Talent was not the question; how fast the talent could bond and mature was.
By JOANNE KORTH
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 2000
GAINESVILLE -- Next year.
Coach Billy Donovan was supposed to completely overhaul Florida's program with his up-tempo style. The infusion of young talent was supposed to make it one of the nation's best. And four McDonald's All-Americans were supposed to deliver the Gators to the Final Four.
Than again, why wait?
Relying heavily on seven underclassmen, Florida has shattered the learning-curve speed limit to reach the Final Four a year ahead of even the most optimistic schedule. The Gators play North Carolina in the semifinals Saturday in Indianapolis.
"I've always said, any time you sign freshmen, you can't expect much out of them," Donovan said. "But the players have gotten it done. And that has been surprising to me because history tells you it's very difficult to win with freshmen and sophomores. They, for some reason, have been able to do it."
Three things have keyed Florida's NCAA Tournament run: The progress made by Mike Miller, Teddy Dupay and Udonis Haslem last season as freshmen; the selfless pledge 10 talented players have made to Donovan's up-tempo system; and the emotional catharsis of the Gators' buzzer-beating victory against No. 12-seed Butler in the first round.
"You've got to be surprised, but we've always had confidence in ourselves," said Miller, UF's all-time NCAA Tournament scorer with 92 points in seven games. "It's definitely surprising that we're here this fast, but if we stay focused on what's ahead of us, the sky's the limit. We can still keep going."
Miller and Dupay were the first McDonald's All-Americans to sign with Florida -- ever. Miller and Haslem started as freshmen; Dupay came off the bench. Their ability to quickly absorb the principles of BillyBall, particularly the intricacies of the trapping full-court press, put the program on fast forward.
"I thought it would take Mike Miller, Teddy Dupay and Udonis Haslem into the middle of their sophomore year to really adjust to college," Donovan said. "I didn't know those freshmen would be able to do what they did last year, and help out like they did."
Florida reached the Sweet 16, losing 73-72 to Gonzaga. The groundwork was laid and help was on the way in the form of two more McDonald's All-Americans, forward Donnell Harvey, the consensus national player of the year, and point guard Brett Nelson. Maybe, too much help.
In two years, Florida went from a team without marquee talent to one with so many stars there couldn't possibly be enough basketballs to go around. Surely, egos would collide, especially in a system requiring such physical exertion that even the best players average just 20-25 minutes.
"We want to win," Miller said. "It's so easy to be caught up in yourself, but the best thing about our basketball team is we're not caught up with what happens individually. We're caught up with winning and moving on in the NCAA Tournament and doing good things for the team and the program. Coach Donovan sat us down before my freshman and sophomore years and told us if we won, we would reap the rewards."
More than anything, the players believed in Donovan. They had absolute faith in his system and its ability to fatigue any team. They were willing to trade swollen scoring and rebounding averages for victories.
They showed maturity.
"It's the players," Donovan said. "They've been very resilient after losses. They have tremendous character. They're the ones who have put their egos aside and put winning first. They're the ones who have stepped up and played very, very well. From a realistic standpoint, these guys have been unique."
Even so, late in the season the Gators looked and played like a young team. With sole possession of the SEC title at stake, they suffered their worst loss, 85-70 in the regular-season finale at Kentucky. In the second round of the SEC tournament, they underestimated Auburn because it no longer had star Chris Porter, and made a mockery of their beloved full-court press by committing 32 fouls.
Seeded fifth in the NCAA's East Region, Florida became a popular pick to be upset in the first round. For 44 minutes and 59.7 seconds, it was an accurate pick, too.
Unable to impose their style on physical, deliberate Butler, the Gators trailed 68-67 in overtime when Miller drove the lane, leaned forward and released the winning jumper with three-tenths of a second left. A wild celebration erupted, giving way to an emotional locker room scene that bordered on surreal. Everyone cried.
"We treated that game like a loss," Dupay said.
Since, the Gators have played like men at work, rallying for victories against No. 4 seed Illinois and No. 1 seed Duke, and handily beating No. 3 seed Oklahoma State in the region final. Florida got better each game, to the point no one considers the Final Four berth a fluke.
"I've seen a different look in everybody's eyes these last couple games that I haven't seen all year," Haslem said. "We talk about being focused, but our focus has gone up another level in the NCAA Tournament.
"That buzzer-beater made us a close-knit group, crying and telling each other we loved each other. We're as much of a team right now as I can see us being."
That can wait.