GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Bradley Beal was answering a question about why Florida’s defense and rebounding has slipped from the first half of the season, but what he was saying pretty much described the Gators’ biggest issue heading into the postseason.
Beal said they sometimes just forget what they’re supposed to do in certain situations because their minds are caught up in other aspects of the game. They’re shooting the ball poorly and worrying about that instead of focusing on playing defense and boxing out on the ensuing possession.
"We forget what our role is on the court and what our job is to do on the court," Beal said. "Sometimes we just get caught up in other things. It’s not necessarily us just not wanting to do it. Sometimes it just happens."
In other words: Florida is an immature team.
Not immature in that players are getting arrested or being insubordinate to the coaching staff. Immature in that there’s a lack of leadership, problems with consistency, and failing to understand – despite repeated lessons from coach Billy Donovan -- the level of commitment and effort it takes to become a championship-caliber team.
There isn’t a team chemistry issue or any bad attitudes. In fact, Donovan has lauded his team’s character, willingness to fix mistakes, and ability to respond when challenged. It’s just a team that seems to be stuck in the same spot – just below the truly elite – because it hasn’t been able to perform at its highest level for longer than brief periods.
Sophomore center Patric Young has battled an ankle injury for much of the second half of the season, but he’s had more trouble with the mental part of the injury than the physical. He’s had days where he was totally focused on the injury and didn’t even try to fight through it in practice, and he has let it affect his emotional level on the court. The Gators are a much better team when he’s playing with a lot of energy and emotion.
Senior point guard Erving Walker, the school’s all-time assists leader and fourth-leading all-time scorer, is not comfortable being the team’s on-court leader – a role that naturally falls to the point guard. Donovan has been pushing him to become more vocal for two years but has finally decided to try and get other players involved.
The Gators also have had several practices in which they weren’t as focused or passionate as they needed to be, and Donovan has ripped them for it.
Junior guard Kenny Boynton was benched for the start of last Sunday’s game against top-ranked Kentucky as punishment for being 10 minutes late to a team meeting on Thursday. Donovan was also disappointed that none of Boynton’s teammates made the effort to find him when it was apparent he wasn’t going to make the start of the meeting, either.
All are examples of the Gators’ lack of maturity.
"I think the one thing of being inside of a team, whether it's on defense whether it's on offense, there's always a level of sacrifice. You have to always try and help the next guy," Donovan said. "I still think the same thing is true even off the court. Kenny being a junior, it's not necessarily anybody's responsibility [that he be on time], but I think other guys could've helped the situation. Kenny's got to take responsibility for himself, but I do think our team needs to grow up in a lot of ways and mature in a lot of ways and understand the things that impact the decisions and things and attitudes of the way they conduct themselves on and off the floor does have an impact on your team in terms of your maturity and chemistry."
It may be too late for the Gators (22-9) to become a more mature team. They have played 31 games heading into Friday’s second-round Southeastern Conference Tournament game against either Alabama or South Carolina. But the Gators have to try because they know immature teams generally don’t stick around very long in the NCAA Tournament .
"I think we have an understanding that now it’s one and done," Boynton said. "He [Donovan] wants us every practice to come out and go hard, and he feels like some days he has to ask us to go hard and push us. I think everyone on the team right now we’ve got to realize that it’s the important part of the season. He shouldn’t have to ask us that. We should be working on things we need to get better at."
Donovan said he was hoping for a lot of growth this week leading up to the SEC Tournament. He said he saw some improvements with the way the Gators handled themselves in a road loss at Vanderbilt and the home loss to Kentucky to close out the regular season.
"We’ve got some incredible experiences we’ve gone through this season. What have we learned?" Donovan said. "And where, now, is our focus level? Where is our passion? Where is our drive and our commitment to really, really get better?
"We’ve had enough experiences right now that we need to really maximize these experiences to really grow and get better."