Donovan preps Gators for onslaught of Final Four distractions
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — If you were a gallon of ice cream, what flavor would you want to be?
Welcome to the Super Bowl of college basketball.
OK, let’s hope for the sake of the Florida Gators — along with the teams from Connecticut, Wisconsin and Kentucky — the questions aren’t that absurd, but UF coach Billy Donovan has spent the last two days preparing his players for the Texas tornado blast of media his basketball squad can expect when it arrives at the Final Four at AT&T Stadium in Arlington later this week.
As much as the Gators have traveled this year (17 road trips) and as many interviews they’ve done since the postseason began (dozens), nothing can compare to the maelstrom and carnival atmosphere of a Final Four.
"This is a very, very time-consuming thing and there are lots of things that can distract you from playing. There is obviously an enormous amount of attention placed on the event, [but] our guys are there to play basketball," said Donovan, whose top-ranked Gators (36-2) will put a school-record 30-game winning streak on the line against UConn (30-8), the last team to defeat UF, in the national semifinals Saturday at 6:09 p.m. ET. "We’ve been fortunate enough to get to play another 40 minutes. Sometimes, with all that takes place at the Final Four, you can really, really get distracted on some things."
Like demand for tickets. Players get six each, but it’s a safe bet that friends and family will be clamoring for more. And speaking of friends and family, they all probably are reaching out to the Gators now, wanting to talk to them, provide well-wishes, whatever.
Get it all out of the way too, Donovan says. Obviously, he’s been there before, as a player, an assistant coach and four times as a head coach. He has context.
These particular Gators have no clue what they’re about to walk into.
"He knows what goes into trying to win this thing," sophomore guard Michael Frazier II said Monday. "Our biggest thing as a team right now is listening to everything he has to say because he knows what’s going to happen; from the distractions all the way up until game time. He knows. He’s been through it. So I think the biggest thing for us is taking his advice."
That shouldn’t be hard, given the coach’s track record and how he’s managed the team to this point. There’s a reason Donovan is 35-11 in 14 career NCAA Tournaments. His .761 winning percentage ranks second in the nation among active coaches behind Kentucky’s John Calipari (.764 in 15 tournaments). He has the pulse of his players and uses all his resources to determine that pulse.
Take last weekend, for example. Less than 12 hours after dispatching UCLA in the South Region semifinals at Memphis, Tenn., the Gators had to be back at FedEx Forum for their off-day interviews and practice. Team trainer David "Duke" Werner suggested scaling back full-contact work because the players’ bodies had not had enough time to recover from the night before.
Donovan took Werner’s advice. UF got its work done on the court, with the coaching staff delivering the information and presenting the Dayton game plan, but a lot of it was done in walk-through fashion.
Given the physical and emotional toll of the past three postseason weekends (two tournaments, seven games, win-or-go-home pressure), the Gators got both Sunday and Monday off from practice — meetings only — to give their bodies and minds a chance to reset and rejuvenate.
Perfect time, the coach told them, to knock the ancillary and personal stuff out of the way, while getting a grip on what awaits in North Texas.
Note: If, say, point guard and Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin is tired of answering questions about his suspension early in the season, he ain’t seen nothin’ yet. And how many different ways can Wilbekin and his fellow seniors say they’re "happy" and/or "relieved" to finally advance past an Elite Eight?
Better be a bunch.
"I’m glad that he’s been there before so he can kind of warn us how crazy it’s going to be," Wilbekin said Monday. "We have ideas of what it might be like, but he’s been there and knows what it’s like so he can tell us and get us prepared."
The know-how from those back-to-back national championships of 2006 and ’07 count for something now.
"Hopefully, through some of my past experiences I can relay to them," Donovan said. "I’ve got to get them to a place where they get bought in and listen and use some of the experiences I’ve had to help them."
The Gators will leave for Dallas after practice Wednesday, with Donovan and one UF player having media obligations Thursday. Florida will have a closed practice off site Friday morning, then bus to the stadium — affectionately known as "Jerry World" (as in Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones), which held 108,713 for the 2010 NBA All-Star Game — and the entire team will have required media availability, followed by an open shootaround on the AT&T court. On Saturday, the Gators will have a one-hour morning shootaround at the stadium, then return to the hotel before leaving for the game.
UF will be at something of an advantage regarding the uniqueness and enormity of the AT&T. The Gators played there last year in the South Region’s final weekend, beating Florida Gulf Coast in the Sweet 16 and losing to Michigan in the title game.
But it’s not the magnitude of the building that Donovan is concerned about right now. It’s the magnitude of the moment — and everyone knows these Gators are told to stay focused in the moment.
"It’s the greatest time of the year. It’s an unbelievable weekend and kind of the culmination of the college basketball season," Donovan said. "At the same time, we’re there to play. We’ve got to get ourselves ready to play. We’re not ready to play right now … [but] we don’t need to be ready to play right now."