When your team seems as preordained to become national champions as was this year’s Gator men’s basketball squad, when it all comes to an unceremonious halt one game too soon, it is natural to search for answers. In the game film, in the aftermath interviews … in the stars. But if the answers we seek involve why the team did not win it all, then I think we are asking the wrong questions.
How Did That Happen?
This is primary on everyone’s mind, right? How did we lose to an inferior team, even one on a hot streak (because everyone in any Final Four is going to be on a hot streak)? Heck, how did we lose to anyone? UConn certainly had a lot of good plans for us, and executed them very well after about the ten minute mark. But so have many teams this year. I don’t think we need to torture ourselves trying to come up with the answers to how they beat us or how we lost. I think it was a very simple matter of our team mentally falling apart. After we looked for ten minutes as if we were going to blow them out of the building, I was actually feeling sorry for the Huskies – they didn’t deserve to be crushed like it appeared we were about to crush them. But in the indelible words of William Munny: Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it. The refs started shafting the Gators hard, which clearly frustrated and distracted the players in orange and blue; UConn hit a flurry of threes, which clearly shocked and rattled the good guys; and Florida went super cold, ice-world shooting the rock, which clearly made them desperate. The Gators were never mentally in the game again.
Even at the end, when they cut the deficit to three, UConn was feeling the pressure and the game was in Florida’s hands. All the Gators had to do was play like they’ve played all year and execute their basic stuff and they win. But instead they fell apart. I don’t remember them ever losing a turnover because they fumbled the dribble between their own legs with no attempted strip or interference by a defender, and they did it three times in four possessions. With the game in their hands, ready to be taken back and advanced to the title game. And they were totally in a fog defensively after flat out dominating UConn defensively and making them look stupid in the first 10 minutes.
They’re kids, they had a perfect storm of negative things happen to them all at once, against a strong defensive team that got hot from beyond the arc, and they simply fell apart mentally.
That happens. A lot, actually. It just had not happened to them once yet this season. Which is beyond miraculous. But it happens to everyone eventually. For UF, it happened at the second-worst time it could have happened. It would have been worse if they had advanced and then had this happen against UK in the finals.
And I heard nobody sum up what happened better than Jim Calhoun did … three days before it happened. Calhoun is a self-involved meglamaniac with a serious God complex and I don’t like anything about him. However he nailed this game prediction like nobody else did. He said the Gators would lose because of the streak. The 30-game win streak. He did not think they felt any pressure from the streak, that it probably was not remotely on their minds at this point, but that luck eventually catches up with everyone. It is merely the fact that no matter how good a team you are, no matter how complete a team, no matter how great you are executing, if you keep playing enough ball games, you will eventually lose. Not because of pressure but because every team is going to eventually have a bad night. It won’t matter what the other team does – you will come out, lay an egg and lose. And when facing the best and hottest competition in the nation, as in the NCAA tourney (or even more so, the Final Four), the margin for error on a bad night becomes razor thin. And you could say that Florida had not had a bad game all year. Perfectionist Gator fans can point to some games where we lost or almost lost, but they honestly were not bad games; they were just not very good games. Not typically good or great games. But not bad games. Against UConn, Florida played a terrible game. Doesn’t matter how good you are or who you are playing, if you play a terrible game and soil your collective britches the final 30 minutes of an NCAA tourney game, you will lose. Every. Single. Time.
And though he took a lot of heat for saying so, Digger Phelps was also correct before the tournament even started. He said that Florida would not win the title (specifically, would not reach the Final Four, about which he was incorrect of course) because they would eventually beat themselves. We scoffed, because this team was too mature, too experienced and too saturated with leadership to beat themselves.
But they did. No other team could have beaten them, but they did.
However, as I said, if these are the answers we seek, then we are asking the wrong questions.
How Did This REALLY Happen?
The question we should be asking is, “How did this happen?” Not this loss, but this season. How did this season happen? Because the story of this team – this season – is not about winning a national title, or falling short of it. It is not about the fact that Florida won more championships than any other team in the country. This is a team that was not picked to do terribly well in the SEC, let alone on the national scene. It started the season with three projected starters or significant contributors – Dorian Finney-Smith, Damontre Harris and the program’s best player and de facto team leader Scottie Wilbekin – on indefinite suspension, starter Will Yeguete and key backup Kasey Hill hobbled or missing games with injuries, sharp-shooter Michael Frazier II still ailing from a bad bout with mono, Eli Carter having to redshirt because of lingering effects of his broken leg and super-frosh Chris Walker could not even get cleared by the NCAA to play until halfway through the season. This was not a team expected to win its conference – or even be the top team in its division – and certainly not a team expected to win 30-straight games, sweep the SEC regular season and tournament titles, finish the regular season with a stranglehold on the #1 ranking, be the #1 seed in the NCAA tournament and storm to the Final Four with four straight double-digit NCAA tournament wins (double that of the next-closest Final Four entrant).
So … how did that happen?
Well it all began in heart of that ramshackle team roster when the season tipped off on a Friday afternoon in the first week of November. Pundits wondered how it was that Florida could play so consistently over a 30-game win streak without losing because they were looking ahead to clinching the SEC title, or the SEC tourney, or finally getting over the Elite Eight hump in the NCAA tourney. But to know how this happened, one only has to look back to November and December. It is no foreign notion to stay focused on only the game in front of you when you have no idea who your teammates will be in the next game down the road. When coaches talk about taking the season one day at a time, this team lived that mantra in a very literal sense.
And when coaches talk about chemistry that is necessary to build a championship team like this year’s Gator squad was three times over, you think how this team built their chemistry out of necessity simply to survive. Not just games, but practices. Billy Donovan would not accept the team roster that looked like a bullet-holed shooting range target as an excuse to play or practice short of perfection. As Patric Young said way back in November as the season was about to tip off, “We’re all we’ve got.” And what did the soon-to-be SEC Defensive Player of the Year tell his team on a daily basis to fight through the obstacles? “Guys, this is what we have going into the game. We have to get it figured out.” And Donovan made sure they got it all figured out. And when they were finally back to nearly full strength (they never did have the full complement of talent and pieces they should have had when the season started), it was easy to figure out how to keep beating the opponents. Because they’d already figured out how to defeat so many other, much tougher obstacles.
This team was created, welded together, by the fire of that early-season dedication and commitment to excellence in the face of disaster. The fighting through empty game day rosters. The fighting through injury. The fighting through suspensions and doing all the hard, rigorous work to return to the team (even for Harris, who will not return until next year). The fighting through a gauntlet of early-season out-of-conference opponents, most of which were NCAA tournament teams, two of which made the Final Four. All told, they played all three of the other Final Four teams, a total of five times during the regular season. I don’t think anyone needs to look that up to know that it has never happened before. And they came together again and again until they were that team that we came to recognize as one of the most tightly-knit bunch of players ever to grace UF with their efforts. That bunch that was always seen hugging and laughing with each other on the bench, in the interview rooms, on the trophy ceremony platforms.
THAT’S how it happened. And that’s why a season like this one does not happen often. Anywhere. Even for national champions. Connecticut got the biggest trophy of the year, but Florida was the best team in the nation, they won the most titles and their story was the best in the sport this year. Those things will never be taken away and will never change.
It’s All in the Balance
Speaking only for myself, the biggest disappointment for me this year was for the players. No team in the nation deserved the national title this year more than Florida. I think it’s safe to say that no team in Gator history deserved it more than this year’s group. But again, deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it. And the biggest personal pain in this disappointment for me – as I know it was for many of you – was the injustice of this Florida team being sent home and Kentucky and their cheating head coach and their terrible-for-college-basketball one-and-done model getting to play for all the marbles. There is no justice in the world. Or so I thought on first blush.
However, justice in sports – if there is any – is for more long term than most of us allow. And it is far less linear than can hold our focus. Whether you believe in a supreme divinity, karma, fate or just complete randomness of the universe, it bears keeping in mind that whatever the grand plan, or whatever the random pattern of odds, it is seldom confined to what we see as the working parameters. Looking at one season-long capsule at a time, there was no justice in our Final Four fate, and in such unsavory and unlikely fashion of playing so terribly and being “whipped” as it were. But from a global justice standpoint, Connecticut had this coming. We owed them one.
You see, the long arm of sports justice reaches over many seasons, even decades. Florida’s first Final Four visit only came as an act of charity by this very same UConn program. In 1994, when superstar Donyell Marshall bricked two straight free throws with no time on the clock – either of which would have clinched a Huskies’ victory – it gave Lon Kruger’s Gators the overtime session it needed to take the win and send them to the Elite Eight, where they would defeat Boston College and earn their first spot in the sports’ ultimate showcase.
And while Gator fans may look at this trade and think Florida got the short end of the stick (after all, the ’94 Gators lost in the Final Four, while this year’s Huskies won the national title), again it takes the broader spectrum to bring the full balance of fate into proper view.
For if it were not for that first Final Four appearance (compliments of two otherworldly charity stripe gopher balls from the consensus All-American and Big East Player of the Year who would a few weeks later be the fourth player selected in the NBA draft), if the Gators did not – throughout and during this Final Four run – show and prove to the world that not only is it possible to win big in basketball at football-frenzied Florida, but that the fan base and indeed the entire state of Florida were in fact rabid hoops fanatics just waiting for a target for their reptilian rowdiness … then maybe an upstart, ambitious young Billy Donovan with a Rick Pitino pedigree and endorsement does not consider Florida. And having Rick Pitino as his mentor and confidant, telling him that he is going to be an elite coach and that he needs to go to a school where he can succeed on an elite level, perhaps Florida is not given the Pitino seal of approval for his protégé. If Donovan and Pitino do not see in the spring of 1994 just what is possible in men’s basketball in Gainesville, then it is very likely that Billy D does not come to Florida to succeed Kruger as the head Gator.
And if Billy Donovan does not come to Florida, the Gator program does not have any national championship banners hanging from the rafters. That much is certain. Florida likely also has no SEC tournament championship trophies and the 1987 SEC championship and the 1994 Final Four are still the only ones in the Gator history books. Florida certainly does not have a basketball dynasty. It certainly is not the most successful program in the nation in the last 14 years since the 1999-2000 season began.
So there is something to be said about a much bigger picture balance of luck or karma or divine plan than just the parameters of a single season. Because losing to Connecticut in the 2014 tournament did not change the trajectory of the program. It may have put a slight divot in Billy Donovan’s Hall of Fame legacy in that his final stats will be one notch lower than they should have been, but next year’s team is loaded again and will be in fact more athletic and more empirically talented than this year’s team. If they find leadership in the new starters, they will again be in position to win the SEC title, the SEC tournament and the national championship. Perhaps even a better shot than they had this year. Time will tell.
But losing to Connecticut in the 1994 tournament would also not have altered its then-existing trajectory … and that would have forever altered the future of the Gator program. It would not have given Donovan and Pitino the glimpse at what is possible for an elite coach. It would not have been such a clear choice for a young coach looking to build his own personal dynasty at a school with no real history, to become that school’s Wooden, Rupp or Knight.
So thanks, Connecticut for the trade.
If we meet again in the NCAA tournament, just remember: we’re square.
Far more than the notching of another title, it hurt me as I am sure it hurt many of you to think that this groups of supremely deserving kids would go home – many of them ending their UF careers – having never gotten the spoils of ultimate victory they earned and so richly deserved. The perfect crowning of the career of the four seniors would be to go out on top. That would complete them. And I felt terrible for this lack of completion, this lack of ultimate closure. That lack of filling that final hole they worked so long and hard to fill.
But many hours after the game had ended, and at least one sunrise later, some words that Billy Donovan said in the week before the game came back to me and struck a solid chord. He was addressing the standard question that arises this time of every year: whether he was going to the NBA or staying at Florida. He talked instead about the essence of his drive to take the Orlando Magic job after the 2007 season. That he had not always had a deep seated desire to coach in the NBA like some coaches do, like Steve Spurrier had to try out his brand of coaching in the NFL. But the thing that made him take the jump to the Magic was that during his entire playing career, his main goal was to win a national championship. He did not accomplish that. As he sipped his shallow cup of coffee with the New York Knicks, his ultimate goal was the NBA championship. He barely even accomplished the goal of finishing the season. As a collegiate coach, again his ultimate goal was to win the national title. After finally winning the whole thing in 2006, the ‘04s decided to return and that was enough to invigorate him to win it all again in a fashion that had never been done before (back-to-back with the same starting five).
However, after winning the first title – and even more so after capturing his second title – he expected things to change. Inside of him. He expected that hungry hole in his belly that he worked for so many years to fill with the ultimate championship … to be filled. Sated. Satiated. Content.
But it wasn’t.
Nothing had changed. There was still something empty inside of him. The gnawing, pining void remained. And he had a Jules Winnfield “moment of clarity” as he thought back to something that he had heard Tom Brady say after winning one of his three Super Bowls. Something that he had not really appreciated or perhaps fully understood until that moment. Tom Brady had won multiple Super Bowls, the pinnacle of human existence in the minds of most Americans. And representative of the ultimate achievement in any endeavor, that anyone would consider the most life-changing celebratory event imaginable. However, it did not sustain Tom Brady nor fill the empty hole inside him that he thought it would fill. And when reflecting on the greatest success in the most popular sport in the nation, his overarching feeling was, “There has to be more to life than THIS.”
Unbelievable, right? Literally. Except that Billy felt the exact same way. Winning two-straight national titles that sent the entire Gator Nation into an orgiastic celebration that has endured for years. No greater level of professional success is even possible. Hall of Fame is assured. Creator of a national dynasty: done. Permanent legend in Gainesville, the SEC and the national scene. There has to be more to life than THIS.
I was immediately reminded of the lyrics of that great Eagles’ song, “After the Thrill is Gone.”
What can you do when your dreams come true
And it’s not quite like you planned?
What have you done to be losing the one
You held it so tight in your hand.
That song was about how the band had reached rock icon status, international super stars playing to sold out football stadia and mobbed by adoring press, fans and groupies everywhere they went. Rich and successful beyond their wildest dreams, living the life that is fantasized to some measure by almost everyone, everywhere, young and old. And after the initial thrill had faded, they just thought, “There has to be more to life than THIS.” And I played back all the times in my life that I had experienced a similar microcosm of this dynamic. And I understood.
And that’s when Billy talked about recognizing what he had known and said all along, but had never realized the full magnitude of its reality: the thing that matters most to him is being a good person, a good citizen and making a positive impact on the lives of young people like his players or fans or kids the team visits in the hospital and at charity events. And the specialness of passing that value on to his players so that they strive for the same personal fulfillment far and beyond the fulfillment of championship basketball dreams. He talked about how whether they win the national title that weekend or lose the first game to UConn, the significance of this basketball season is not and was never about winning that crystal trophy. It was about the struggles and triumphs, large and small, during the season. It was about each member of the team maturing and expanding their personal growth as young men. It was about them building relationships and finding strength in themselves and each other. It was about enjoying the journey far more than any destination.
That, he said, would be what he would forever take with him and remember about this season. Not which trophies were put in the case and which may have been missed. And that would be what his players will take with them the rest of their lives.
When you read all the articles the last month about how all the Florida player have fought through their own personal battles and are active in their community and with charities and youth groups, it is clear that the life lessons that Billy has been teaching have been taking deep root in the fertile soil of the young men’s heads and hearts. It’s the reason he makes us most proud: he does most of his coaching outside the concepts of basketball.
And to hear and watch the way the players comported themselves after the devastating loss, it seems clear once again that they really took to the coaching.