to get to the level we did last year," Noah said. "And that's not just because of the young guys, that's all of us. You know, just in terms of endurance and trust. All those things will come. I feel like we're definitely making strides right now."
  • FREE THROWS: Noah said he practiced for the first time at the wing this season Tuesday, but expects to play less there this season than last season because of the addition of freshmen combo forwards Dan Werner and Jonathan Mitchell. "I feel like that's something I'm really not going to need to do this year," Noah said. "Last year, I needed to do it because of our personnel. My strength is at the (power forward) spot." ... Sophomore guard Walter Hodge is continuing to impress in practice. Said Donovan: "There's a comfort level with him now. He's a little bit more at ease than he was a year ago."
    Kevin Brockway can be reached at (352) 374-5054 or by e-mail at brockwk@gvillesun.com
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