A year ago at this time, Joakim Noah’s shoulders grew wider every game. Almost overnight, it seemed, he went from a very good player to a superstar, starting with a 37-point game against Georgia. Over the next 10 games, he took on a greater load every game as he became the centerpiece of Florida’s run to the NCAA basketball championship.
What made the story of this 11-game run so compelling was that the more of the load Noah shouldered, the more the Florida Gators blossomed as a team. They never lost the team concept but Noah was definitely the focal point. The more he energized and elevated his game, the more the Gators elevated their games to approach his level. The result was one of the best championship runs in NCAA history as the Gators won five blowouts and their only close game in the tournament.
Last year at this time just before the SEC Tournament began, the Gators played like they were ankle-deep in mud, bogged in a slump and watching their season slip and slide away in the final stretch of the SEC schedule. There were three losses in a row before the Noah-led win over Georgia which springboarded Florida to an impressive win over Kentucky on Senior Day at Rupp Arena. That win, in particular, served as the catalyst to the championship run.
Once again the Gators are slipping and sliding. Three losses in their last four games have turned them from the nation’s number one team to the nation’s number one question. Are they the team that blew out Ohio State back in December or are they the team that can’t hit shots, can’t play defense and can’t stay focused like we have seen in the last two weeks? If the Gators are to reverse their recent fortunes, a good time to begin would be today’s Senior Day contest with Kentucky (12 noon start, CBS TV) at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. With a national television audience on hand and a sellout crowd packing the O-Dome, it’s a good time for a metamorphosis of both the team and Joakim Noah.
Florida comes into the game 25-5, 12-3 in the SEC. The Gators clinched the SEC regular season title with three games remaining on the schedule and ever since, things have not been the same. Since the title-clincher against South Carolina at the O-Dome, the Gators have lost two in a row on the road — at LSU and at Tennessee — in similar fashion. They’ve fallen behind early and haven’t had enough in the tank to mount a successful comeback.
If there is a positive from this two-game losing streak it is that the Gators seem to have come back down to earth. Some of the arrogance has disappeared and Noah hopes the team will replace it with the combination of humility and the chip on the team shoulder that carried the Gators in the post-season last year.
“There’s definitely been a letdown but I feel we’ve learned a lot in the last week,” said Noah Friday afternoon. “Even after we lost to Vanderbilt (first SEC loss) it was like ‘Okay we know what we have to do.’ We had it figured out but we don’t know what we have to do.
“We have to stay on edge and stay focused and be aware that anybody can beat you. I feel like we played hard but we weren’t on the same page offensively and especially defensively. I feel like last year we felt ‘Okay we would play harder than everybody and we’re going to win basketball games.’ It doesn’t work like that this year. We have to pay attention to scouting reports and really respect our opponents because any team can beat us.”
Getting the edge back is critical to any hopes the Gators have of advancing in the post-season. When they’re on, they’re as good or better than anyone in the country. That blowout win over Ohio State (now ranked number one in the country) wasn’t an accident, just the result of the Gators playing at a higher level of energy, focus and determination.
The Gators have the talent and more importantly, the team chemistry, to run the table again but any deep run in the tournament has to begin with an emotional turn-around for a team that seems to be off the track. That’s the need, but it’s also the perplexing element in this equation since any turn-around will carry the weight of much higher expectations for this year’s team.
Nobody is more aware of this than Noah. Entering the season, the Gators were expected to repeat as national champions and Noah was everybody’s favorite to be national player of the year. The Gators have won 25 games, most by a wide margin, but they have also lost five games so in the eyes of many in the national media they are a disappointment.
Noah is averaging close to what he was at this time last season (12 points, 8.1 rebounds per game) but in recent games he has been a non-factor offensively. He knows he needs to get the fire back in his belly because when Joakim Noah is playing with a full tank of energy.
“Offensively, I’m going through a slump,” he said. “I’m not bringing as much passion as I should have but at the same time I feel like I can learn from all this. All these experiences are only going to make me tougher in my life.”
While the team’s circumstances and his stats are ever so similar to what they were at this time last year, things are different this season. Last year the Gators sneaked up on people. This year, they have had to wear the collar of great expectations from day one.
“Even through the winning, this year and last year are completely different,” said Noah. “It is draining. I feel like basketball has always been fun to me and I can’t let people’s expectations or what people say about me change that and sometimes I feel like I’ve let that affect me and that’s unfair to my teammates. I understand that it’s part of it. The reason why there are so many expectations is because of what happened last year. That’s understandable but a lot of people have to go through that. It’s not like I’m the only one.”
For Noah to get back to the level he played at last season, he knows he has to block out all the distractions and get back to the two things that are most important to him — his teammates and playing basketball. It sounds easy, but he knows it is not.
“It’s hard but nobody ever said it was going to be easy,” said Noah. “It’s real hard not just for me but for everybody. We’ve been losing basketball games. Expectations on this team and on me personally are out of control but at the same time I realize I’m not here to please anybody. I did this [come back to school] for me and my teammates. I didn’t do it for anybody else except for me and my teammates.”
Noah believes he has to get back to basics, which for him means playing the role of team energizer. There is no question that when he’s fired up and wearing his emotions on his sleeve, the Gators are a better team.
“I think I definitely have to bring more energy and more passion to the game,” he said. “I feel like it helps our teams and sometimes I feel I’ve been letting the team down a little bit. I can learn from this. I can definitely learn from this.”
When he’s full of passion and energy, he’s also relaxed and focused on the game he loves.
“At the end of the day it’s basketball and this is what I love to do and I have a great opportunity to play again on Sunday against the Kitty Kats,” he said. “What more could you ask for? This is what it’s all about.”
SENIOR DAY NOTES: Pre-game ceremonies will honor Florida’s three seniors, Lee Humphrey, Chris Richard and Bret Swanson … Humphrey is within 35 points of joining the 1,000-point club for his career at Florida … Richard has hit 16 of his last 20 shots. He’s averaging 12.7 points per game over his last three games … Al Horford is 14 points away from the 1,000-point club … The Gators are going for their sixth straight win over Kentucky. No team in SEC history has ever beaten Kentucky six consecutive times … Kentucky is 20-9 this year, giving the Wildcats an NCAA record 52 years with at least 20 wins. Florida has won 20 games or more nine years in a row and the Gators have 14 20-win seasons in school history … The Gators have won 18 straight games at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. The school record is 20 straight at home … The Gators have won 72 home games in the last five years, best in the SEC.