GAINESVILLE -- Earlier this week, Billy Donovan was announced as the Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year for the second time in a distinguished career that already features two national championships.
His No. 10-ranked Florida team (24-6, 14-4) won the regular-season conference championship for the fourth time and enters Friday’s SEC tournament quarterfinal game against LSU (19-11, 9-9 SEC) as the No. 1 seed.
And he’s not happy.
“I’m disappointed, to be honest with you, in our team’s fire,” Donovan said two days after Florida dropped the final game of the regular season to Kentucky. “I don’t see it. I don’t see it. I’m more concerned about that, and I think it’s pretty evident.”
In the loss to the Wildcats, the Gators squandered a seven-point lead during the final 7:36 by failing to score another point and turning the ball over five times. Donovan said the latter has become a disturbing trend in close games.
The Gators are averaging just 11.1 giveaways per game, good for the best mark in the SEC. But when the score gets close, Donovan’s team is coming unglued. Similar to the Kentucky loss, Florida turned the ball over eight times in the last nine minutes against Arizona in December, helping turn a 10-point lead into a one-point loss. And after beating Missouri by 29 at home, the Gators fell 63-60 to the Tigers in Columbia, Mo., after holding a 13-point lead with 10:51 to play mainly because of five turnovers.
“In those games or those situations, it’s been the turnovers,” Donovan said. “The one common theme in all three of those games is our turnovers. That’s a problem. We’ve gotta do a better job taking care of the basketball and getting shots at the basket.”
Of UF’s six losses, five have come by six points or fewer, and Donovan now has to fight the notion that the Gators can’t come through in the clutch. But he said he isn’t worried that an inability — perceived or otherwise — to finish games will affect the team in a negative way.
“I don’t sense that from our guys. I don’t,” Donovan said. “I’ve had some guys and have coached some guys where you can tell where they’re going to the free-throw line or it’s that moment where they’re a little bit overwhelmed by it. I don’t sense that from our guys.”
And for that reason, the SEC tournament is coming at a perfect time.
“I just look at right now that this is what’s in front of us,” Donovan said. “The regular season is over and done with, it’s behind us. That’s one we can celebrate and talk about, it’s done. This is what’s in front of us right now.”
What’s in front of Florida on Friday at 1 p.m. is LSU, a team the Gators beat 74-52 on Jan. 12 in Baton Rouge, La., in the teams’ only meeting this season. But forward Will Yeguete said the team has taken notice of Donovan’s displeasure with a lack of fire and his message that what they accomplished in the regular season no longer matters.
“It’s our next challenge. We want to play for championships here,” Yeguete said. “We have a chance to win a championship if we win every game in the SEC tournament. We are here to compete.”
And so is LSU. Tigers center Johnny O’Bryant played only 14 minutes in the first meeting with an ankle injury, but he was a force with 12 points and 12 rebounds in LSU’s win over Alabama on Thursday and said his team is ready for a second chance at UF.
“The last time we played was very early,” O’Bryant said. “We were still trying to find out who we were as a team. We’ve done a lot better since then. I’ve gotten a lot better since then. It’s going to be a great game [Friday]. Can’t wait to play.”