HOW ONE COACH HANDLED A TEAM THAT WOULD PLAY DEFENSE
It was March of 2008 and the Florida Gators, one year removed from the second of their back-to-back national championships, were heading to the National Invitation Tournament. The Gators had lost four in a row including eight of their last 11 games. Their 80-69 first round exit loss to Alabama at the SEC Tournament was particularly frustrating for Billy Donovan who watched as the Gators were dominated in every way possible.
This was a Florida team that was often brilliant offensively but could go into unexplained funks. Donovan didn’t have a problem with that. As a shooter from his own college days at Providence he fully understood that there are days when the ball just won’t go in the basket and then there are days when anything you throw up can’t miss. Defense? Well, that was where Donovan and his coaching staff (Larry Shyatt, Rob Lanier, Lewis Preston) had their issues. On more than one occasion, Donovan let it be known that he was growing weary of this “we can just outscore them” mentality. He wanted a team committed to making stops and there was no commitment and sometimes a complete lack of effort.
Some of the problems, Donovan admitted, had to do with youth and inexperience. The top six scorers from the previous two national championship teams were gone leaving Walter Hodge (junior backup, 5.7 points per game), Marreese Speights (sophomore, 4.1 points per game), Dan Werner (sophomore, 1.8 points per game) and Jonathan Mitchell (sophomore, 1.4 points per game) to carry the torch along with five freshmen (Nick Calathes, Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus, Jai Lucas and Adam Allen). The Gators were one of the 10 least experienced and youngest teams in the country.
Distressed over multiple attempts to get the attention of the team and to get at least something more than a half-hearted effort to play some defense, Donovan resorted to drastic measures after the Alabama loss. When the Gators showed up at the practice facility on Monday to prep for a first round NIT game with San Diego State on Wednesday night, they found themselves locked out. Not only were they locked out of the practice gym, they were also forbidden to wear their usual practice uniforms and would have to do their own laundry. Practices would be held in the practice gym at the O-Dome or else in old Alligator Alley.
Donovan attributed the lack of defensive effort to complacency and feelings of entitlement.
“They got a facility that the administration has invested a lot in,” Donovan explained. “It’s one of the best in the country. They’ve got a massage therapist to make sure they’re okay after games. They’ve got a private plane that they take to games. The meals that they eat … all those things, these guys came here and went right to the penthouse.”
Translation: You guys have it good and all I’m asking from you is a commitment to play some defense.
Donovan’s ploy was a real wakeup call because in three NIT games that got UF to the tournament final four in New York, the Gators gave up 49 to San Diego State, 54 to Creighton and 57 to James Harden and Arizona State (Harden was held to 18). The Gators won those three games by an average of 22 points. Once in New York, the Gators had one of those couldn’t throw it in the ocean from the end of the pier nights shooting (28-71 overall, 2-12 from three, 8-21 from the foul line) so they lost in the semifinals to UMass. The Gators never would have gotten to New York in the first place if Donovan hadn’t essentially grabbed them by the lapels and shook them until he had their undivided attention.
UF made it back to the NCAA Tournament in 2008-09 and in the four years after that made the Elite Eight three straight times and then the Final Four.
In remembering what happened back in March of 2008, I’m reminded of the situation Mike White finds himself in this season. He has a very young team that lacks the commitment to play good defense. Oh, they play hard in stretches as we saw in the almost miracle comeback against LSU, the first 10 minutes of the Baylor game and the first 15 minutes against Mississippi State, but then they lose focus and intensity. That leads to long stretches when not only do they fail to get defensive stops but the offense takes a powder, too.
This is a young and inexperienced team for sure but even young and inexperienced teams have to come to that crossroads when they make a decision to turn things around. Sometimes the answer is one of those grab the by the lapels and shake them moments like Donovan had in March of 2008. It’s not so late in the season that the Gators can’t find their way enough to make the NCAA field, but if White can’t convince them that it’s time to get serious about playing good defense for 40 minutes, then it’s going to be an NIT season, which would be a shame considering the amount of talent he has. But, all the talent in the world can’t win if there isn’t a collective mindset to at least play functional defense.
BARTON SIMMONS OF CBSSPORTS.COM ABOUT UF NSD CHANCES
“Credit Dan Mullen. Late in the game for both the early signing period and National Signing Day, the Gators have been battling for some big names. They came up short in December but have a chance to make some noise once again in January. The biggest name, and probably the biggest long shot, is Georgia Tech commit Jahmyr Gibbs. A senior season riser, Gibbs is taking an official visit to Tech this weekend but Mullen continues to push hard and for good reason as Gibbs is special. Florida could also land a big in-state target in Top100 safety Avantae Williams as well as Alabama four-star athlete Damarcus Beckwith. If it really wants to get greedy, perhaps Florida can flip Top100 offensive lineman Sedrick Van Pran from Georgia, but now we’re talking dream scenarios.”
A MIND IS A TERRIBLE THING TO BASTE: FRIDAY EDITION (1) The Southeastern Conference has distributed $651 million in revenue for the fiscal year that ended August 31, 2019. That works out to something like $44.6 million per school. That’s a lot of money but it’s going to pale by comparison to what is distributed after the CBS contract expires after the 2023 season. CBS pays the league $55 million a year, but the new contract – expected to be with ESPN/ABC – will pay at least $330 million a year so each SEC school will see a revenue bump of at least $20 million more per year. In the last fiscal year, the Big Ten paid $54 million per school while the Big 12 paid out $34.7 million. The Pac-12 and ACC doled out $29.5 million per school. The new SEC television deal will vault the SEC past the Big Ten and dwarf the other three power conferences.
(2) Now that Manny Diaz has brought Ed Reed to help right the ship at Miami (Reed will have the title of chief of staff), the next move apparently will be to add Lamar Thomas as the wide receivers coach per Manny Navarro of The Athletic. The additions of Reed and Thomas are expected to help The U do a better job of keeping the top players from South Florida from signing elsewhere.
(3) Okay, I’ve avoided the Super Bowl for most of the week so now it’s time to offer a few thoughts. First, I think this might be one of the better games we’ve seen in awhile. Las Vegas must think so, too, since Kansas City is a mere 1.5-point favorite over the San Francisco 49ers with an over/under of 54.5 points. Las Vegas obviously thinks this will be a game when both teams put points on the board and that’s good for TV ratings. Defense might win games, but points score in the ratings. It’s a whole lot easier to watch a game when the offenses have a good day than when the defenses dominate. I think San Francisco has a better defense, but I’m not sure that’s going to matter against Kansas City’s offense. I think the difference-makers in this game will be KC quarterback Patrick Mahomes, tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill. For San Francisco to win this game I think the 49ers are going to have to run the ball to play keepaway from the KC offense. I believe it will be a close call, but I’ll go with the Kansas City Chiefs to win their first Super Bowl in 50 years and for Andy Reid to finally get the championship ring that has eluded him.
GOOD QUOTES FOR FRIDAY
Mike Sando of The Athletic on the NFL’s abysmal record of hiring minority coaches, GMs and executives:
“The NFL’s 32 teams have roughly 70 percent African-American players and 34 percent minority assistant coaches, but only three black head coaches, two African-American general managers and zero African-American team presidents … Twenty-six times over the past 10 hiring cycles (2011-2020), NFL teams chose head coaches with a decade or less experience in the league. The coach was white 25 times. Seventeen of those 26 candidates had never been a college head coach. Eleven had less than 15 seasons’ combined experience at the college and NFL levels. Thirty of the 33 youngest head coaches hired over the past 10 hiring cycles were white, including by the Cleveland Browns, New York Giants and Carolina Panthers this year.”
From Reuters, Tua Tagovailoa, speaking on Super Bowl radio row in Miami, on how Nick Saban is quite different from what you see on the field:
“People get this outlook on Coach Saban as someone who is always hard, mean. That’s on the field. That’s when the switch is on. Switch is off as soon as he’s off the field. This man will joke with you as if he didn’t just yell at you two minutes ago. He’s a really personable person off the field. For his staff, his players, he loves them. He just wants what’s best for the organization.”
RANDOM THOUGHTS: A rather insane stat about The U from 1983-2003, which brought five national championships under four different coaches (Howard Schnellenberger, 1983; Jimmy Johnson, 1987; Dennis Erickson, 1989, 1991; Larry Coker, 2001). The Hurricanes produced 42 first round picks, 32 Pro Bowlers and six Hall of Famers … USA Gymnastics has offered a $215 million settlement to sexual assault victims of former team doctor Larry Nassar. Nassar was also the team doctor at Michigan State, which has paid out $500 million to more than 300 of his victims … Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones arrived in Miami aboard his 357-foot yacht … University of Utah wide receiver Terrell Perriman has been accused of kidnapping and raping a 17-year-old girl in Salt Lake City … The NFL might loosen its strict marijuana policy. NFL Players Association director DeMaurice Smith and commissioner Roger have been mulling over a memo that has “significant modifications” to the current policy.