Despite warnings from Billy Donovan, Florida learning its lessons the hard way

Michael Frazier II and the Gators, ranked No. 7 in the preseason poll, are one game above .500 as they prepare for SEC play.

Steve Mitchell/Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Against Miami, up by 15 with 15 to go. Against Georgetown, up two with 11 seconds to go. At Kansas, up 18 with 16 to go. At Florida State, tied with 2.6 seconds to go. Against Connecticut, up 11 with 11 to go.

If the Florida Gators were good enough to be there in those games, they were good enough to win them, right?

But evidently, they weren’t tough enough to win them.

That’s Coach Billy Donovan’s dilemma, right now, as the Gators (7-6) prepare to open their Southeastern Conference slate Wednesday night at South Carolina (9-3).

"You’re always looking at things schematically; what we’re doing on offense; what we’re doing on defense; are these the best decisions we can make or do we need to make changes in our lineups?" Donovan said Monday, two days after rolling out a ninth different starting unit in his team’s first 13 games and losing the defending national-champion Huskies nonetheless. "As a coach, those things are pretty easy. … The harder stuff, that’s the stuff I’m talking about. That competitive disposition. That connection when things are not going well. ‘Can you guys rally and really pull together?’ And that’s been our struggle. It’s been a hard challenge, that level of consistency when it really gets amped up."

After UConn erased a fat Florida lead with a 17-2 run to steal Saturday’s 63-59 win at the O’Connell Center, Donovan harkened back to conversation he had with his returning players coming off last season’s 36-3 run that featured a school-record 30-game winning streak, the first-ever 18-0 record in SEC history, a conference tournament title and Final Four berth. That team, of course, had four seniors who’d been through the wringer and used their past highs and lows as reference points to pull them through and spur them to big wins.

Donovan’s warning to his latest team months ago: "You have no idea what’s coming."

Now, it’s here.

The reality for players like Michael Frazier, Dorian Finney-Smith and Kasey Hill — all key cogs in last year’s historic season — of stepping into completely different roles with altogether increased expectations has taken its collective toll.

Called into question

"I don’t think it’s an I-told-you-so mindset … but he did tell us and now we’re seeing it first-hand because we didn’t listen," said Frazier, the lone returning starter from a year ago. "I mean, we know what we need to do at this point. We can’t change the past. The only thing we can do is work toward changing our future. That starts with us buying in and being connected as a group."

So back to work the Gators went Monday afternoon at practice, where they’ve been focused and generally very good to date. What’s to come of this 2014-15 season is going to come down to games. Florida, for the most part, played well against UConn. The Gators executed on offense and hit shots to stretch out a double-digit lead. Sort of like they did against Miami. Kansas, too.

And lost.

When each of those teams bowed up and made their charges, the Gators collapsed under the weight of the competition and adversity.

"They made winning plays," Finney-Smith said after the UConn game. "We didn’t make the winning plays."

Unlike a year ago when the Gators put together one of the most dominant seasons of Donovan’s 16 straight with at least 20 victories. Then Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete and Casey Prather left.

In the offseason, Donovan talked repeatedly about the pitfalls ahead. He even had then-UF football coach Will Muschamp, who was coming off a woeful 4-8 campaign a year after going 11-2 and playing in the Sugar Bowl, speak to the basketbal team in an effort to ram home the point that nothing is pre-determined by the uniform you wear.

These players, apparently, had to live it (and learn it) for themselves.

"I can’t sit up here after some of the success we’ve had the last four years and not take the good with the bad," said Donovan, who clearly is not about to settle for this level of bad. "I feel like my job and responsibility as a coach is to teach these guys what goes into winning. I understand there is a result-oriented side to it. At the end of the day, you have to look at the score and whether you win or lose. But you have to earn those things — and they don’t happen by osmosis."

So here’s the state of the 2014-15 Florida basketball team:

— Of its seven wins, the most impressive to date came against either Texas Southern (which beat Michigan State and Kansas State) or Yale (which won at UConn at the buzzer).

— UF, the two-time defending conference champion, is tied with Mississippi State for the second-worst record in the league standings heading into the SEC season.

— The Gators’ RPI, which ultimately determines the NCAA Tournament field, is 133rd, which ranks 12th among the conference’s 14 members.

Translation: Yes, it’s early, but yes, that’s an NIT resume. The coach acknowledged that much.

"All I can go off is our body of work at this time and I’ll tell you right now we are not an NCAA Tournament team," Donovan said. "Now, we have 18 more games left to play. There’s an SEC Tournament left to play. There is still a lot of basketball left to play. Things can change. But do I think this is going to change based on what I’ve seen so far? I don’t know. We’re going to keep cranking and working at it to get that mindset and try to change it and get them in a better place."