Donovan: NCAA Tournament, SEC Title not sole focus
GAINESVILLE - As Florida prepares to play its final four regular season games, the big question is whether the Gators will collapse and fold like last season, or rally for a strong finish as it enters the SEC Tournament at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa (March 12-15).
The Gators will play LSU tonight at 9 on ESPN, then host Tennessee on Sunday in Gainesville. Florida will play at Mississippi State next week, then close out the season with Kentucky at home on March 7.
Last season, the Gators lost seven of their last 11 regular season games on their way to an NIT berth. Florida coach Billy Donovan said he isn't sure what this year's outcome will be, but he knows this is a much different team than the one that fell apart last year.
"These kids from my perspective are really, really trying hard,'' he said. "And how we finish up and what we do, the result may end up being the same, but it's not going to be for last year's reasons. We've gotten better in those areas.''
Florida is 21-6, 8-4 in the SEC and tied for first in the SEC East with Kentucky and South Carolina. The Gators are 4-3 with four games remaining. On paper, you could argue the Gators will lose two, then have a chance to go either way with Kentucky and Tennessee. If they go 0-4, the final 11 games will have the same result as last season.
But Donovan said while that's a concern, particularly for fans, winning isn't his only priority at this point. Getting this team better and playing with more chemistry is his greater goal.
"There's no question there's an expectation level that I have here,'' he said. "But I also know where this team started a year ago and I also know where they have progressed as a team. "And they have made some really strong, significant strides. And maybe the result of wins and losses you can compare to last year, but I can tell you I've enjoyed coaching these guys more this year than last because I just didn't think we worked like we needed to work.''
The Gators will be without Allan Chaney again tonight; This will be the fifth game he has missed since suffering a stress fracture. Sophomore Adam Allen is out for the year, and frshman Eloy Vargas is still trying to regain his playing strength after missing the first 11 games of the season with an ankle injury. And junior forward Vernon Macklin, a Georgetown transfer, is ineligible this season. Add them to the mix, and Donovan believes the future will be fine. Even if the present is shaky.
"I think the pieces of our team are there, we lost two starters off last year's team, and we lost a bunch of starters from the year before,'' Donovan said. "So there's some really good pieces on our team of kids who are really trying. But I also understand because of where the program got to two years ago, it has dropped off. That is the reality. And we're trying to build that back up. And I just don't know if all of a sudden you bring in another seven or eight guys in your program and that just happens. I think there's a process. How long that process is? I'm not so sure. But I feel like our guys are getting better.''