Donovan irked that Baby Gators lack excitement, commitment

ATLANTA -- There's no question Florida missed the six departed players who helped it win back-to-back national championships.

The Gators missed Joakim Noah's energy, Al Horford's defense, Corey Brewer's versatility, Taurean Green's poise, Lee Humphrey's 3-point shooting and Chris Richard's leadership.

More than anything, though, Florida missed their passion and guts.

Because the players who replaced them sure lack an awful lot in those areas.

Needing to beat Alabama in the first round of the SEC tournament to have any chance at receiving an at-large invitation to the NCAA tournament, the Gators were blasted by the Crimson Tide 80-69 in the Georgia Dome on Thursday night. Florida trailed 30-5 and by as many as 28 points in the first half.

The loss ended a handful of Florida's winning streaks: 18 straight postseason victories, nine in a row in the SEC tournament and eight consecutive in the Georgia Dome. The Gators finished with a respectable 21-11 record, which was greatly padded by a soft nonconference schedule.

If Florida is left out of the NCAA tournament, it will be the first time a defending national champion has missed the Dance since Kansas failed to make the field following its 1988 title. The Gators have played in the NCAA tournament every season since 1999.

Gators coach Billy Donovan isn't exactly looking forward to next season, either, when five of his program's nine scholarship players become sophomores.

"It's in front of our guys, what it takes to win," Donovan said. "For whatever reason, I haven't brought it out in them. They're not committed to it. But I'm not necessarily really that excited about these guys being sophomores, to be honest. I don't think people change a whole lot, and I don't think you've seen the basketball team change at all this year. So it's hard for me to get overly thrilled or excited."

If you can't tell, Donovan doesn't really like his team. For as much as he tried this season, Donovan could never convince his players to play defense as passionately and hard as they play offense. During the regular season, the Gators ranked 10th in the SEC in field-goal percentage defense, ninth in 3-point percentage defense, 11th in blocked shots and dead last in steals.

The Crimson Tide, who lost 11 of their 16 SEC games during the regular season, made 13 of their first 17 shots. In a span of barely two minutes midway through the first half, Alabama forward Alonzo Gee scored on a pair of alley-oop dunks to make the score 38-14.

"I think we have some talent issues on the defensive end of the floor, foot-speed-wise, that sometimes is not all their fault," Donovan said. "But I think we have a commitment issue, too, which bothers me as a coach because I just got done coaching a group the last two years that was so committed. And to be with this group, I don't think just because they're going to be another year older that all of a sudden, everything gets resolved. I don't see that."

Donovan isn't sure what he sees in Florida's future. He recruited his team's five freshmen, who were supposed to be the players who would ultimately replace the departed stars, who won 68 games in two seasons. But Florida's new players look nothing like the old ones.

Last season, the Gators never trailed for a single minute in three games in the SEC tournament, blasting Georgia by 17 points, Ole Miss by 21 and Arkansas by 19. Against Alabama on Thursday night, the Gators never even had a lead.

"With everything that we're playing for, for us to allow ourselves to get that far behind, that's shocking," Florida freshman Chandler Parsons said.

When Parsons told reporters Florida simply wasn't ready to play against Alabama, Donovan bristled at the suggestion.

"To say the team wasn't ready to play, I've got to take responsibility for that because I think that's my job," Donovan said. "That's disappointing to hear."

Donovan was disappointed Parsons and Florida's other freshmen weren't excited about playing in their first SEC tournament game.

"I don't know how you can't just be excited," Donovan said. "What have I got to push?"

Donovan watched the same stoic team when practice started in October and admits he was just as worried then. The new Gators lacked the emotion and fire that made the old Gators so good.

During Wednesday morning's practice in Gainesville, Fla., Noah came into the gym screaming and yelling, trying to get the Gators excited about playing in the postseason. Noah, now a rookie forward with the Chicago Bulls, flew into town the night before.

"It was just a totally different disposition," Donovan said. "That's him. I think I fostered it, but I didn't all of the sudden put it in him. I don't know if you're born with it, develop it or just have it. I didn't put it in Noah."

Even after 32 games this season, Donovan still isn't sure if many of his current players have that same determination. Why didn't Donovan know his players might have lacked that fire when he was recruiting them?

"I don't think you ever see it," Donovan said. "I know exactly what I want in a player. I know the makeup I want. We've got good players. They're good players. But they're not so good that we can be [so bad on defense] and really expect to win."

Sophomore forward Marreese Speights, one of four players back from last season's squad, was yanked from the floor in the opening minutes against Alabama for his lackadaisical defense. Speights was plagued by mental lapses and inconsistency throughout the season.

Parsons, sophomore Dan Werner and freshman Adam Allen have yet to prove they're more than complementary players. Jai Lucas, a 5-foot-11 guard, who was considered a recruiting coup when he chose Florida over Kentucky and Oklahoma State, might be a few inches too short to be truly effective.

Freshman guard Nick Calathes, the team's leading scorer and playmaker, and forward Alex Tyus are the only current Gators who really resemble the old ones.

"I think there's some personnel issues, no question about it," Donovan said. "I don't think we're a quick, athletic team. When we line up and play against the physical, athletic teams, we get exposed."

Donovan isn't sure how he's going to immediately fix the Gators' problems. Donovan insists his program is in the midst of a major rebuilding job, which he says won't be completed before next season.

How long the reconstruction actually takes will ultimately be up to his players.

"You can't lose three [NBA] lottery picks for the first time in the history of the sport, lose five NBA players and the leading 3-point shooter in the history of the NCAA tournament and not expect to miss a beat," Donovan said. "That's not an excuse, that's reality. I wish I could sit here and say this group is going to be really, really good. I think we've got a long road back to being the best."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.