The Gators' fight is rooted in a teammate fight
MINNEAPOLIS -- This season of validation for Billy Donovan began in a manner that would make most coaches cringe.
It began with a fistfight between teammates.
This was last April, after a fifth consecutive first-weekend exit from the NCAA Tournament -- all losses to lower-seeded teams. The Gators were playing pickup ball at the Florida practice facility, with the teams divided as usual: upperclassmen on one side and youngsters on the other. If you ask the youngsters, they'll tell you they won most of the games, even though they were supporting actors on the 2004-05 team.
At some point during this particular game, freshman Corey Brewer squared off with junior Matt Walsh, one of the team's stars.
Freshman reportedly decked junior, sending a message that still reverberates in Gainesville.
There was a new sheriff in town -- a new posse, actually. Experience be damned. The freshman class of Brewer, Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Taurean Green -- plus their adopted sophomore, Lee Humphrey -- was going to shape the personality of the 2005-06 Gators.
Not long after that fight, Walsh surprisingly declared for the NBA draft -- and went undrafted. So did classmate Anthony Roberson.
Into that talent vacuum stepped the posse.
Asked if that altercation set in motion the transformation of the Florida Gators from a loose confederation of me-first talent to the tighter, tougher unit now in the elite eight, Brewer nodded.
"I guess you can kind of say that," Brewer said. "We got into it because we're competitors. Everyone used to call Florida soft. We're trying to change the reputation of Florida and change the mindset."
The change has come from a sophomore class that lives together, plays together and wins together. Brewer, Noah, Horford and Green all share an apartment, share the ball and share the credit that has come cascading in with Florida's unexpected 30-win season. They even share a nickname: The '04s, for the year they came to Gainesville.
In the process, The '04s have proven Donovan's ability as a coach. After a rapid boom-and-bust cycle, and at the ripe old age of 40, he's back in vogue.
Donovan got too far, too fast, and he's struggled to live in the Achievatron fast lane ever since. Florida made a surprise Final Four run in 2000, when Billy The Kid was just 34, and he was signing high school All-Americans at an astonishing rate. Expectations of a Spurrier-of-the-hardwood reign spread quickly.
But that Final Four turned out to be a high water mark, not the beginning of a Duke-like run of sustained excellence. Florida averaged 23 wins a season from 2001 through 2005 -- wildly successful by program history standards -- but the Tournament losses were galling.
The Gators were blown out by teams that never reached the Final Four (Temple in 2001, Michigan State in 2003). They were upset by mid-majors (Creighton in 2002, Manhattan in 2004). They were outwilled by Sunday's opponent, Villanova, after the Wildcats lost Curtis Sumpter in the first half with a knee injury (2005).
Critics began to proliferate. Donovan started to look more like a guy who got lucky in 2000 than a guy who was ready to be a consistent March master like his protégé, Rick Pitino.
"At 34 years old, it wasn't that Billy Donovan did a good job coaching," Donovan said. "It was just that he has all the best players in the country, they are the most talented team in the country."
Yet as flashy as Donovan's recruiting was, it was the equivalent of a 20-minute, grab-all-you-can shopping spree at Neiman Marcus. Not everything fit. Not everything went well together.
Guys went pro early -- or never even arrived in Gainesville. Donovan's roster churn was continuous, and the Gators were being beaten routinely by teams like Kentucky that had less talent but more continuity, maturity and toughness.
"Our program has been hit as hard as anybody's with early departures and guys leaving early," Donovan said.
The most recent early departures turned out to be addition by subtraction.
Without Roberson and Walsh, expectations at last were deflated for the Gators. Teamwork simultaneously inflated. This sophomore class is talented, but comes with less blue-chip hauteur about it.
"Some people doubted us, and that made us a tighter group," Noah said. "We knew how good we could be and we pushed each other."
There are clear signs of player development with this team, especially in Noah, which was one knock on Donovan. And for those who suspected the coach was something of a sideline lightweight who couldn't X and O, this team has disproved that as well this March.
Normally fast and fluid, Florida was happy to slog through an SEC tournament championship game, beating a South Carolina team it had lost to twice by the un-Gator-like score of 49-47. Florida did the same thing here Friday night against Georgetown, showing its defensive discipline against the Hoyas' slow-down, back-door offense and winning 57-53.
Now comes Villanova, with its band of big-city tough guys. If any lingering notions remain about whether Florida is soft, about whether Billy Donovan can coach, this is the game that can dispel them for good.
"Hey, it's our time now," said Brewer. "Our time to shine."
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.