High-flying Gators focus on staying grounded
Published: Tuesday, January 28, 2014 at 6:15 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 27, 2014 at 11:43 p.m.
Florida coach Billy Donovan has dealt with enough teams to know when complacency becomes a problem.
Who: No. 3 Florida (17-2, 6-0) at Mississippi State (13-6, 3-3)
When: Thursday at 7 p.m.
Radio: 103.7 FM, AM-850
He doesn't sense it from a senior-laden Florida team that moved up three spots to No. 3 in this week's AP men's basketball poll. The Gators (17-2, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) have won 11 in a row, riding their longest in-season winning streak since winning 17 in a row to start the 2005-06 season.
In the process, Florida is receiving effusive praise from rival coaches throughout the league. The Gators remain the only unbeaten team in conference play.
“They (Florida) play so hard, they don't need heart monitors,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
“(Florida) was the best defense I've seen since I've been a part of Tennessee basketball, against any team,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said at his media luncheon, two days after UF's 67-41 win over the Vols.
Donovan and the rest of UF's coaching staff will try to keep the Gators grounded heading into a second straight Thursday night road matchup, this time at Mississippi State.
“Anytime after a game, whatever the game, there is a certain effect that it's going to have on your team and on your players,” Donovan said. “I think right now our guys appear to be in a good place, but for me it's all about our guys trying to get better and improve.”
After all, Florida players can look just to last season at how quickly things can change. Nearly one year ago, Florida peaked with a No. 2 ranking heading into a Feb. 5, 2013 game at Arkansas. But on a night when Arkansas shot ridiculously well from the perimeter and forward Will Yeguete went down with a knee injury, the Razorbacks upset the Gators 80-69. Florida trailed by as many as 27 points in the second half after Arkansas started the game making 7 of its first 9 3-point attempts.
“Last year, our team, I think, got complacent at times,” Florida sophomore guard Michael Frazier said. “Even this year, we've gotten complacent at times. So moving forward, I think the thing our team is having now is to be desperate, play desperate. I think if we take on that identity, it'll help a lot.”
It helps to have senior leadership as well. Starters Patric Young, Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin and Yeguete have combined to win 101 basketball games. Yeguete said he tries to pass down to younger players the importance of preparation.
“They don't really know how to get themselves prepared, how to to make their way through practice every single day,” Yeguete said. “We talk to them and let them know that we have to get ourselves ready.”
It would be easy for the Gators to overlook Mississippi State, considering Florida routed the Bulldogs 82-47 at Humphrey Coliseum last season. Florida shot a blistering 45.2 percent (14-31) from 3-point range during the game, with most of the damage coming from departed seniors Erik Murphy and Kenny Boynton (a combined 8 of 14 from beyond the arc).
Florida leads the SEC in scoring defense (58.8 points allowed per game), is second in field goal percentage offense (46.3 percent) and third in field goal percentage defense (.388). Offensively, the Gators are still prone to scoring droughts, but rarely let those stretches impact their effort and intensity on the defensive end of the floor.
After the Mississippi State game, the Gators will face another quick turnaround with a Saturday home game against Texas A&M. For now, though, Donovan wants his team's focus squarely on the Bulldogs.
“As a coach you always want to go into every game on edge and understanding that in any competitive situation anything can happen,” Donovan said. “Hopefully our guys will respond to that.”