Dooley: Donovan has Gators buying in on defense


Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin (5) steals the ball while applying full-court pressure on Georgia guard Charles Mann (4) during the first half of the Gators' 72-50 win at the O'Connell Center on Tuesday.

Matt Stamey / Staff photographer
Published: Tuesday, January 14, 2014 at 11:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 14, 2014 at 11:18 p.m.

By the time the barrage arrived, it was already over. The 3s started flying like they were giving them away with the orange-and-blue shakers, and with every one of six straight makes, the crowd became louder.

It ended up a 22-point win for Florida, its 25th straight at home, and one that fell into line with so many of the ones that came before it.

Because while you can’t win without points, it was defense that allowed Florida to have such a comfortable victory over a team that came to the O’Dome with hope.

I think it was Shia LaBeouf who said, “Offense is easy. Defense is hard.” (You didn’t watch the Golden Globes?)

“The biggest thing you have to do as a coach,” said Billy Donovan, “is sell how you want to play.”

Tuesday night against a Georgia team that had won its first two SEC games, the plan was to press hard and defend even harder in the halfcourt.

And for a team that has defended well in spurts this year and was playing again without the player who is arguably its best defender (Casey Prather), Florida suffocated Georgia.

“The game was decided right there in the first half,” said Georgia’s Marcus Thornton. “Once you get behind the eight-ball in a place like Florida, they will crush you quickly.”

Georgia had 12 turnovers and made all of six shots in the first half. It didn’t help that the Bulldogs missed two dunks or that Florida nearly made as many shots (16) as Georgia took (19) in the first half.

Georgia’s Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines came in each averaging in double figures. They didn’t reach double digits combined until Mann hit a 3 with 4:24 to play in the game.

“They had no answer for us in the first half,” said senior Will Yeguete.

No, they did not and despite a little flurry that allowed the Bulldogs to creep within 14 in the second half, the Florida defense never allowed it to get dangerous.

When so many people think of Donovan as a head coach, they think 3-point shots and tempo. But it is Donovan’s ability to sell his teams on playing defense that has been the edge for this program’s success.

High school kids rarely come to college thinking, “I’m here to defend.” Instead, they’re wondering how the offense can be tailored to their strengths and how loud it’s going to get when they hit big shots.

But Donovan has been able to make a lot of skilled offensive players understand the importance of every possession.

Case in point — Michael Frazier II.

He knocked down five 3-point shots, four in a row during Florida’s late boat-racing of the Bulldogs, but it has been his ability to make the transition from shooter to complete player that has him on the floor so much this year.

“He got really good on defense,” Yeguete said. “Teams used to go at him last year.”

Don’t get me wrong, Georgia is far from the most skilled offensive team Florida will play. And Florida is a bad matchup for a team without a savvy point guard.

And, of course, defense is easier to play in front of a home crowd.

“They say home court is a myth,” senior Patric Young said, “but it is true.”

There is much more to playing good defense than the fuel supplied by fans, but it helps. So does scouting. So does the meticulous work Donovan’s staff did a couple of years ago in breaking down every basket the Gators allowed.

And then there is the ultimate motivation. Any time Donovan wants to illustrate how important defense is, all he has to do is point to the banners.

“It’s not hard to buy in when a guy has accomplished as much as he has,” Young said. “He’s been there. He’s telling us how to win a national championship.”

For now, it’s only about carrying that defense on the road for the next game. It can be fleeting when the opponent has the throaty crowd behind it. And it can vanish in an instant if focus wanes at all.

“When we’re trying to do what we’re trying to do, it’s hard to sustain,” Donovan said. “Can you sustain that intensity? For a lot of teams, that’s hard.”

Yep. It’s supposed to be hard.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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