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Friday, January 21, 2022

As the smoke settles and the Gators try to move on, UF coach Billy Donovan believes his team is right where it belongs.

"There's a reason we weren't ranked when the season began," Donovan said.

After throttling San Diego State 73-49 in the opening round of the National Invitation Tournament, Donovan seemed pleased with his team's performance and has begun to shift his focus to the future.

Donovan said the Gators can grow from the experience and have already shown signs of humility.

The main concern, however, is if the change will last.

"I don't know how much we'll learn from last night," Donovan said. "Are they going to come out complacent and think they have it all figured out? That would be the wrong experience to take from what happened in that game."

From the tip-off, it was clear UF was playing with a purpose.

The Gators buckled down on the defensive end and played with an intensity at odds with their regular-season mantra.

The team even warmed up with a defensive drill, something orchestrated by junior Walter Hodge, the lone upperclassman, who has taken the reins for this young team.

"Walter has done a remarkable job," Donovan said. "But when you're a lone soldier and you're dealing with seven or eight guys by yourself, I think I put more responsibility on myself."

Whether or not Hodge's influence has arrived a little too late is hard to say.

Yet, after the dominating win, the Gators are still playing basketball.

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"I knew what I was getting into with this team," Donovan said. "I don't know if it's exceeded my expectations or not, but when you get into the season, you're just trying to coach."

UF (22-11) hosts Creighton (22-10) Friday night at 9:30 and will be looking to keep its bid for the school's first-ever NIT title alive.

The two teams have played twice, with the Blue Jays taking both contests.

Most recently, they squared off in the first round of the 2002 NCAA Tournament, with Creighton winning 83-82 in a double-overtime thriller.

The Blue Jays hail from the Missouri Valley Conference, where they finished 10-8 in their league.

Creighton's schedule is marked by losses to Indiana State and Evansville.

Donovan is wary of Creighton's depth and talent.

The Blue Jays use a 10-man rotation, with each player averaging between 12.7 and 25.3 minutes per game.

"I haven't paid much attention to them, since we've been so involved in our own conference," Donovan said. "But there's no question (Creighton coach Dana Altman) does a great job over there."

The Blue Jays are headed by freshman guard P'Allen Stinnett, who leads the way at 12.7 points per game, which goes to show you their balance.

Creighton's bench averages nearly 40 points per game, which ranks second in the nation.

"No question they're a good team," Donovan said. "This will be another challenge for these guys."

A lot has been made of Donovan's decision to kick the players out of the team's practice facility. The players have spoken about the move's positive effect and even hinted it might have come too late.

Donovan said one misconception is that the Gators are struggling.

"It's not like I brought them to Southwest Rec and told them to play outside," he said.

In fact, the team is practicing in the same venue - the O'Connell Center - as the 2000 national runner-up squad, which featured the likes of Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem.

"I would say it's good enough," Donovan joked.

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