One day, like his mentor Rick Pitino, Florida coach Billy Donovan will wind up in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Donovan has been to the Final Four as a player (with Providence in 1987), an assistant coach (with Kentucky in 1993) and as a head coach (with Florida in 2000, 2006 and 2007). He’s guided the Gators to two national titles, three Final Fours and six Elite Eights. His 31 NCAA Tournament wins are the most ever for a coach in the Southeastern Conference.
And yet, Donovan’s teams have struggled in one or two-possession games throughout his 17 year UF tenure. Whether it is lacking a player who can consistently create his own shot, questionable clock/time out management, or just luck, the Gators have been unable to execute with poise and precision late in tight games.
Donovan has talked in the past about the “internal will” it takes to come up with a big play in a late-game situation. And it’s not always a clutch shot. Case in point, during the 2006 SEC Tournament title game, Joakim Noah came up with a rebound and putback to put Florida ahead 49-47 in the closing seconds against South Carolina. Then, Noah raced to the other end of the floor and blocked a Renaldo Balkman shot attempt at the buzzer to preserve the win.
Here’s a year-by-year breakdown of UF’s record in games decided by 5 points or less under Donovan:
1996-97 — 2-3
1997-98 — 5-8
1998-99 — 1-4
1999-00 — 5-3
2000-01 — 2-5
2001-02 — 2-7
2002-03 — 6-5
2003-04 — 3-4
2004-05 — 3-3
2005-06 — 5-5
2006-07 — 3-2
2007-08 — 3-4
2008-09 — 4-6
2009-10 — 6-5
2011-12 — 2-5
2012-13 — 0-4
Overall: 58-77 .464
It’s fair to say that not all close games are decided by five points or less, and Donovan’s teams have tended to pull away in overtime (his overtime record at UF is 16-14 and 3-3 in the NCAA Tournament). But five points has been the standard set to measure most close games decided by one or two possessions.
Of note, the Gators are 2-9 over the last two seasons in games decided by 5 points or less, a disturbing trend. Some national analysts have tended to blame the decision-making of outgoing Florida guards Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker for UF’s late-game struggles. But Walker’s big-shot ability was definitely missed this season. In three seasons with Walker as a starting point guard, the Gators were 12-14 in games decided by 5-points or less. Without him this season, Florida was 0-4.
Another theory that could explain Florida’s late-game struggles — fatigue. Because the Gators play a running, pressing, style, they tend to wear down late in games. Shots come up short. Defensive intensity wanes. Florida played most of the season with an eight-player rotation, though that rotation was cut mostly to seven players during the SEC schedule due to injuries to Casey Prather (who missed most of January with a sprained ankle) and Will Yeguete (who missed most of February after undergoing knee surgery).
Whatever the case, Florida will look to solve its close-games woes with a deeper team next season. A close win or two this past season could have meant the difference between a 1-seed and 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament, and a potential easier path to a Final Four.