UF's late struggles mental?
Published: Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 8:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 12:13 a.m.
For Florida coaches and players, the realization is clear.
Who: Florida vs. Georgia-LSU winner at 1 p.m.
On TV: ESPNU
Radio: AM-850 and 103.7 FM
The No. 13 Gators have been labeled as choke artists, a team capable of blowing out opponents but unable to respond once the first sign of adversity hits in a late-game situation.
The latest display of crunch-time ineptitude occurred last Saturday in Rupp Arena, where Florida went its final 14 trips down the floor without scoring in a 61-57 loss to Kentucky.
By allowing the Wildcats to close the game with an 11-0 run, the Gators dropped to 0-5 this season in games decided by six points or less. Overall, the Gators have lost their last eight games by single digits. Florida has let second-half leads slip away in six of the eight losses.
The close losses have led some to suggest UF's problems in closing out games are mental. Florida coach Billy Donovan said earlier this week he doesn't think so, referencing Scottie Wilbekin's missed lob on an alley-oop attempt to Casey Prather late in the Kentucky game as an example.
“I look at guys being tensed up, and the last thing I can tell you right now is Scottie Wilbekin is concerned about that,” Donovan said. “The guy's throwing a left-handed pass across his body. You've got to have some level of fearlessness to do that, you know? He's in the lane driving it. I don't sense that from our guys.”
So if not fear, then what's the problem?
“If anything, I see maybe an overconfidence or ‘We're going to be OK' kind of thing,” Donovan said. “I don't get, ‘Oh my gosh.' I don't see guys shying away from the ball. I don't see Kenny Boynton not wanting to take a shot. I don't see Scottie Wilbekin not driving or wanting to take a shot. I don't see guys running and hiding and, ‘Hey, don't throw it to me.' That would be to me what I would call choking is the guys in that moment of truth, don't want the ball, don't want to make the play.”
Dr. Randall Coeshott, a sports psychologist based in Walnut Creek, Calif., said it is natural for teams who build a lead to let up in competition. A former tennis player, Coeshott's clients are mostly high school and college athletes in individual and team sports.
“There's some mental component to it,” Coeshott said. “A team that has built a lead, it is certainly a lot harder to maintain it. There is a tendency to relax. A team that is really, really down will be more focused and play harder to catch up.”
But, Coeshott added: “What we usually find is that a team that plays that hard tends to fall back down because it's hard to sustain a high level of play for a long period of time.”
In Florida's collapses at Arizona, at Missouri and at Kentucky, the length of runs were mixed. In the Kentucky run, Florida was outscored 11-0 in the final 7:36, a significant stretch. Missouri's second-half run was shorter, but just as effective. Down 49-36 with 10:51 remaining, Missouri outscored Florida 12-0 in the next 2:51 to get back into the game.
At Arizona, Florida was done in by a pair of runs — outscored 8-0 in the final 1:17 of the first half and a 7-0 run in the final 1:01 of the game.
A common denominator of the three losses — they were all road games. Coeshott doesn't view that as a coincidence. Florida had its best comeback of the season at home, rallying from down eight points to beat Alabama 64-52. The Gators outscored Alabama 27-7 in the final 12:23.
“Teams may be more comfortable at home because you know where you are sleeping, the food that you eat, the arena that you play in, the rims,” Coeshott said. “It's important on the road for coaches to develop some kind of consistent routine which will allow athletes to feel comfortable.”
In the three close losses (Arizona, Missouri and Kentucky), Florida still had chances to tie or win the game with a clutch shot. In all three instances, Boynton was unable to deliver. At Arizona, Boynton, a senior, missed the front-end of a one-and-one trip to the free-throw line with 22.3 seconds left that kept Florida's slim lead at 64-63. At Missouri, Boynton missed a challenged 3-point attempt with 7.8 seconds left and Florida down 61-60. At Kentucky, down 59-57, Boynton missed a semi-challenged mid-range jump shot with 15 seconds left.
Coeshott said it's common to feel late-game anxiety when taking a game-tying or game-winning shot.
“When the athlete focuses on the outcome instead of the process, the process is altered,” Coeshott said.
Coeshott's advice: “Eventually, for a person to make a basket, the mechanics of what you go through don't really change. The only thing that changes is the situation. People may have in their mind, ‘I need to make this shot to win the game' rather than ‘What do I need to do to make this shot? Do I need to square up properly? Am I taking a good shot?' You can create a level of anxiety and it can disrupt your timing or your mechanics because you aren't focusing on the process.”
Coeshott also said he wouldn't fault Donovan for putting Boynton in the same situation again going forward.
“There are a lot of people who subscribe to the theory of the hot hand when the data shows there is no such thing,” Coeshott said. “You can miss four shots in a row, and it doesn't have an impact on the outcome of the next shot. The guy who misses four shots in a row is just as likely to make the next shot as the guy who has made four shots in a row. The key thing is putting yourself in a situation where you get good shots.”
For a team as experienced as Florida (three seniors, two juniors as starters), there is a thought that the Gators should be more equipped to internalize and handle clutch situations.
“Experienced teams should be more comfortable because they have been through situations,” Coeshott said. “But I know that a team like the Gators, most of the teams that are facing them are probably underdogs. The other team is going to expend extra energy and effort to beat the Gators because they know how talented a team like Florida is and they know a win against the Gators could make their season. And for the team that's favored, there's a natural tendency to relax, especially if it's not against a rival team.”
Florida (24-6, 14-4 SEC) has a chance to rewrite its meltdown legacy, beginning in Friday's SEC Tournament quarterfinals.
“We're going to get into a close situation again,” Donovan said. “There's no doubt about it. How will we respond? I don't know. What happened in the past doesn't mean it's going to happen again. I've seen some growth and I've seen strides in the right direction while dealing with those things.”