They are playing and coaching the game they love. Most of them have done it all their lives. Basketball is routine, basketball is comfortable, but at the major Division I level, is it fun? Sometimes the lines between work and play become blurred during the season. It could be because of a losing streak, or an injury. College athletes don’t have much time for anything else when their sports are in season, so they must focus on the grind. Coaches can risk breaking down under the weight of a crushing schedule and unbelievable, sometimes unattainable expectations. At its core, through all the minutia, this sport is supposed to be fun; but what part specifically?
“I tell our guys all the time that if you want to have fun, go to Southwest Rec and go play pick-up ball and play on your terms,” Florida head coach Billy Donovan said Friday morning. “But I think when you’re playing in a competitive environment like this, you can’t play on your terms. There’s certain things that go into winning. There’s certain things that go into performing and playing the right way and playing together and being a team. That’s where the fun lies.”
Donovan went on to say younger players think practice and games are where the enjoyment should come from, but it’s more in the process of overcoming mental challenges and getting better every day. Someone that knows that all too well is senior Patric Young, a senior and three-year starter who echoed his head coach’s sentiments.
“There’s a lot of ups and downs and a lot of getting yelled at sometimes,” Young said “But when you see those Ws getting thrown up every single night and everything is clicking and you’re really connected with your teammates, just knowing you’re not in it alone — you’ve got guys that are going to lift you up — that’s where the enjoyment comes”
Florida (14-2, 3-0 SEC), which just extended its school record home winning streak to 25 games travels to Auburn Saturday to face the Tigers (8-6, 0-3 SEC) in the first of a two-game road trip to the state of Alabama (Florida faces Alabama in Tuscaloosa next Wedensday). The Gators are knee-deep in conference basketball, a two-games-a-week, nine-week grind that can chew up and spit out teams that aren’t mentally and physically tough. The Gators will have to battle complacency to avoid tripping up on an Auburn team that is winless in conference play.
To help keep his teammates focused and together, Young coordinates off the court dinner nights and hosting a BCS National Championship Game viewing party at his home. Young is the team’s serious leader. The not so serious leaders — maybe team jokesters would be a better term — are Scottie Wilbekin and Dorian Finney-Smith.
And then there is Jacob Kurtz, the walk-on who has endeared himself to teammates with his contributions at practice, during games and off the court.
“Jake the Snake … he looks quiet but he’s not,” Young said.
The former team manager and fan favorite and Finney-Smith are constantly jabbing at each other in jest.
“Him (Jake) and Doe-Doe (Finney-Smith) have this thing where they just go at each other all year,” Young said. “It’s joking but it’s kind of serious … Jake, he’ll joke and be like ‘alright, I’m only gonna be cool with you during the game, during the 40 minutes. Then when we were in Arkansas we went into overtime (an extra five minutes) and … he said ‘ahh man, I gotta be cool with you for five minutes.’”
The quirks in personality can loosen things up and add an element of enjoyment to a season that otherwise can drag at a snail’s pace at times.
As Young and Donovan spoke to the media on Friday, they did so in front of a case filled with trophies and nets that had been cut down years ago when Florida reached the ultimate peak of college basketball’s mountaintop. If they can get there again, it would certainly be the most fun thing this team has ever experienced.