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With Florida struggling going into SEC tournament, coach wants more ‘fire and passion’

The alarm is going off for Florida coach Billy Donovan, but he isn’t sure if his players hear it.

The Gators are stuck in a three-week slump, going 3-3 during that span, and bear little resemblance to the team they were during the first three months of the season. They have fallen from No. 2 to No. 13 in the Associated Press poll and are coming off an exasperating loss to Kentucky in which they went scoreless for the final 7:36.

After one lackluster minute to open that game, Donovan screamed for a timeout and tried to jump-start his players.

It’s the worst possible time to slip. Florida starts the SEC tournament in Nashville, Tenn., on Friday against Georgia or LSU (1 p.m., ESPNU) with the NCAA tournament the following week.

“I’m disappointed, to be honest with you, in our team’s fire,” Donovan said. “I don’t see it. I don’t see it. … With the way we’re playing right now, I don’t like our fire. I don’t like our intensity right now.

“I’m trying to help our team become great. I’m not interested in just going through the motions. We’re not playing with fire and passion right now. Our perseverance or resiliency needs to get better. They’ve got to enjoy the struggle a lot more.”

The Gators, now 24-6, opened the season with seven straight wins and were 18-2 in early February. The majority of those first 18 victories were blowouts.

Over the past three weeks, even the wins frustrated Donovan. He was displeased with most of his team after the Gators came back late in the second half to beat Alabama 64-52 at the O’Connell Center, and after a 26-point win over Vanderbilt last week he questioned his players’ hunger.

“We should do a better job just coming out and being excited and being ready to play,” forward Will Yeguete said. “We’ve been missing that.

“I feel like you should always be ready to go, no matter what. We haven’t had that fire the past couple games. Hopefully we can get it back soon.”

The Gators will make the NCAA tournament regardless of what happens at Bridgestone Arena this week, but their seeding and viability hinge on how quickly they make corrections. Previously a leading candidate for a No. 1 seed, Florida now is a No. 3 seed in projections by ESPN and CBS.

One constant has been defense, which is the biggest reason UF has a shot at the national title. Even in the past six games, the Gators are holding opponents to 38.1 percent field-goal shooting.

Injuries have been part of the problem, and the Gators are still transitioning back to their original lineup. The three main subs — Yeguete, Michael Frazier and Casey Prather — missed time due to various issues, though the starting five has been together most of the year.

Florida’s ball movement also has been troublesome. Donovan wants the team to reach at least 17 assists, something it hasn’t done in the past six games. The Gators had more turnovers than assists in recent games against Missouri, Alabama and Kentucky.

Rebounding is another issue. UF held an advantage in that area just twice in the past 10 games.

“That’s a major problem,” Donovan said. “Having a fire and a passion — to me that’s it: on the glass. When you’re doing that, when you’re hitting and going and chasing balls … in these situations, you have to be willing to do things that are very, very uncomfortable and people don’t get a lot of enjoyment from doing.”

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