There is a price to be paid for being a team leader and the visible heart and soul of the Florida basketball team not to mention a campus and national celebrity. Joakim Noah found that out this past Thursday when he didn’t start Florida’s first exhibition game of the 2006-07 season against Northwood University for what Coach Billy Donovan described as “academic issues.”
Noah sat the first few minutes of that first exhibition game against Northwood, his place taken in the starting lineup by senior Chris Richard. When the Gators faced off against Barry University in their final tuneup game for the regular season Sunday afternoon at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center, Noah was back in the starting lineup, his “issues” resolved.
And just what were the “issues” that caused such a commotion?
Noah was 20 minutes late for an African Studies class because he dropped by the campus apartment he shares with Taurean Green, Al Horford and Corey Brewer to take a shower before heading across campus.
“Jo didn’t do anything bad or anything that there’s a problem but I’m very strong on class attendance,” said Donovan after the Gators, with Noah back as a starter, stuffed Barry, 83-47. “I just think that on any college campus if you are a student and you’re in class and you’re putting for the effort and you show up every single day and you’re on time … I think any professor on this campus is going to help you.”
Noah made it to class, however. He didn’t skip. He was 20 minutes late and that’s what drew Donovan’s ire.
“He would never walk in 20 minutes late to a game,” said Donovan. “He wouldn’t show up 20 minutes late to my practice. I feel the same way about class.”
Donovan’s initial reaction was that he was going to suspend Noah for the entire Northwood game and make him go over to the academic center to study.
“Can you imagine?” Noah said with a grin after 18 points, nine rebounds, three blocked shots, two assists and a steal against Barry.
Donovan backed off of sending Noah to the academic center after Florida’s assistant coaches reminded him that “Jo’s been a good kid, he’s worked hard and he’s about the right things … my emotions got the best of me.”
Still, he wanted to send a shot across the bow, not just of Noah, but the entire team. He wanted to let them know that he doesn’t tolerate slacking off in the class room and secondly, he wanted to let them know that even the most visible player in the program plays by the same set of rules as everyone else on the basketball team.
“He is one of our leaders and one of the older guys and he sets the example for the younger guys,” said Donovan.
The message was loud and clear for Noah.
“I’ll never be late again,” he said, grinning and shaking his head. “I don’t know about early but I will be on time.”
Noah was on time Sunday and so was the emotion that was missing in the Northwood game. The Gators played with far more intensity on the defensive end, took better shots and at times got into good offensive rhythms. They still turned the ball over too much (17 times) and took some ill advised first half three-pointers (2-12 from the arc in the first half), but they showed they’ve made progress since that first game and that satisfied Donovan to a degree.
“I was a lot more pleased with today’s game than I was last Thursday,” said Donovan, who felt the Gators maintained good defensive pressure throughout the game.
Barry tried to hold the ball for 25-30 seconds of the shot clock in an attempt to shorten the game against the taller Gators. The tactic didn’t make the game any closer but it had a good effect for Florida.
“Not everybody we play against is going to want to run up and down the floor,” said Donovan. “It forced us to guard for long periods of time, forced us to be disciplined and forced us to block out and rebound at the end of the block.”
Noah and Al Horford dominated the boards. Horford recorded a double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds.
Starters Lee Humphrey and Taurean Green both added 10 points to the Florida cause and freshman Dan Werner bounced back from some first half mistakes to score 11 points, knocking down 3-7 from beyond the arc.
Florida shot 5-10 from the three-point line in the second half, the result of locker room adjustments. Florida was launching three-pointers in the first half before the ball went inside. Donovan feels the Gators are a far more effective team shooting the long ball when the ball goes inside to the post and then it’s kicked back out to the shooters.
“In the first half we were 2-12 and second half we go 5-10 …we shoot 50 percent,” said Donovan. “The difference is we got shots when the ball went into the post and it came back out.”
When the Gators initiate the offense from the entry pass into the post, the Gators tend to spend a lot more time at the foul line. Against Northwood, the Gators got there just 15 times. Against Barry, Florida went 26-37 for the game, 15-22 in the second half when the emphasis turned to more of an inside out game.
The Gators led 35-24 at the half, but in the first nine minutes of the second half, that lead was expanded to 60-33. From there it was cruise control, but Donovan saw enough to know that his team had made a leap from where they were Thursday.
Now the Gators have four days to prepare for a game that counts. Florida opens its season against Samford University, coached by Princeton offense disciple Jimmy Tillette. Donovan said Florida’s emphasis in practice the next four days will be on the offensive end.
“I’m not really overly happy offensively right now,” said Donovan, who will officially begin his eleventh season as Florida’s basketball coach Friday. H e said the Gators will spend time this week working on making their possessions count by being more patient and understanding what is a good shot and what is not.
“You can’t come down the floor and take a quick shot that there is a low percentage of making,” he said.
Against a Princeton offense, that will be especially important. Samford will want to play a 120-130 point game with a very controlled tempo. The Gators will want to run every chance they can get but Donovan knows sometimes that’s impossible. What Florida has to guard against is the tendency to launch a quick shot after spending 30 seconds playing full tilt on defense.
“We’ve got to get better understanding taking three point shots in transition,” he said. “What’s a good three and a bad three … and when teams hold the ball we have to make them guard, not for 35 seconds but we have to make them guard where we get the ball inside, get to the free throw line and play inside out.”
Noah said, “Today was definitely better. I think we realize that there are still a lot of mistakes. I’m happy with today’s performance. The team did a decent job but we still have a long way to go.”