Gators Proved It’s All About The Chemistry

If there was one lesson to be learned Saturday afternoon at the Stephen
C. O’Connell Center it is that you can have all the talent in the world
but if your teamwork and chemistry haven’t quite meshed yet, you could
be in a heap of trouble. Ohio State had a roster chock full of high
school All-Americans but Florida’s Gators were the team that had this
chemistry thing figured out.

Chalk up Florida’s 86-60 blowout of the Buckeyes as another example of how good talent plus good chemistry leaves opponents with rosters loaded with McDonald’s All-Americans holding their shorts and gagging for breath. The Gators are plenty talented but you’d think they’re the mutts that crashed the Westminster Dog Show the way the experts gush over all the young guns at Ohio State and North Carolina. Maybe the Gators don’t have the talent pedigree but they definitely have the team.

Saturday, the Gators were running up and down the floor, having the time of their lives and doing their all-inclusive team thing while the Buckeyes were wondering if they had brought along enough bandages to stop the bleeding. By the time the carnage was over, the Gators looked like they could have done the Ernie Banks “let’s play two” thing while Ohio State looked like a team that couldn’t get out of town quick enough.

This was supposed to be the coming out party for the young Buckeyes, a signature win to start them on a run to the national championship game. At least that’s what so many experts were telling us. With Al Horford expected to miss the game with a sprained ankle, some of the talking heads boldly predicted a Buckeye blowout. Let’s be honest here. Even if Horford had been healthy all week, these same people would have picked Ohio State to win.

Florida’s early season losses to Kansas (in Las Vegas) and Florida State (in Tallahassee) emboldened the skeptics that still couldn’t believe Florida won the NCAA Championship last April to say “I told you so … I told you they weren’t that good.” Nobody seems to take into account that Florida has played only three games all season with a healthy roster top to bottom and for some reason there are still a whole lot of so-called experts that find it difficult to believe the Gators were the last team standing in April while the likes of Duke, UConn, Texas and Memphis watched the Gators blow out UCLA in the championship game from the comfort of their living rooms.

If you don’t believe that’s true, then ask yourself why so many preseason magazines predicted freshman dominated teams like North Carolina, Kansas and Ohio State to win the 2007 NCAA title over the Gators, who return their top seven players from the team that won it all eight months ago.

Ohio State has one larger — try 7-1 and 280 or so pounds — and more visible reason that some of the talking heads were trying to convince us all last week that the Gators would be easy pickings. The Buckeyes have Greg Oden whom the drooling experts have anointed as the second coming of [fill in the blank with either Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, Bill Walton, Patrick Ewing or Shaquille O’Neal]. Oden is an immense human with a great future ahead of him but no matter what he does, it’s unlikely that he will ever live up to the hype. What makes the comparisons so unfair is that the bulk of the folks that have declared him the heir to the best ever throne have never seen him go head up against really talented folks his own size. Just a year ago, he was tearing it up in high school back home in Indiana. Now, how many big time centers do you think he faced while playing for Lawrence North?

Saturday was his fifth college game and he did some things that make you shake your head, both good and bad. He blocked a few shots but Al Horford, gimpy ankle and all, clearly outplayed him, Joakim Noah pretty much outhustled him to the point that there wasn’t enough oxygen in the O-Dome to fill his lungs and Chris Richard pretty much muscled him away from the basket on a regular basis.

Now, this isn’t a knock on Oden. He’s really, really, really big and he is already really, really good. Watch him and you might even be inclined to join in with the mob rushing him to greatness before he’s ever proven anything. You don’t have to be an expert to realize that (a) there aren’t that many people that big anywhere in the world; (b) of all the people you can think of who are that big, there aren’t that many of them that can move like he does; and (c) it’s very likely that he’s only going to get better. At some point, you have to figure he’s going to be good enough that the comparisons will end and instead of hearing him called “the next Wilt” or “the next Ewing” you’ll hear some new kid on the block being referred to as “the next Greg Oden.”

Oden isn’t the only talented player on the Ohio State team, either. Daequan Cook is a lights out shooter that might set three-point shooting records someday and Mike Conley Jr.’s genes certainly didn’t drown in the pool. Maybe he can’t triple jump like his famous dad but Mike Sr. never could bounce a basketball like it’s a yo-yo or thread the needle with a laser-guided smart-pass.

There are plenty of other good players on this Ohio State team and at some point they might discover what Florida already has, which is the best team chemistry you’ll find on any basketball court, college or pro. The Gators are living proof that it’s about the best team, not about the team with the most McDonald’s All-Americans. When they’re healthy and playing with an edge like they had Saturday against Ohio State, the Gators are clearly the best basketball team in the nation.

The Gators are the best team because they have the best team chemistry. Billy Donovan didn’t have to convince these guys to shelve their egos and petty jealousies. They had already parked them at the door long before they started practicing last season and the newbies on this year’s roster are doing their best to fit right in with the all for one and one for all concept.

Whether it’s on the offensive end where their unselfish passing tends to spark feeding frenzy runs of points or on the defensive end where they are so quick to help each other that it often seems like every opponent is double teamed, the Gators are a clinic in team play when they’ve got all the pieces to their marvelous puzzle in place.

That’s what we saw Saturday when the Gators surgically removed Ohio State’s will to win. Florida passed the ball beautifully on the offensive end of the court and on the defensive end they had the Buckeyes in a choke-hold. This is what you get when total selflessness hooks up with energy and passion on the same night. Nobody cared who got the points, the rebounds or the glory. Every possession was an opportunity to slice and dice Ohio State. Every defensive stand was an opportunity to stomp a little more life out of the Buckeyes. There was no benevolence in these Gators. They were not going to be satisfied with anything less than turning the Buckeyes into ground zero.

It was a painful lesson for Ohio State but Thad Matta is a fine coach and he will blend this team together. It might take awhile because good chemistry doesn’t necessarily happen overnight but when it does, you’ve got a chance to become an unbeatable force.

Florida was the unbeatable force Saturday because the Gators proved once again that while they may be the nation’s party crashers when it comes to history and tradition, they are still the team that has the five pieces that fit together best. They proved why they won the NCAA championship last year and why they’re going to be awfully tough to dethrone at tournament time. It’s all about the chemistry and this is a team that has that part all figured out.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.