Billy D and the close game conundrum


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

2010-11 –6-4

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.



  1. How many times do we have to read about this Kevin? I agree its a trend that needs to be reversed, but you bring it up as if you have an axe to grind. Billy took a good team and won the SEC this year and made yet another trip to the elite 8 with only 8 players. Congratulations Coach Billy D!

  2. I say we had a pretty easy path to the final 4, we just sucked when we got to Jerry Stadium.. the one problem with this years team was when one person seem to struggle.. the entire team did. Next years team will be something special.

  3. Stop it Kevin!! Don’t criticize our Gators. I wonder if all these people who believe you have an “axe to grind” would tend to talk things over with their child if child continued to display a propensity to come up short in something important–Let’s say SAT testing. You know if an entity continues to display an inability to perform in stressful situations, it would almost behoove anyone with an interest in the entity to call attention to the problem. UNLESS you are an avowed sycophant who believes it sacreligeous to express any criticism for the source of his or her object of devotion.

  4. Every coach has their achilles heal or some hump that has always plagued them. for example, spurrier never won in Tally. I dont think Donovan has a
    problem with this close game issue. I think its personnel that determine success in clutch situations. Remember Mike Miller in the 1srt round of the
    2000 ncaa tournament? and then we go on to make the final game. It’s great to have donovan. what a record.

  5. I agree with Ryan… Doesn’t get much easier than three double-digit seeds to get to the elite eight and then a four seed to get to the final four. We probably had the easiest path of any of the teams there.

  6. Wow “Lou”, relax a bit. One person’s comment shouldn’t morph into “all these people” but thanks for the parenting lesson, I guess. If I understand “uflajeff” correctly, he got it the first couple of times he read Kevin’s opinion on the subject. As did I. Grinding axes and what not, I couldn’t tell you. As far as I know, Kev is hard up for material and keeps regurgitating the same story in a slightly altered form.

  7. -Winning 46.4% of games we deem “close”
    -Winning 2 national championships in 17 years (12% of seasons).

    So if in the fraction of the games we call close, if only he could win an extra 3.6%, the difference would be what…. that he would be an “average coach?” You do realize that if he won just 9 more games over a 17 year period this would be a non-issue we would say he won essentially half of these games and no one would care.

    I’ll take the 20 win seasons, the SEC championships, the recurrent tourney appearances and the 2 national championships.

  8. “A close win or two this past season could have meant the difference between a 1-seed and a 3-seed in the NCAA tournament, and potential easier path to a Final Four.” Well since Michigan was a 4 seed and if UF had been the 1-seed in the South region it means they would have played in the Sweet 16, just saying. Maybe it is time for a fresh topic, perhaps an in depth analysis of recruits in the 14 or 15 class?

  9. Kevin,

    i read all you articles but this one is a waste. argues that the Gators have had close games and pulled away in the end to make them appear not close. And, The Gators had the easiest path to the Elite 8 of amy other school in the Tourney dues to FGCU’s upset of Georgetown. come on!!

  10. Kevin’s probably right about fatigue, as this last team rarely played in good health. And in the last few weeks, given Florida’s dominance earlier in the season, the Gators got everyone else ‘s best shot. Re: Michigan, Billy D pointed to “almost wanting it too much” resulting in tight, poor shooting. Our coach is extraordinary for all he’s accomplishing. Next year looks terrific.

  11. haven’t you already did a post about this before?…so what’s the point of doing this again???…smh…not to mention sometimes it’s also about the make up of the teams too…UF hasn’t had to many college super stars like D. wade, D. rose, and etc

  12. I agree with the previous comments about this being covered ground. Of course it’s about personnel. This year’s team had 2 seniors whose confidence eroded down the stretch, and there were no other true shotmakers. Maybe that’s from fatigue (or injury);maybe it’s intestinal fortitude and decision-making. There were too many long-contested jump shots when the Gators needed a basket. That’s an easy way to lose games.

    I don’t know if there’s an obvious shotmaker to step up for next season (yet), but I think that team will be more efficient in its half-court offense.

    It was a frustrating end to a great season. Sort of like the Sugar Bowl.

  13. OK, I have good friend who had a long conversation with a former starting player at UF, a very bright and articulate young man, who while he gave Billy many accolades on his coaching and recruiting prowess, did describe Billy as a poor, heat of the moment, end of game situational strategist. We live in America. Just because you love a coach, or politician, doesn’t mean you can’t criticize. I’ve watched EVERY game for many years, and what-you-see-is-what-you-get, Billy rarely has any well defined crunch time schemes (althought I do remember a great play made at the end of a half this year to get the ball down court for a last second shot that extended our lead). He also really hasn’t had many “go-to” guys a la Olidipo or Burke. I think Billy should take this criticism (the numbers speak for themselves) and get better in this area. That doesn’t mean he isn’t an AWESOME coach and recruiter. He took this team with NO clear NBA talent further than any reasonable fan could expect. GO GATORS!

  14. I believe that a lot of the reasons the Gators lost close games this year and last year was due to their inability to handle the ball against pressure at the end of games and their inability to hit important game deciding shots. They need to be able to execute at the end of games and hit shots at the end of games. They did not and they lost. Next year they need to develop ago to person who can hit big shots at the end of games and handle the ball better.

  15. Billy has a stubbornness when it comes to seniors. See Walker last year and Boynton this year. It didn’t matter that Walker was going to take it to the hole and get rejected over and over again because he was only 5 ft nothing, Scotty was going to sit. It wouldn’t have mattered if Frazer had hit 25 3’s in a row, Kenny was going to be in there at the end.

  16. Kevin, since you obviously are bored and have too much time on your hands (that’s for Dooley’s ipod), why don’t you research every team that is the caliber of UF’s basketball team in games decided by five or FEWER (not less) points from 1996 to 2013. And where is any mention of the wins in the win column? Like when Mike Miller beat Butler on his arse and Chandler Parsons heaved in a 75 footer? Not designed plays, you might argue? The fact that you argue at all with Billy D’s success places you in a “Here’s your sign” category.

  17. i think UF is very lucky to have donovan as a coach, still, these are valid points to bring up.

    in the article, “donovan’s expectations different”, he said the team needs to be tougher, mentally stronger, etc. and refers to noah’s passion and energy.

    i think this year’s team had plenty of that. what i didn’t see were some skills necessary to make things happen against certain defenses. they had plenty of energy. they seem to be patient with the ball and have the right mindset. but when the good teams defended the 3 pt line well, they looked a little lost.

    i hear the coach talk about p. young needing to have a consistent “motor” throughout a game, but i don’t hear him talking about him needing to improve his offense or free throw shooting.

    i understand the philosophy that effort on defense can get more consistent results and keep you in games, but in close games you need to make some plays on offense too. i guess as a coach you need to figure out where to spend the time to get the biggest bang for your buck.

  18. Coach ‘D’ has been to the THE FINAL 4 as a player, Asst. Coach, or Coach throughout the last 3 decades (80’s, 90’s 00’s) and has won multiple NATIONAL CHAMPIOSNHIPS as well.
    To win with the talent that Coach ‘D’ has won with says ‘everything’ about his abilities as a Coach. His players lately, having been the long, lanky, & high flying athletes that say, Michigan or Louisville has, and yet Coach ‘D’ won the Reg. Season SEC, and finished in the TOP 10… AGAIN!
    I see the point that Kevin is making, but I too, wouldn’t trade this one small ”disturbing trend” for any other coach in America!

  19. It’s hard to evaluate from outside the program, but I have to wonder if the mix of assistant coaches may have something to do with the Gator difficulties. I particularly look at the struggles of the big men, and wonder how important to success it was with the “04’s” that we had Anthony Grant here. I think he was very important to that winning chemistry. As “CEO” of the basketball program, it is up to Coach D to be sure he has the right coaching team as well as the right players.

  20. Brockway…give it a rest! Let’s examine your sub-par articles…you consistently fail to report basketball news because you have this negative tendency to point out weeknesses related to Gators hoops. Report relative news only…you do not write an editorial column. You pick sticking point personal to you, and you drive it into the ground. How many times this season did you write about negatives? Learn to support the team that you report on. Otherwise, get the heck out of Gville and let someone else have a crack at the job you are supposed to do. Actually, I think I could do a much better job than you with your column. Also, your articles have a monotonous tone, and you have a very limited vocabulary. You may want to brush up on a few journalism classes, because you write as if you work for a computer company. Actually, I hear that the need for technical manual writers is on the rise. I think you would be well suited for this line of work, because your articles lack any creativity at all.