- Andy Katz, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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Billy Donovan gathered his Florida team together for its first practice last month and gave his players the goods on their SEC offensive statistics.
He rattled off the Gators' scoring offense, rated second in the league at 77 points a game. Then he told the players that they were tops in field-goal percentage (48.3) and second in 3-point field-goal percentage.
Then he went on the defensive, as in -- "try to defend these statistics": 11th in team defense (69.1 ppg), 11th in blocks (3.1), ninth in rebounding margin (plus 1.1), 11th in turnover margin (minus 1.1), ninth in steals (9.5), sixth in defensive field-goal percentage (41.5).
The stat that didn't need to be read was obvious: The Gators lost to Manhattan (75-60) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, after getting drilled in the SEC tournament final against Kentucky (89-73). These two losses came after the Gators played their way back into the NCAA Tournament by winning six of their last seven games to go from 14-8 to 20-9.
Soon after the stats were read, the team went into a stance -- a defensive stance.
A few weeks later, the aches and pains of strained muscles from doing defensive fundamental work are starting to heal. The message has been sent and the Gators caught on quickly. If Florida is going to live up to its expectations, then it must become a better defensive team -- now and then, of course, come November.
"Just about every guy pulled a hip flexor or a groin or had sore knees,'' said senior forward David Lee. "I pulled a hip flexor on the second day. I didn't know I was capable of getting down that low. I continued to practice and became noticeably more comfortable in that stance.''
The Gators sort of caught a lucky break with the hurricane season. While Donovan went 10 days without cable or a phone at his house, he did get eight days of practices in before the team's Labor Day trip to the Bahamas was canceled.
The practice sessions allowed the Gators to focus on defense and get acquainted with new assistant coach Larry Shyatt, a former head coach at Clemson and Wyoming. Donovan instructed Shyatt and longtime Florida assistant Anthony Grant to work on the defensive side during the practices. They had the team's attention from the first whistle.
"We did a lot of work on our stance after seeing on tape how often we were coming out of our stance,'' Lee said. "Teams knew that if they took us deep into the shot clock they could score on us because we came out of the stance. We did a lot of drills to correct that.''
Grant worked mostly with the big men. Shyatt handled the guards.
Shyatt said the two weakest defensive teams he ever coached were young and had no depth, two things that cost the Gators a year ago.
"I didn't want to watch tape on these guys when I came; I wanted to hit the ground running and see for myself,'' said Shyatt, who spent his first season out of coaching, after getting pushed out at Clemson, working in television last season. "I knew some of them from recruiting against them and knew how hard Matt Walsh played, but I had no idea what to expect from Anthony Roberson, David Lee and Adrian Moss. I felt a real eagerness to learn from them. They never took a drill off.''
The defensive work may sound tedious and clearly isn't as enjoyable as going through fast-break drills. But the Gators had to get back to the basics and started with drills guarding nobody, to guarding the ball fullcourt, to 2-on-2 drills, to defensive screens and help-side screens and ball-side screens, to even a quiz-and-answer session.
"If I ask them, 'How do you guard a ball screen?' Then their answer should be, 'Tell me where the ball is,' " Shyatt said. "I wasn't sure how they would react to those practices, but I was delighted to see how Roberson handled it. He's a tough and strong kid.''
Grant was the initial architect of the defense and said he doesn't expect the Gators to relinquish their attempt to play more up tempo. Two of the freshmen -- Corey Brewer and Taurean Green -- seemed to be natural defenders and don't seem to need much of a learning curve because of their athleticism and instinct.
Offense was and remains the team's strength, but the Gators know nights will come when Roberson and Walsh won't make 3s and Lee goes cold inside, regardless of what Brewer and Green can bring.
"We have to have balance,'' Donovan said. "We have to be a disciplined and intelligent defensive team. I'm a big believer on working on stuff, but you can do all the technique drills, but when it's five-on-five the fundamentals can go out the window.''
That's why the Gators needed another voice. Getting Shyatt to go along with Donovan, Grant and assistant Donnie Jones could be one of Donovan's best recruiting moves. Hiring head coaches as assistants is a hot trend.
Missouri coach Quin Snyder filled his staff with three one-time former head coaches: Melvin Watkins (Texas A&M), Jeff Meyer (Liberty) and Jay Spoonhour (UNLV). Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson added Ray McCallum (Houston) and Bob Hoffman (Texas-Pan American). Minnesota coach Dan Monson added Jim Molinari (Bradley). Indiana coach Mike Davis hired Kerry Rupp (Utah). Plenty of other coaches have had lasting success going this route, like Kentucky with David Hobbs (Alabama), Alabama with Tom Asbury (Kansas State), Connecticut with George Blaney (Seton Hall) and Oklahoma State with James Dickey (Texas Tech).
Shyatt doesn't like the attention, but he has had an effect.
"He's a tremendous coach,'' Lee said. "It's always good to have a fresh face. He's brought different ideas to us. I think you'll see a more aggressive and stronger Gators team on the backboard. Those are two things that coach Shyatt really stressed.''
Shyatt has blended in well with Grant and Jones. He was always a rather low-ego guy when he was an assistant to Rick Barnes at Providence and Clemson and then again as a head coach at Wyoming and Clemson.
Grant said Shyatt is a top defensive coach who brings 30 years of experience and a different philosophy. Donovan added that the schemes won't change and Shyatt is about learning the Florida press. But the fundamentals and the drill work have a Shyatt imprint.
Grant and Jones have been with Donovan for 10 years. And both contribute in many ways. Shyatt will be expected to do a little bit of everything, but his defensive experience certainly is a major plus.
"I hired him as a new voice, as a good recruiter and a guy who has integrity and character in the business,'' Donovan said. "The perception is that Larry is a defensive coach. But he's doing everything. He's probably a better assistant than he was eight years ago since he has been a coach. He gets it. He understands the chemistry and the cohesiveness needed for a team.''
Especially when it begins with defense. If the Gators can enter the top four in those defensive categories, then Donovan said they will have the balance needed to be even more successful.
March is a marathon away, but the Gators have done their first important work on their defense, listening to a new voice that complements the others they have heard so far at Florida.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
Billy Donovan hired ex-head coach Larry Shyatt to help shore up Florida's defensive weaknesses.