Day 9: Florida | Traveling Violations
NEW YORK – Billy Donovan has always had players – his three stars from the last two years all have been on NBA rosters this season. What he hasn't seemed to have lately is a program.
David Lee, Anthony Roberson, Matt Walsh and all those points they scored are gone. But so too is a team that struggled to find an identity and couldn't get out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament the past two seasons, a kind of dud finish that seemed to slow once fast-rising coaching star Billy D.
Well, Billy Ball has made a reappearance, thanks to a deep, dangerous, tough and terrific group of young kids who run and press and battle and don't care who scores the most points.
"It's two different teams," forward Al Horford said after the Gators beat Syracuse 75-70 in a well-played championship game at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in Madison Square Garden on Friday night. "Last year the offense came from three guys. This year we are trying to get six or seven guys to get [between] nine and 15 points.
"The goal of our guys is to play as a team."
No one wants to blast Gator teams from the past, least of all Donovan. He won't say a bad word. But there is little doubt he loves this group.
They entered the season unranked and unheralded, starting four sophomores and a junior, and began playing the exact way Donovan always wanted his teams to play. For one, there is the kind of depth that allows them to play his preferred pressure defense. He has big, fast athletes that can disrupt things.
And they play with a toughness that allows them to fight through tired legs.
"Vince Lombardi was right when he said fatigue makes cowards of all of us," Donovan said. "These guys play hard. I think they reflect my personality a little bit. They are not going to say a lot, but they just play hard."
Donovan said the pleasant surprises have come in the things the recruiting process doesn't reveal. He knew he signed good players, but there is no way to truly know if a player has the mental and physical ability to fight through what he calls "the pain of fatigue." It turns out big men Joakim Noah, Horford and super guard Taurean Green sure do.
Even as the minutes racked up Friday (four Gators played over 32 minutes) in the second of back-to-back games, the effort and efficiency didn't. The Gators pushed Syracuse from buzzer to buzzer.
"We have great pain threshold," Donovan said. "They are very young and very, very eager. They enjoy playing together. They have a level of unselfishness. They play a little more like I would like to play."
How Florida got a bit off track has been a mystery. Donovan got the program going so fast – they played in the 2000 NCAA championship game in just his third season in Gainesville – that the sky seemed the limit. He was young, hardworking and coached a fun, aggressive and successful style.
This was the next Rick Pitino, the coach he led to the 1987 Final Four as a player at Providence. Florida was one of the hottest programs in the country.
And the recruits came, but not the same success. The Gators still won 20 games ever year, but they were tormented by better "teams" such as Kentucky in the regular season and have gone just 2-4 in the NCAA tournament since 2000.
Florida entered this season unranked. Now everything seems different.
"I love everybody on this team," said Noah, the 6-11 son of tennis great Yannik Noah. "We are like brothers."
Whether a lack of those feelings was the problem in past years is open to debate. But no one is complaining now – least of all Donovan, who triumphantly returned to his native New York and had his team put on an impressive opening act.
"This is a very fun group for me to coach," he smiled.
Billy Ball might be back