GAINESVILLE - Officially speaking, this season is the first of Billy Donovan's second tenure as the University of Florida's basketball coach. Remember, Donovan was the head coach of the Orlando Magic for five days during the spring. After almost a month, Donovan worries his second first season at Florida might wind up like his first first season (13-17 in 1996-97) if his players don't learn how hard they'll have to work to compete.
Tuesday, Donovan hypothesized that "they think I'm going to sprinkle stardust all over them and we just win." But you may rest easy, St. Pete Times Forum cleaning crew. Donovan won't drop any magic powder on your locker room floor before the Gators face Vermont at 7:30 tonight.
As far as he knows, no such coaching aid exists.
While his players - all but one of whom made no significant contribution to Florida's back-to-back national titles - learn the game from him, Donovan must learn about them. Finding the correct buttons to push was easy with the championship group that included NBA first-rounders Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer; every player came hard-wired with a hypercompetitive personality. As Donovan discovered with some disturbing observations from a loss last week to Florida State and a sluggish win Tuesday against Stetson, he may have to develop the competitive drives of his current players. They must learn, Donovan said, how to play with passion.
"The more and more I'm around them, the more and more I realize how at an infantile stage we are in terms of, we are starting all, completely over," Donovan said Tuesday. "There is absolutely zero carryover from the last two years. Zero."
For example, Donovan thought sophomores Marreese Speights, Dan Werner and Jonathan Mitchell would have learned last year that the effort they gave in practice would directly correlate to how they played in games. But, Donovan said, the players never learned the lesson because no matter how they practiced as freshmen, it didn't affect the outcomes of the games because the veterans played all the significant minutes.
"Dan Werner and Jonathan Mitchell and Marreese have no idea," Donovan said Tuesday. "Horford and Noah and those guys carried them. They carried them. I would hope that this year's sophomores would get something from it, but you know what? They carried them. To me, there's no reference point for Jonathan Mitchell and those guys."
Donovan didn't truly realize that until this week.
"There are a lot of things," Donovan said Wednesday, "I've taken for granted."
Donovan understands he was spoiled by a once-in-a-coaching-lifetime group, but he believes his current team can learn faster. He doesn't want Florida to sink back to its pre-Mike Miller/Udonis Haslem/annual NCAA Tournament appearance level.
Mitchell, a forward who took a huge step forward Tuesday with 10 points off the bench, said the Gators will become the team Donovan wants in time.
"We'll get it," Mitchell said. "Everybody goes at their own pace. Not everybody can do it overnight. It takes time. It's a process that we're going through right now."
Meanwhile, Donovan will try to speed along that process to avoid a steep dropoff.
"I don't want us to go back to where we started," Donovan said. "Not that we won't or it couldn't happen, but I don't want to have it done because of our effort and our energy and our passion and our enthusiasm to play the game."