Two minutes into the game Wednesday night, Joakim Noah turned right, spun out of a double team and dunked with his left hand. This was the old Joakim Noah, the one that did a Sherman’s March to the Sea through the NCAA Tournament field last year on his way to Most Outstanding Player honors as the Florida Gators won their first national championship.
A couple of minutes later, Noah did another spin move, finishing up with another thundering jam, bringing the Stephen C. O’Connell Center crowd of 10,758 to their feet and sending a signal to the Providence College Friars that the “Gator Boyz” are hot once again. It seemed like old times for Noah, Al Horford and Chris Richard in the paint. Playing with a renewed sense of energy, seventh-ranked Florida’s three big men combined for 49 points, 23 rebounds, seven assists, four steals and four blocked shots to lead the Gators (8-2) to an 85-67 win.
When Noah wasn’t doing his pirouettes that led to easy shots, he was extending the defense on the perimeter where he made four steals or he was either blocking or altering another shot on the inside. When Noah took a seat on the bench, Horford and Richard took over to dominate the inside. Horford scored 15 points in the second half, finishing with a double-double of 21 points and 13 rebounds. Richard scored 11 points and grabbed four rebounds.
In all, six Gators scored in double figures. Guards Lee Humphrey (12), Taurean Green (10) and Walter Hodge (10) were 11-21 from the field. Humphrey had a game-high five assists and Green had three steals. Hodge went 2-3 from the three-point line. He’s 13-18 for the season behind the arc.
It was a far cry from Sunday night when Florida State’s smaller but more aggressive Seminoles dominated Florida’s taller front line for an upset win in Tallahassee. Sunday night the Gators rarely showed any energy and very little desire to make the extra passes or to play tough, hard nosed defense. Wednesday night, they played harder than they have played at any time this year. They ran, they shot, they dunked, they played defense and they had fun.
Most of all, they had fun, something that has been missing from their games in this first month of the season. With the weight of high expectations riding heavily on their shoulders, the Gators haven’t played with the same energy, passion and just plain old fun that they showed last year when they were torching everything in their path on the way to a national championship.
“The thing that was fun today is that it was almost as if they were just out there playing and there was nothing out there in their minds except playing hard and competing and that’s how you have fun,” said Coach Billy Donovan. “One of the things I’ve been trying to teach them through this year so far is that you have to have fun and enjoy it.”
Noah, in particular, seemed to be lacking the emotional edge that carried him through last season. Part of it was due to a chronic upper respiratory infection that he’s been battling for a month but another part was trying too hard to live up to the expectations of others. Noah would have been the first player chosen in the NBA draft back in the summer if he had chosen to leave Florida but he came back along with Horford and Corey Brewer (out with mononucleosis) to give the Gators an intact starting five from a national championship team.
The expectations of Noah have been through the roof and the 6-11 junior came to the realization that he can’t try living up to the expectations of others. He’s been putting undue pressure on himself to perform and he came to the conclusion that he just has to get back to doing the things he’s always done.
“You can’t please everybody,” said Noah, whose box score read 17 points, six rebounds, four assists, three blocked shots and four steals. “Last year everything was so exciting. Me just being on the floor personally was just exciting. Now the expectations are so high and I feel like I’ve been putting the pressure on myself. It’s something stupid that I shouldn’t have done.”
Noah scored 11 points in the Sunday night loss to Florida State, a loss he called humbling. He had shots blocked and he was consistently moved off the blocks by FSU’s more physical front line. After a film session Monday that Al Horford called “brutal” the entire team adjusted its attitude but Noah, in particular, made a transformation.
“I feel that I’ve been letting people affect my play,” he said. “I’ve been letting that get to my head too much. I just realized that I’ve got to get back to what I do and that’s just run the floor, block shots, have fun out there and hustle. I’m just going to control the things that I can do and that’s help the team win.”
The fact that Noah understood and made changes for the better was a good step in Donovan’s opinion. Donovan has been trying to help his team wade through the deep waters of high expectations in the early season and after the loss at FSU, it seems he got their undivided attention.
It all started with the film session.
“Film doesn’t lie and that gives me an opportunity to be very truthful about how I feel and what I’m seeing,” said Donovan. “The thing I love about this team is that they accept responsibility. They accept responsibility for the way they play and I was probably very hard on them, but also besides being hard I was brutally honest about where I thought they were at.”
The Gators followed up the film session with excellent practices both Monday and Tuesday that Donovan felt accomplished something. The greatest accomplishment of those two practices, however, might have been getting the Gators to realize that they can’t spend the rest of this season trying to live up to the expectations of the media and fans.
“If you’re trying to live up to the expectations of anybody I think you always walk away from life miserable because you’re never able to accommodate or meet the expectations of the masses,” said Donovan. “You never are and I think the persons you have to meet the expectations of are yourself. The only expectation they should have of themselves are how hard they compete, how unselfishly the play and what kind of team they are.”
Florida had some outstanding runs in the first half when they looked like a dominant team, but there were a few defensive lapses as well. The Gators led by nine twice but both times they let Providence off the mat. Florida led 40-34 at the half, but the deficit should have been at least 10-12 points.
The Gators came out of the gates at the start of the second half on an 8-2 run that was a sign of things to come. After Providence settled down a little bit, whittling away at Florida’s lead to reduce it to eight points, the Gators went on a 17-3 tear that included 14 straight points to increase the lead to 67-45.
Providence put on a mini-run of its own, scoring 12 straight points to bring the deficit down to 10 points but Florida finished with another flurry and played on cruise control in the final four minutes of the game.
After the game, Noah was as relaxed as he has been in a while, somewhat satisfied with his performance but ready to use the 11-day break before Florida’s next game (Florida A&M, December 17 in Tampa) to work hard and improve in all areas of his game.
“It was definitely fun tonight but I feel that if we want to do something special that’s the way we have to play every game,” said the junior center.
Doing something special — such as repeating as NCAA champs — means putting the distractions behind and simply enjoying each moment.
“I think that as a team we let the expectations get to us a little bit,” said Noah. “What’s hard is that you can’t please everybody because the expectations are so high that not everybody is going to be happy. There were games at the beginning of the season that we would win and it wasn’t as gratifying or as satisfying as it was last season and I don’t know why. It’s all about the team right now and doing the things we can control.”