GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Billy Donovan huddled his basketball team before practice Thursday night and asked his players to give 30 hard minutes -- that’s all -- in exchange for the next two days off heading into exam week.
The next half-hour (plus 10 minutes or so to clean some things up) was enthusiastic, energetic and about what the coach wanted.
These are delicate times for the sixth-ranked Gators, who improved to 7-0 after Wednesday night’s 72-47 battering of rival Florida State at Tallahassee. The win was UF’s sixth by at least 18 points and the fifth time the Gators have held an opponent to under 50 points.
Florida is playing very, very well, especially on defense, and is universally being praised by analysts and experts from around the nation.
“Based on our performance up to this point, yeah, I can see that,” Donovan allowed.
Which is why the UF coaching staff is paying particular attention to some of the things the Gators haven’t done particularly well as they head into a week crammed with distractions -- from study halls to Christmas shopping to finals -- that will culminate next Saturday night with a cross-country trip to No. 8 Arizona (6-0).
We’ll know a lot more about the Gators after that game.
For now, though, Donovan wants their attention turned strictly toward themselves.
“The more you win, the more difficult it becomes to win,” Donovan said. “Our guys need to understand that every day that goes by there has to be a little bit more focus, more effort and more of everything. We don’t need to get better by a whole bunch, but we need to continue to improve and not get stagnant in our preparation. ... They need to come with the mindset, ‘I’m coming to get better. What can I learn from and grow from today?’ I want them focused on where they can improve.”
As far as the coaches are concerned, there’s plenty of areas to lock in on.
* Turnovers -- UF has 96 assists, but 87 turnovers. That’s barely a break-even ratio and simply not good enough.
* Free-throw shooting -- The Gators are shooting a collective 70.5 percent, but center Patric Young, who leads the team with 34 free-throw attempts, is making just 52.9 percent and and forward Will Yeguete, who is third with 29 attempts, is at 55.2 percent. [Worth noting: Young stayed after practice Thursday and shot 220 free throws.]
* Transition defense -- It may not have been an issue against the Seminoles, who were loose with the ball (22 turnovers) and shot poorly (34.8 percent), but Marquette and UCF got some quick baskets off long UF misses, and a couple after UF makes.
Lapses in any of those three areas next weekend at Tucson will be costly against a Wildcats squad that is always tough at home and this year is armed with one of the nation’s best freshmen classes.
And, of course, there’s no guarantee some of areas where the Gators are playing their best -- like defense, ball movement and shot selection -- will be as sound in a venue as hostile as the McKale Center. Remember, for example, what UCF did in shredding UF from the 3-point Thanksgiving weekend.
“We have to keep improving,” Young said. “We are playing pretty good, but we also know we can play a lot better.”
Realizing as much, especially as dominant as the Gators have looked at times, is half the battle.
The other half, Donovan said, is getting his players to come to practice armed with three intangible traits every day.
* Effort -- Be prepared to spend it all, leaving nothing behind, thus getting used to doing it on game day.
* Mental focus -- Know your assignment, your role and what where you’re supposed to be. This is one of the hardest transitions for young players, which is why only one freshman (Michael Frazier) is in the rotation. It’s also a trait that can keep veteran players on the sidelines, which is why Mike Rosario (too distracted last year) is second only to Kenny Boynton on the team in minutes with 209 thus far. Rosario has bought in and is being rewarded.
* Be in check of emotions always -- Donovan believes it’s his job to stress his players to the max at practice, so that when confronted with adversity in the game -- when shots aren’t falling, refs aren’t calling falls, fatigue is setting, etc. -- there are reference points to push through it all.
“It’s a constant rehearsal every day to get to a place where you understand how to conduct and handle yourself on a day to day basis,” Donovan said. “It’s my job to put them in that place.”