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Take measure of the Florida Gators' journey

Florida coach Billy Donovan says his team’s run has been very emotional for him because of how bad the Gators were four years ago.


Florida coach Billy Donovan says his team’s run has been very emotional for him because of how bad the Gators were four years ago.


For some, the memory of a basketball team may be measured in the amount of floor Chandler Parsons covered.

He came from 15 feet away, maybe from 20, heck, maybe from Orlando. UCLA center Josh Smith was on his way to the go-ahead dunk, the widest-open center in college basketball. And then Parsons flashed in from nowhere, and he blocked the shot, and the Gators never trailed again.


For others, the most important factor for the Gators was the distance Erving Walker fell.

It seemed he had fallen from the rim, maybe from the top of the gym, maybe from an overhead plane. One moment Walker was trying to drive around Smith, and the next he was tumbling toward Earth. He is 5 feet 8, and it seemed he fell 8 feet 5. And then the ball caressed the glass and fell through the net.


Still others may talk of the height Alex Tyus leaped to grab the deciding rebound.

His elbows were above the rim, or was it his belt, or was it his shoes? Whatever it was, it was his rebound that finally stopped the pesky UCLA Bruins, a team that must be getting awfully weary of having to play the Gators in these NCAA Tournaments.


To those with sufficient memories, however, the important distance to remember is the progress the Gators have made in four years, since their team was built largely of lost freshmen trying to find their way through the fog. Those freshmen did not know how hard college basketball is, and they did not know that they did not know.

For the Gators, who have reached the Sweet 16, who have the potential to go even deeper in the tournament, this should be the lasting memory. They have come so far, and they have learned so much, and they have improved more than anyone could have imagined.

In other words, if you think the Gators were impressive during their 73-65 victory over UCLA on Saturday afternoon, well, you should have gotten a load of these guys four years ago when the Gators were leaderless, clueless and pretty much hopeless. This was in the aftermath of back-to-back national championships, and everyone who was anyone had left for the NBA, and no one was around to set an example for the freshmen.

"Oh, it was bad," coach Billy Donovan said. "It was really, really bad. It wasn't their fault. They just didn't know, and there was no one to show them how hard it was.

"It was unbelievable. The (lack of) intensity in practice, how hard they went, the lack of physical aggression. They just had no concept."

So, Billy, back then could anyone have predicted that group would someday reach the Sweet 16?

"No," Donovan said. "Where those guys were at, they had no shot at ever reaching the NCAA Tournament. They weren't bad kids. They just had to get humbled. They had to go through it."

Somewhere along the way, the Gators grew up, and toughened up, and smartened up. Somehow, usually the hard way, they learned about intensity and preparation. Somehow, they learned to win even on an afternoon that didn't seem to be headed their way.

For a half, UCLA made Florida look small and soft. The Gators didn't get a single offensive rebound in the first half, and two of their biggest players, Parsons and Vernon Macklin, didn't get a rebound at all. The Bruins got 10 more free-throw attempts, and they had 10 more rebounds, and the Gators seemed to have no answer for Smith's height, or his width, or his depth.

In the second half, however, Florida was tougher, and scrappier, and it hit more big shots.

"Three years ago, we had no way to win that game," Donovan said.

By his nature, Donovan isn't much for signposts. The rest of us recognize the Sweet 16 as an achievement, and the Final Four, but Donovan insists that to him it's just about playing the next game. That, and being grateful these games aren't like the games of four years ago.

Still, there is nothing like the sight of a team going places to make a coach remember where it has been.

"I definitely can see them in the Elite Eight, possibly in the Final Four," said UCLA forward Reeves Nelson. "They're a good team. They can beat you in a lot of different ways. They definitely earned our respect today."

For others, such as Donovan, it took more time.

"I'm really happy they can keep playing," Donovan said. "It's been very emotional for me because I was very, very hard on them because they didn't have the right understanding of what it was about. I give them credit for their resiliency, because they constantly kept battling and trying to get better."

They have come a long way, in miles and years and lessons learned. Now they have a chance to keep going.


And who knows? Maybe even Elite?

Take measure of the Florida Gators' journey 03/19/11 [Last modified: Sunday, March 20, 2011 1:37pm]
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