Billy the coach
OXFORD, Miss. – In the seconds between the final shot and the first handshake, Florida coach Billy Donovan walked past the scorer's table Wednesday and pumped his fist.
We're not talking Tiger Woods after a birdie putt or Kirk Gibson at the World Series here. Donovan's gesture was gentle and quick – and also a bit peculiar.
His team, after all, had just lost.
"This is going to be one of those years where it's hard to complain," Donovan said after the Gators' 89-87 setback at Ole Miss. "They're giving me everything they have."
Donovan, as usual, is doing the same for Florida. But in some ways, watching him coach in Wednesday's loss was even more impressive than observing him on the sideline last season, when he led the Gators to their second straight NCAA title.
That team featured three lottery picks. No one was surprised to see Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer hoisting the national championship trophy. Florida was supposed to win.
The only problem with the Gators' dominance was that it made it easy to forget just how good of a tactician, a motivator, a strategist – a coach – Donovan truly is.
Our reminder came Wednesday.
As if we didn't know it already, Donovan proved once again that he's worth every Ben Franklin of the $3.5 million smackeroos Florida is paying him each season.
With five new starters, the Gators aren't a great team. Heck, they might not even be a good team. They're certainly not as imposing as No. 18 Ole Miss. The Rebels are older, taller, heavier and stronger than Donovan's players, and it showed when Florida trailed by 16 points with about 12 minutes remaining.
And, oh yeah, this game was in Oxford.
Most teams would wilt in that situation, especially ones as green as the Gators. Four of the eight players who saw significant action Wednesday were freshmen. Three more were sophomores. Apparently that didn't matter.
Florida fought back and pulled within two points during the game's final seconds. Ole Miss' victory wasn't complete until Nick Calathes' desperation heave at the buzzer clanged off the backboard.
"Those guys the last two years played the game the right way," Donovan said. "They embodied the word 'team.' These guys are trying to develop that right now. There's a fight in them, an internal confidence. They were out there spilling themselves on the court tonight."
So, too, was Donovan.
Whether he was sweating through his starched button-down while working the refs or switching to a small lineup to create offensive mismatches, Donovan treated Wednesday's game like a chess match from start to finish. It was impossible to glance toward the Gators' bench area and not see Donovan scurrying around like a rooster, subbing in players or strategizing with his assistants.
In many ways it was a totally different feel than last season, when Florida would have the game in hand early in the second half. That situation had its challenges, too. But it didn't call for the 'roll-up-your-sleeves' coaching Donovan displayed Wednesday.
The change, he said, is refreshing.
"The experience I had last year was a once in a lifetime experience," Donovan said. "It was a great learning experience, having to deal with the psychological part (of trying to repeat as champion) and having to handle all of the distractions. I understand what Bill Belichick is going through. There's all this drama around you, and you have to get the guys focused."
"It's like raising your kids," Donovan said. "I'm having a ball.
"In a way I actually feel more weight on my shoulders. I feel like I've got to give so much to these guys. With as much as I've gone through as a player and as an assistant and a head coach, there's a level of responsibility I feel to these guys to help them get better as a team."
He almost didn't get to raise these Gators, accepting a lucrative offer last May to coach the Orlando Magic, then abruptly spurning the NBA team. Donovan is clearly pleased with his decision to return to Gainesville. But now, there's work to do.
His undersized squad will obviously benefit from an offseason of weight training. Donovan also said some of his players often get overwhelmed by Florida's fast-paced style and forget things that should be habitual, such as who is supposed to bring the ball up in certain situations or where to go on an inbounds play.
When it comes to mental toughness, though, Florida is already displaying some veteran poise.
Thanks to some key hustle plays and a flurry of late three-pointers, Florida found itself trailing by two points, 84-82, with 36 seconds remaining. A pair of foul shots by Ole Miss forward Dwayne Curtis clinched the game after that, although the Gators still had a chance until Calathes' errant halfcourt shot at the buzzer.
"Obviously it's a different cast of characters from the one that won a national championship," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "But you can see by the way they fought down the stretch that there's a huge expectation of winning there. That's what I want our kids to have."
The Rebels, 15-1, deserve loads of credit for staving off Florida's comeback attempt by hitting numerous answer shots down the stretch. The one area where Ole Miss struggled was at the foul stripe, where it hit just six of 13 during the final 2:17.
Still, Florida missed nine free throws, too. And at one point the Gators were just 6-of-28 from three-point range.
"For our team to shoot 28 percent from the three-point line and miss (nine) free throws and only lose by two – on the road …" Donovan said. "There are no moral victories at Florida, but I couldn't be more proud of our guys.
"These guys are as bought-in as last year's team when it comes to competing and wanting to get better. The difference is that there aren't any lottery picks across the front line."
It's too early to guess how much of a threat Florida will be come NCAA Tournament time. The Gators are 15-3, but even Donovan admits that's misleading considering his team hasn't played a schedule that's going to "knock anyone’s socks off."
Florida has faced three quality opponents (Florida State, Ohio State and Ole Miss) and lost to all of them.
Luckily for Donovan, expectations aren't as high this season. He'll be able to go through a rebuilding year without being questioned and criticized after each loss. Fans in Gainesville know they've got a good one. They saw that the last two seasons, and they realized it again Wednesday.
Even after a loss.