Changes were slight, results anything but


Published: Wednesday, January 22, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 22, 2003 at 12:13 a.m.

Boy, that Billy Donovan sure can coach in a close game.

This year.

There is that perception surrounding this Gator basketball team - that a year ago Donovan pushed all the wrong buttons that led to a 1-7 record in close games and this year he's pushing the right ones.

Florida has won five straight close games, including two of their first four in the SEC. If Donovan suddenly found the key to winning games that come down to the last couple of possessions, it's a good thing for Florida because there are more to come.

But the truth is that any changes the Florida coaches have made this season have been slight.

"We haven't changed strategies," Donovan said. "But you teach differently. Maybe what I was trying to teach wasn't getting through last year."

To that end, at Florida's first practice this season he showed the team tape from the last few minutes of eight key games from 2001-2002. Most of them were heartbreaking losses, but Donovan included a four-point win over Michigan State when the Gators almost blew a big lead late.

He showed them their tendencies, how his team took too many three-point shots in the last five minutes of close games, how it was losing the battle of the boards in crunch time, how the defense allowed the opponents to shoot 60 percent in those important minutes.

All of those stats added up to Florida's season being a disappointment. A team that was 15-2 at one point ended up one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament.

Again, Florida is 15-2 with Vanderbilt coming to town tonight. But this is different. These Gators are finding ways to win the close games rather than losing them.

"Last year, we were hoping to win by hoping they'd miss," Donovan said. "This year, we have some guys who aren't afraid to step up and make plays. Last year, we were looking for that guy. Brett Nelson tried to do it, but he overextended himself. It fell on his shoulders because guys shied away from that last shot. Udonis Haslem wanted to do it, but when three guys are hanging on you it's difficult."

This year, the weapons are numerous. Not only does Florida have seniors who are willing to take the last shot, but the Gators have a pair of freshmen who have made them. Matt Walsh did it with free throws against Maryland, Anthony Roberson with his buzzer-beater against Georgia. It was Walsh who drove the lane for the clinching basket at Mississippi State and fired a bullet bounce pass to Matt Bonner for the biggest bucket in the South Carolina game.

"We have a lot of different guys who can do it and who want to do it," Donovan said.

And let's face it. Florida's success in the close games this year doesn't come down to whether Billy Donovan is a great coach or not. It's still all about the players.

Last year, Donovan called plays that got Orien Greene and Matt Bonner open looks at Arkansas and Kentucky. They missed. Gerald Fitch didn't, Jannero Pargo didn't, Terrell Taylor didn't, Antoine Pettway didn't.

It still comes down to shots either going in or not.

"As a coach, if you ever think you are in control out there at the end of a game, you're crazy," Donovan said. "I had no control over Anthony Roberson's shot. You try to put your guys in position to be successful. That's all you can do.

"So many times at the end of a game, a coach will tell his team not to foul. Then the floodgates open and the guy goes right to the basket for a layup. And it usually ends up in a scramble anyway. The play breaks down and someone throws one up. Then it's not the first shot that gets you but the second shot."

Earlier this season, it appeared nothing had changed for the Gators. Tied with Stanford with 20 seconds to play, they lost by four. Two games later, Florida lost at West Virginia when (and you had seen this before) the other guy's last shot went in and Florida's did not.

But it all changed at Florida State, a win that started an 11-game winning streak that has included five wins by five points or fewer. Tim Pickett's rushed buzzer shot missed badly. Florida won by one. The Gators then won consecutive nail-biters on the road.

The worm had turned.

But it can turn again so quickly. Karma, luck, breaks, they all play into this equation as well. What if Carlos Powell doesn't dribble the ball off his foot at South Carolina and gets a good look instead of having to heave one from half-court? What if Pickett's shot had gone in? What if Roberson's didn't?

Well, people would be wondering again why Billy can't win the close ones.

Instead of wondering why the players can't.

But this year they can, they have and they will get tested again. The SEC ranks No. 1 in RPI for a reason and Florida has moved past Kentucky as being the team that conference opponents want to beat the most. You say that's crazy talk?

The Gators are the higher-ranked team. They are also the outsiders, the team that's not supposed to be good in basketball. They're coached by a New Yorker, for gosh sakes.

Look at this season. Florida has played four true road games on the other school's campus. All four were sellouts. All four crowds were ravenous. That won't change as the season rolls along.

Everybody wants to beat Florida, a distinct change from when Donovan first arrived here and everybody did beat Florida.

"For some of these teams, this is the only time all year they are on national TV," Donovan said. "We get their best shots. That's what Duke gets, that's what Kentucky gets, that's what UCLA gets. Look at the game Charleston Southern gave us. Everybody except the second half by Mississippi State, we're getting everybody's best game."

So there will be more buzzers involved over the rest of the season, the conference tournament and the NCAAs. Donovan said Monday that a team's identity is established by what it does in the close games. This Florida team, one that went through so much anguish a year ago, likes the way it looks right now.

You can reach sports columnist Pat Dooley by e-mail at dooleyp@gvillesun.com or by calling 374-5053. You can see Pat on "Sports Showdown" with Larry Vettel on WGFL-CBS 4 Fridays at 11 p.m. and Saturdays at 11:30 a.m.

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