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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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When 3 stars left, Gators became one
How do you lose your three best players and get better? Five months later, the words are the same but the inflection has changed.
By JOHN ROMANO
Published March 15, 2006
JACKSONVILLE - Not so long ago, it was a rhetorical question. Meant to drive home a point, rather than pursue an answer.
How do you lose your three best players and get better?
Five months later, the words are the same but the inflection has changed. The rhetorical question has given way to exclamation.
How do you lose your three best players and get better!
Go figure. Just when you had accepted the Florida basketball program as a hopeless underachiever, it recasts itself as lovable overachiever.
Oh, the numbers are practically the same. Seven regular-season losses in 2004-05 and six this time around. Scoring is up a little, rebounding is down a bit and the perimeter shooting has been nearly identical.
So what's the difference?
Perceptions, for one thing. Attitude, for another. These Gators were largely ignored when the season began. David Lee, Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh had moved on, and so had much of the program's hype.
What remained was an anonymous group of players with a chance to assert themselves. Not as talented as previous rosters, but more determined. They could no longer rely on familiar names of the past, so they would have to depend on one another. A handful of stars replaced by a room full of grunts.
"All the doubt we had in the beginning of the season, it definitely made us tighter as a unit. We knew how hard we had to work," said forward Joakim Noah. "We had 6 a.m. workouts in the fall that were ridiculous. I remember throwing up, and feeling like I was on the verge of dying. Those are the moments you think about when you reach situations like this."
The situation of which Noah speaks is the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and the chance to undo years of March frustrations.
For the second consecutive season, the Gators are coming in as Southeastern Conference tournament champions. And for the fourth time in six seasons they arrive as one of the top four seeds in their region.
So this is nothing new, you say. No reason to expect Florida to survive beyond the opening weekend for the first time since 2000.
That may be true. This may be another in a long line of teases. But it doesn't feel that way. For the first time in a long while, Florida seems somehow tougher. In some ways, more resilient.
No one is scoring as well as Roberson or Walsh. No one is pulling down as many rebounds as Lee. But, as a group, they are getting the job done.
A year ago, there was a 12-point gap in scoring averages between the starters. This season, the difference is barely three points. Everyone contributes, and no one will doom the team with a poor shooting night.
Coach Billy Donovan may have lost some explosiveness in his offense, but he has gained a consistency that had been missing.
"I didn't really know what to expect," Donovan said. "I knew this would be a team that played hard, played together and played unselfishly, but I didn't know where it would lead in terms of wins and losses."
Of course, it's not as if the Gators are without talent. Noah has emerged in the past two months as one of the most intriguing big men in the country. He is not as refined as a lot of post players, but he is more athletic and could eventually be Florida's highest draft pick since Mike Miller went No.5 in 2000.
But more than points and rebounds, Noah has brought a different attitude to the lineup. He is demonstrative, where Lee was passive. He goes nonstop, where Roberson had a tendency to slack off when things went wrong. He is not afraid of confrontation, where Walsh could be intimidated.
Mostly, Noah has helped create an environment where the success of the team has superseded the ambitions of the individual.
And that's an enviable atmosphere. As important, perhaps, as any one player's scoring average. It has even caught the attention of Florida football coach Urban Meyer who talked this week of bringing basketball players in to talk to his team about the impact of chemistry in the locker room.
"After Matt and David and Peep left, we decided we were always going to have to stick together," forward Al Horford said. "It was going to be about us, it was about the team, it wasn't about one unique player."
Still, they're not perfect. The depth in the backcourt is troubling. The starters are inexperienced, with four sophomores and a junior in the lineup. Those are not factors that bode well in the NCAA Tournament.
Even so, there is a sense of accomplishment to this team. Not so much in the won-loss record, but in the demeanor on the court.
These Gators weren't supposed to be this good.
They know it, but that doesn't mean they believe it.