Commentary

Healthy dose of humility a good lesson for Gators

Originally Published: October 31, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The two perfectly lit trophy cases sit, appropriately enough, back to back.

One houses the 2006 Siemens Trophy; the other the hardware from 2007.

The national-championship trophies fit so perfectly inside Florida's well-heeled practice facility it's as if they -- not the spiral staircase that encircles them -- came first.

Last season the sparkling examples of Florida's basketball supremacy were the first thing the Gators saw when they came to practice each day.

[+] EnlargeBilly Donovan
Mark Zerof/US PresswireBilly Donovan couldn't get through to his team last season. After a healthy dose of tough love, will 2008 be any different?

That is, until the Gators were banned from their swanky digs, when Billy Donovan sent them packing to faceless high school gyms and told them to ditch their nice Nike gear at the door, too.

It was a comeuppance in comedown fashion, a full-throttle crash to Earth for a team that found itself walking on rarefied air it hadn't earned the right to inhale. Donovan played bad cop, nasty parent, mean teacher -- you name the adult figure of authority, and he tried on the hat.

And the Gators kept knocking it off.

"I was a little pissed at first," junior Dan Werner said. "I was like, 'What's he trying to prove?"'

More than anything, more than the sense of entitlement from those two trophies and false hope brought on by a fast start, that was the crux of Florida's problem last year: Billy Donovan talked and no one listened.

No one heard a man with three Final Fours to his credit when he said they weren't practicing hard enough. No one listened when a guy who coached seven NBA first-round draft picks suggested their defense was awful. No one believed the first coach to win back-to-back national titles in the last 15 years when he told them their offense wasn't nearly as good as they believed.

The Gators' ignorance was short-lived bliss and their ultimate downfall. "It's what you buy into and that's where I was really disappointed in myself, that I wasn't able to get them to buy into what the truth was," Donovan said.

Are they all in this season?

That's the biggest question. Florida has some issues it can't control -- with Marreese Speights cashing in an early ticket to the NBA, the Gators are left with zero post experience, and a groin injury to Eloy Vargas has slowed his development, putting a ton of weight on Kenny Kadji's rookie shoulders -- but there are some things it can fix.

Namely, Florida can grow up.

Donovan could have been the slickest salesman in the world, but he would have had an easier time convincing his players to wear short shorts than trying on a little humility. The 2008 Gators waltzed onto a campus where college basketball players were rock stars; where Joakim Noah could wear a muumuu to class and people would defend, rather than ridicule, him; where the job was so good the head coach nixed the elevator ride to the NBA.

Forget that of the '07 Florida team, only two players returned; forget that the bulk of the roster was made up of newly minted college freshmen.

Dude, this was Florida, where football champions begat basketball champions begat football champions begat basketball champions.

"We figured we could just show up," point guard Jai Lucas said.

[+] EnlargeJai Lucas
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesJai Lucas and the Gators learned their lessons from last season's regular-season finish.

And for 21 glorious games it looked that easy. Florida rolled to an 18-3 start and a No. 19 ranking. The dynasty was intact, the freight train running smoothly, chugging directly back to the NCAA tournament.

Donovan didn't see it that way. He hated the way his players practiced, and was less thrilled with the way they acted before a game. They weren't focused or intense. For four years his practices were like turf wars -- David Lee pushed Noah; Anthony Roberson schooled Taurean Green; Matt Walsh took it to Corey Brewer.

These guys weren't disrespectful or uncoachable, but no matter what Donovan said it was like they were pointing to that W-L mark and yelling back "Scoreboard."

"It was, 'We got this, Coach'," Donovan said. "It was overconfidence. You want your kids to be confident, to have that swagger, but these kids had the swagger without doing the work. If you had asked them in mid-January if they were in the NCAA tournament, they'd say, 'Oh, definitely.' I knew we weren't in, not even close."

The dreaded thing about adults -- they're usually right.

The charming thing about kids -- they have to figure that out themselves.

Florida learned Donovan was more than just a demanding nut on Feb. 2 and again on Feb. 5. Arkansas pantsed the Gators 80-61, and three days later, Tennessee turned a 4-point halftime deficit into a 22-point victory.

The two losses triggered a downward spiral that continued all the way to a crash and burn 3-7 finish to the regular season and a quick bounce from the SEC tournament, courtesy of an 80-69 humbling at the hands of Alabama.

The guaranteed lock NCAA tournament berth? Gone, and with it Florida's streak of 10 consecutive NCAA runs.

Instead of sitting among their adoring fans on Selection Sunday, the Gators were on the practice court. Their news would come via phone call, not on television, when the NIT put out its bracket.

"That was horrible," sophomore Nick Calathes said. "As a kid you dream of watching the Selection Show, and we're practicing. Not only do we know we're not in, we didn't keep the streak alive."

Around that time Donovan memorably said he wasn't all that excited about his group of rookies becoming sophomores. He says now that the statement was taken out of context, that he was asked about the old cliché -- the best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores -- and he was just making the point that there's no guarantee a year older will make his team a year wiser.

"Why can Carmelo Anthony and Mike Bibby take a team to a certain level at a young age?" Donovan asked. "Some guys come in with a level of maturity right away. You tell Al Horford a stove is hot, he's not going to touch it. You tell Jo Noah and he has to burn himself before he believes it."

Last year the Gators were a bunch of stove-touchers.

Now it's time to see if they take Donovan at his word.

The players say they're wiser -- "We're way ahead of where we were last year," Walter Hodge said -- but is this mere lip service or actual maturity?

[+] EnlargeNick Calathes
John Sommers II/Icon SMINick Calathes said not being a part of the NCAA tournament stung the Gators.

Donovan thinks it's legit. He became something of a convert at the end of last season, when his demoralized Gators roused themselves into NIT semifinalists. They practiced harder than they had all season, and their numbers showed the effort. Through the regular season and SEC tournament, Florida gave up 67.9 points per game.

In the NIT, opponents managed just 59.5 per game.

"I think the NIT says a lot about us," Calathes said. "We were heartbroken not to make the tournament, but we practiced hard every day. We finally realized how we needed to practice."

The carryover, the Gators say, is evident. Practices are harder now, with more value given to what once seemed mundane and unnecessary.

No one is saying, "We got this."

No one is saying much at all.

Nope, these Gators insist they are listening like children at the knee of a wise elder.

"My father always told me he knew best, and I didn't believe him," Werner said. "But he did. I guess Coach Donovan knows best, too."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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