NASHVILLE, Tenn.—What a difference a year can make. Last March, Florida was on the top of the college basketball world as it walked off the SEC tournament floor in Atlanta. The Gators had beaten Kentucky in the Georgia Dome to snag the conference tournament title and their 26th straight win. They eventually went on to reach the Final Four, and any coach with half a brain envied the job of Gators’ coach Billy Donovan.
Three hundred and sixty-eight days later, the Gators fortune has taken a painful turn. On Friday they walked off the floor at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena having lost to top-ranked Kentucky, 64-49, in the SEC quarterfinals. A program that had reached four straight Elite Eights and was a preseason top-10 team in the AP poll is now 16-17 with no guarantee of a postseason berth
It’s Donovan’s worst record since the 1997-98 season, and now the Gators going forward will have to regain respect. “It’s been an incredible learning experience for me,” Donovan said.
[daily_cut.college basketball]Florida’s struggles actually began at the end of last season. Donovan lost four key starters from the program’s Final Four run, including gritty guard Scottie Wilbekin and beastly forward Patric Young. That group won 36 games in 2013-14, and Donovan’s biggest priority in the offseason was teaching an inexperienced group how to win.
The search for new leaders became a theme of Florida’s offseason. Much was expected from players like Michael Frazier and Kasey Hill, but Donovan now admits the group never gelled. After losing to Kentucky on Friday, the coach didn’t mince words. He said the Gators never understood the value of the team.
“I think it was a team that was maybe a little bit more wrapped up in themselves,” Donovan said. “They didn’t quite understand the level of sacrifice needed to beat a really good team.”
A lack of chemistry in the locker room seemed to bleed onto the court. The Gators finished as one of the least effective offensive teams in the SEC. They ranked 134th nationally in offensive efficiency, per kenpom.com, which overshadowed a top-10 defense. Florida also couldn’t hit its free throws; its team free throw percentage (63.5) ranked 333rd in the country.
Donovan saw each of his team’s issues show up on Friday against Kentucky. But through one half, Florida kept pace with the undefeated Wildcats. At halftime the Gators trailed 31-27.
As Kentucky has done all season long, it managed to pull away in the second half. Aaron Harrison nailed a three-pointer with 14:03 to play that capped a 9-0 Wildcats run. It also gave his team its largest lead up to that point, 42-31, a forced a timeout from Donovan. A rowdy Bridgestone Arena crowd—one filled to the brim with blue-and-white-clad Kentucky fans—grew louder as the Kentucky’s lead ballooned.
The Gators eventually ran out of gas. They shot 33% in the second half, compared to nearly 45% before the break. Florida only shot five free throws to Kentucky’s 23.
“Tonight we didn’t play a full 40-minute game,” Gators’ guard Eli Carter said. “In order to beat them, you’ve got to play a full 40-minute game.”
It’s unclear whether Florida has the résumé for a spot in the NIT. That tournament is allowed to invited sub-.500 teams, but it typically does not. But this team isn’t the Final Four contender that usually resides in Gainesville. That’s too bad, because the SEC could’ve used the Gators this season as Kentucky ripped through its league schedule. Florida played relatively well against the Wildcats in a 68-61 loss in Gainesville on Feb. 7, yet it rarely looked like a championship contender this year.
But Donovan isn’t discouraged about the work that lies ahead in the offseason. The coach long ago proved his worth as one of college basketball’s best teachers. That’s why Donovan plans to use the ghosts of Gators past to motivate his current roster. Donovan seems motived to instill in his roster the value of a team during the summer.
“Why did Scott Wilbekin, Patrick Young, Will Yeguete, why were they so selfless?” Donovan said. “Why can’t this group be? How do you get them to see why it’s important? Why’s it good? Why’s it healthy? Those things I enjoy trying to do.”