Gators' winning formula? Unselfishness
BATON ROUGE, La. — The phrase is one Billy Donovan uses often, both with his players behind the scenes and when describing his Florida Gators at their very best.
He talks about “playing the right way.”
The words are open for interpretation, unless you play for the guy. By now, the Gators know exactly what Donovan means.
“Getting the ball to the open man,” junior point guard Scottie Wilbekin explained. “Not taking the tough shot when somebody else has a better shot. Things like that. Keeping the ball moving on offense [and] not holding it too long. Getting everyone involved and in position where they can score.”
Put another way: “Playing for each other, rather than for yourself,” freshman guard Michael Frazier II said.
It would be easy to dismiss these explanations as coach-speak funneling down through the players, but the 11th-ranked Gators (11-2, 1-0) will go to LSU (9-3, 0-1) Saturday for their first Southeastern Conference road game with a full understanding of the brand of basketball that gives them the best chance to win.
The kind where everyone is involved.
UF’s top eight players average between 13.3 and 5.8 points per game, barely a seven-point difference between leading scorer Kenny Boynton, the No. 5 scorer in school history, and Frazier, the college rookie with the deadly 3-point shot.
A different player has led the Gators in scoring each of the past four games and five different players over the last eight games. Boynton erupted for 28 points in a win at Yale, making eight 3-point shots. Three days later, Boynton went 2-for-8 from the floor and finished with just seven points, but Florida still pounded Georgia by 33 in the SEC opener Wednesday night for both teams.
(See “Way, Right”)
“There’s got to be a level of unselfishness on any team,” Donovan said. “You have to rely on each other and utilize each other’s talents on the floor. That’s how you become more difficult to defend.”
It took a night of playing the wrong way — just an awful way, really — to make it all soak in. UF’s 67-61 loss to Kansas State three weeks ago remains a two-hour instructional video from which Donovan can pick and choose snippets when he wants to remind his players how they have to play to win.
That night in Kansas City there was too much one-on-one, too much standing around, too many poor and challenged shots, too much settling instead of pushing through and working for the best chance to score.
The Gators had just three assists in the first half and only 11 for the game, with Wilbekin accounting for all but four of them. As a result, UF shot 40.4 percent for the game, including 26.3 from 3-point range.
In Donovan’s ideal world, UF will be in the 18-20 range on assists per game, but the team’s average is around 14.5. The Gators have carded at least 17 assists only five times this season, but the last two outings got 19 at Yale and 17 in the big Georgia win. Wilbekin had 16 assists in the two games, including a career-high 10 last weekend in Connecticut.
There’s a pronounced correlation with UF’s willingness to share the ball and a combined 54-point margin of victory those last two games.
“Coach talks about being a high-assist team and you can’t be that without making the extra pass, driving and kicking, and not taking bad shots when you’ve got wings who are wide open,” Frazier said. “Getting guys open shots, looking for them coming off screens. It’s about ball movement and unselfishness.”
Frazier played three years of high school at Tampa Plant, where his team had little chance of winning unless he hit for 25 points. His senior year, Frazier transferred to basketball factory Montverde (Fla.) Academy, where every one of his teammates was a Division-I prospect. His team played for the mythical prep national championship last season.
So Frazier knew about checking his ego and making the extra pass before even showing up on campus.
Over the last four seasons, much of how the Gators executed on offense was predicated on how well Erving Walker was running the system. Plus, Walker had an offensive mindset and a green light from his coach (most of the time) to look to score. Late last season, freshman Bradley Beal — eventually the No. 3 pick in the NBA Draft — became the focal point of the offense and things went through him.
But this team is just as likely to get Mike Rosario knifing the baseline on his way to 19 points as it is Patric Young banging in the block for a high-percentage 17-point night down low or Erik Murphy raining 3s off pick-and-rolls for 22 or so while spacing the defense for other action inside.
Additionally, opponents had better not sleep on backup forward Casey Prather, who has averaged 9.3 points over his last three games and made 72 percent of his shots. And Frazier is 12-for-23 from the arc (52 percent) over his past eight games.
“We have a bunch of guys who are capable of scoring 18 or 20 points,” Frazier said. “On a given night, there’s no telling who that guy is going to be.”
Even better, right now, no one cares who that player ends up being.
And there’s no righter way to play than that.