NASHVILLE — When Billy Donovan began reviewing video of Saturday's loss to Kentucky, the coach discovered something much more alarming about his team than the seven-minute scoring drought that eventually doomed the Gators.
What Donovan saw was a Florida team that has lacked passion, or what he termed "fire," for the past several games.
So as Florida prepares to open play against LSU today in the SEC tournament quarterfinals, the Gators are not only in search of a title but of a team that has the hunger and desire to compete now that it's one-and-done season.
"I think there's a bigger issue for me that I'm more focused on," Donovan said, referring to questions about his team's late-game struggles and close-game losses (0-5 in games decided by fewer than 10 points vs. 24-1 in games decided by double digits). "Obviously, in an 18-game schedule, you're going to have some bad games. I'm more disappointed than anything in the way our team, before the Kentucky game, the way we've practiced and the way we've played with so much on the line. That to me is much, much more alarming."
Florida has lost three of its past six games, each by six points or fewer. Even in victories, the Gators have not been the dominant team that won their first eight SEC games by double digits. With an opportunity to clinch the SEC regular-season championship outright, the Gators struggled against a Vanderbilt team that was near the bottom of the league, finally taking control in the final 10 minutes.
Yet heading into the SEC tournament, most experts still consider the Gators at least a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
"I've been in love with Florida all year," ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi said. "I've been a little puzzled by some of their losses, but I still think they can go to the Final Four. In my preseason Final Four I actually had them losing to Louisville in the championship game, so it would be disingenuous for me to back off of that."
Lunardi said there's not much the 13th-ranked Gators (24-6) can do in the SEC tournament to improve their seed, but a loss today could drop Florida lower.
To make a strong run, Donovan said better rebounding and decreased turnovers must improve — immediately. Florida has had eight consecutive games where its opponents have had double-digit offensive rebounds; the Gators had just two. Center Patric Young is averaging four rebounds in the past seven games (four of the past six games he has had one offensive rebound).
"I think sometimes, there are underlying problems inside your team that at some point are going to flower themselves," Donovan said. "And if we would have knocked down the game-winner against Missouri, if we would have made a couple of those runners or stuff, maybe those guys say, 'Oh, those turnovers are no big deal. We still won. It's not that big of a deal.' Right now, it's in front of their face that they have to deal with that and get better at that. There's no question."
So while the SEC's top seed is working on its issues on the court, it also has to reignite the fire within.
"I would agree," junior forward Will Yeguete said. "The way we started the past couple games, I think we should do a better job just coming out and being excited and being ready to play. We've been missing that the past couple games. I don't know (why). As a player, I mean, I feel like you should always be ready to go, no matter what. We haven't had that fire the past couple games. Hopefully we can get it back soon."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.