UF back on proving ground
Published: Friday, January 27, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 27, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
Forget the top-5 ranking. Forget the 17 straight wins. Forget the praise.
All the success Florida achieved over the first two months of the season has been stripped away by back-to-back losses at Tennessee and South Carolina.
Billy Donovan believes the humbling losses have made his team as unproven as it was in November.
"We're right back to where we were before the season started," Donovan said following Wednesday's 68-62 loss to the Gamecocks. "We've got to be able to prove ourselves. I think it's pretty evident that we're not a top-5, top-10, top-15 ranked team."
Florida was playing for the chance to be No. 1 just six days ago. Now the Gators (17-2, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) are suddenly immersed in a three-way tie for second place in the SEC East with Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Tennessee (13-3, 4-1) leads the division.
Florida looks to avoid its first three-game losing streak since the 2002-03 season when it faces Vanderbilt on Saturday afternoon in the O'Connell Center.
Donovan said the sudden reversal of fortune has delivered the first bout of adversity for his underclassmen.
Heading into last Saturday's game at Tennessee, Florida had won 25 of 26 games dating to Feb. 23 of last year. That extended period of success has made this two-game skid an unusual experience for a young team which starts four sophomores and plays two freshmen off the bench.
"This is definitely new territory for an Al Horford, a Corey Brewer, a Joakim Noah and some of the other guys," Donovan said. "Probably three-quarters of our team hasn't been through this. I think that it's going to be important, coaching-wise, for us to help them understand how to go through it."
Donovan, of course, is no stranger to battling adversity. He cited two such instances on Thursday including his 2000-01 team overcoming a 1-3 start in conference play to finish 12-4 and his 2003-04 team overcoming the midseason departure of Christian Drejer to win 20 games.
"I've been fortunate since I've been here in that when our back has been against the wall our guys have responded very well," Donovan said. "A lot of that has to do with the mindset and mentality of your team."
Right now, that mindset is a big question. Noah said the Gators had been listening to the hype surrounding their team and played "soft" at South Carolina.
The Gators committed 17 turnovers and allowed the Gamecocks to grab 14 offensive rebounds in the game. That was a problem at Tennessee, as well. The Gators allowed the Vols to pull down 15 offensive boards while Florida turned the ball over 19 times.
"The biggest thing I have to do as a coach is to have them understand why they win or lose," Donovan said. "It's two things. It's what's on the stat sheet and it's recognizing who's on the floor and who can do what."
Adding to their troubles, the Gators have played the last two games without a healthy Brewer, who sprained his right ankle in the first half against the Vols. Brewer played 31 minutes at South Carolina but was clearly not 100 percent. He scored seven points on 2-for-7 shooting and grabbed just one rebound.
Guard Lee Humphrey has also cooled off from the perimeter during Florida's two-game losing streak. Humphrey, who entered the Tennessee game among the nation's leaders in 3-point accuracy at 53 percent, has made just 3-of-10 from that range since.
"I thought there were times (against South Carolina) when guys created off the dribble and didn't find him," Donovan said. "I thought he should have gotten up 10 or 11 shots. There was three or four or five times when our guys missed him. Our team has got to do a better job of recognizing when he's open and getting him the basketball."
Donovan reiterated Thursday that every team goes through difficult stretches throughout the season. His team is not immune.
"I don't think the University of Florida is any more lucky or any more snakebitten than anyone else," Donovan said. " Everyone is dealing with it in one form or fashion whether it's an injury or consecutive losses."
You can reach Brandon Zimmerman by e-mail at email@example.com.
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