GAINESVILLE — Billy Donovan's Florida basketball team will close out the regular season this week against two of the SEC's best teams, and although the Gators remain among the league's top three, they aren't playing like it.
Florida will play at Vanderbilt tonight in a nationally televised prime-time game, then host No. 1 Kentucky on Sunday. At this late stage, Donovan's biggest concern isn't the loss of top reserve Will Yeguete to a broken foot but the lack of energy and passion he believes the team must possess at this critical time of the year.
Florida's loss to Georgia on Saturday — one of the league's worst teams — dropped the Gators from No. 12 to No. 16 in the latest AP poll, led to the temporary benching of senior PG Erving Walker and has forced Donovan to turn to his freshmen and sophomores for more on-court leadership.
"The thing that I would like to see our guys to do is to get Brad Beal, and Scottie Wilbekin and Patric Young, not so much from a leadership standpoint, but just to get our team huddled," Donovan said. "We have to get more connected mentally.
"I think what happens, just like anything else, everyone deals with competitive situations differently. Some guys get really, really introverted and they become quiet; some guys get more outspoken. It doesn't mean that it's bad or it's good, but the one thing we don't have is really an outspoken person to hold everyone accountable. It doesn't need to be berating or yelling or telling the guy what he's doing wrong, but encouraging."
Donovan has been trying to get more from Walker and junior Kenny Boynton, but it's becoming increasingly clear the two low-key personalities aren't suited for the emotional, fiery leadership the Gators need right now. Until now, they've always relied on others like former Gator Chandler Parsons.
"I don't have a problem with it," Beal said. "We're talking on the floor all the time, and on top of that I'm real cool with the guys and I know everybody so I feel comfortable doing it."
The Gators declined to label tonight's game a must-win, but its importance can't be overstated.
"This is going to be a huge game for us to see where we're at, especially coming off this loss," Young said. "They are going to be jacked up, it's their senior night and they have four seniors. They are on their home court and we beat them the last four times, we swept them last year. I'm sure they definitely would like to get us back for those times that we got them. It would be really huge if we come away with this win, going into Kentucky and then the (SEC) tournament, to give us some of that momentum."
TOURNEY TIME: The eighth-seeded women's basketball team (18-11, 8-8) will kick off the SEC tournament at 1 p.m. Thursday against No. 9 seed Auburn (13-16, 5-11) in Nashville. The Gators have an RPI of 37 and a strength of schedule at No. 11. In the 30-year history of the NCAA Tournament, 15 SEC teams have received tournament bids with .500 or worse conference records.
"I think we've proven that we need to be in the NCAA Tournament, but there's still basketball to play," coach Amanda Butler said. "The more responsible thing to do is go out and get more wins. In terms of our conversations, that's where they are going to be slanted toward. The tournament that we're worried about right now is the SEC tournament. I don't think our focus needs to be beyond that."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.