On a weekend when the Southeastern Conference crowned Kentucky as its regular season champion, Billy Donovan wondered aloud in a back hallway of Georgia’s Stegeman Coliseum if his team noticed it still had something to play for.
The Gators had just played uninspired in a 76-62 loss Saturday to the Bulldogs, and with two games left to play before traveling to New Orleans for the SEC tournament, Donovan could only describe the flat, 40 minutes of basketball he witnessed in Athens, Ga., as “puzzling.”
“I really am concerned if we will ever play with any passion again,” Donovan said. “I’m being totally honest. Because if you can’t get excited to play on the road against a bordering state, getting a chance to go 11-3 in the league, and you come out and play like that?”
Though Florida was playing its first game since losing sophomore Will Yeguete for the season last Tuesday against Auburn, Donovan, as well as his players, didn’t want to use injuries and tired legs as a reason for the loss.
The Gators were given Wednesday off following the home win and returned to practice Thursday and Friday with a main focus of implementing new offensive and defensive sets to prepare for life without Yeguete.
“We can’t use physical (stuff) as an excuse because we had a light practice, we had days off and we really had a mental practice, basically,” freshman Brad Beal said. “We really just have to figure something out. I don’t know what it is but we just have to bear down and just finish up these last two games.”
Florida travels to Vanderbilt on Tuesday and then closes the season at home Sunday against top-ranked Kentucky, which sealed its SEC regular-season title with a win against the Commodores over the weekend.
With a 10-4 conference record, UF holds a game lead over 9-5 Vanderbilt but will need to win one of its final two games to clinch the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament. Two losses could mean the Gators sliding all the way to the No. 4 seed, though they would still be eligible for a first-round bye.
“Obviously, I look at myself as a coach and say, ‘What can I do to generate energy?’” Donovan said. “Sometimes as a coach with these guys, I feel like I’m grabbing these guys by the back of their shirts and I’m pulling them up a hill all of the time.”
Florida spent the second half against Georgia in a constant state of rotation, as Donovan experimented with UF’s lineups looking for a spark for an inept offense that shot 36.7 percent from the field and a lax defense which allowed the Bulldogs to shoot 52.9 percent.
Both Erving Walker, the team’s starting point guard, and Erik Murphy, UF’s leader in 3-point percentage, saw their minutes decrease in the final half due to a lack of focus and passion, Donovan said.
After playing 14 of the first 20 minutes, Murphy was on the court for just seven in the second half because he was a “step slow” on defense.
Walker, meanwhile, was yanked less than two minutes into the final half and sat until the 12:17 mark. Donovan said he wants to see more urgency and energy out of Walker, the Gators’ lone senior, with his UF career winding down.
“He’s got to step up and he’s got to try at least provide some leadership for our team,” Donovan said. “As a senior, you would think that he would want to take that role, that responsibility, a little bit and want that kind of thing and show that kind of passion.”
Contact John Boothe at [email protected].