There are times, particularly now that it’s the NCAA Tournament, that Corey Brewer thinks about all that is at stake. He has three years invested in the Florida basketball program, his teammates and coaches, and then there are the three years of friendship invested in his roommates. To win means one more game together. To lose? Well, he doesn’t really want to think about that.
“You always have a fear of losing,” said Brewer before the Florida Gators started their week of preparation for Friday night’s NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 encounter with Butler (7 p.m., CBS) at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. “If you lose now you don’t get to play anymore this year. You don’t get to play with the guys on this team again because Chris is graduating and Lee is graduating. It’s the last time we’ll ever be together. That’s a motivator. You want to make the season last as long as you can.”
Brewer came back to Florida to spend one more year with Billy Donovan and his staff, with the good friends he has made on the team, and with Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Taurean Green — teammates, roommates, brothers. Winning a second straight national championship was part of the motivation to return but Brewer knows how difficult it is to climb to the top of that mountain. He is well aware that the difference between advancing in the tournament and going home is micro-thin.
All he has to do is think about last year’s Georgetown game in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament to come to grips with the razor thin margin of victory and defeat. In the final 30 seconds of that game and with Florida trailing, 53-52, Noah sliced down the lane and missed a three-foot shot. Horford went up between 7-1 Roy Hibbert and 6-9 Jeff Green to bang the ball off the glass. Somehow Brewer snaked his way between a pair of Georgetown defenders to come down with the ball. He took a dribble into the lane, spun and went up for a shot but he was whacked across the arm. Somehow, he maintained control, threw the ball up and it miraculously went in. He hit the free throw to give Florida a 55-53 lead with 27.5 seconds remaining. Horford would seal the win with 6.6 seconds left when he hit a pair of free throws.
“I just remember Al knocking the ball off the glass and I said man I’ve got to get it,” Brewer recalled. “I had to make a play. I felt the dude grab my arm and I just threw the ball up there and it went in.”
Without that one play, the Gators probably wouldn’t have made it to the regional final against Villanova and on to the Final Four where they disposed of George Mason and UCLA to win the national championship.
Without that one play, Florida isn’t the team that everybody wants to knock off in this 2006 NCAA Tournament. They have gone from the lovable underdogs whose charisma and funk captured plenty of hearts along their run to a title to the despised bully.
“When we won last year, everybody loved us,” said Chris Richard, Florida’s big man off the bench and the Southeastern Conference Sixth Man of the Year. “Now, wherever we go, they boo us and they get on us. It gets pretty bad sometimes but we expect it. I think it actually helps to motivate us now. Last year it was us against the world because nobody expected us to win. This year it’s us against the world because everybody’s against us.”
Noah, perhaps more than any other player on the team, understands the feeling that everybody’s against him. Perhaps it is because of the signature pony tail or the fact that he wears his emotions where everyone can see them, but Noah is a lightning rod on the court. Either fans love him passionately or they hate him with an equal amount of passion.
All the hate directed at him and all the hype and expectations have made Noah reach out more to his teammates. He’s seen how much things have changed in the last year but his teammates have been there all along.
“We’re a very tight group,” he said. “I don’t think the group has changed. I think the people around us have changed more than anything. Last year was all about the right reasons. This year I don’t think people really understand what we’re going through as people. If anything I feel we’re tighter this year because we have to. Last year we were tight. This year I feel that we really have to stay tight.”
To deal with the expectations, Coach Billy Donovan has used a variety of motivational tactics. Whether it’s Donovan showing up in the locker room in a policeman’s uniform or bringing in a guest speaker like New England Patriots coach Bill Bellicheck or St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa, the Gators have learned the lessons of motivation and handling the hype of repeating a national championship.
All of the Gators say the speakers have had an impact, but fear plays a part in the motivation.
“I think there’s always fear of losing,” said Horford. “I feel that’s why you go out there and play so much on edge. I can’t lie about that. I think every team thinks like that.”
Noah said, “Once you lose, it’s over. There’s no more season. There’s no more practice. There’s no more playing with one another. We realize that.”
The fear factor played a part in Florida’s win over Purdue Sunday in New Orleans. The Gators were locked in a last man standing type of struggle with the Boilermakers with a little under six minutes left in the game when Brewer came through with a game-changing play.
It started with a blocked shot by Noah that seemed to be heading back into the hands of Purdue’s big man Carl Landry. That’s when Brewer took over. It seemed like he came from out of nowhere. He tipped the ball away from Brewer, then tipped it away from a second defender and then a third. He got control of the ball, dribbled to the top of the key on Florida’s end of the court and found Lee Humphrey open in the corner for a three.
“I saw the ball in the air and I knew we had to make a play,” said Brewer. “We had to win the hustle plays. Landry was about to get the rebound but I tipped it out of his hand. Then another guy was coming and I tipped it again. Then I saw another guy and thought man is this ever going to end. I finally got it and then Lee got the ball and we took control of the game after that. I knew where that one [Humphrey’s shot] was going.”
One play, perhaps motivated by the fear of losing, got the Gators going on a spurt that took them to a 74-67 win and moved them into the Sweet 16.
It’s no surprise to Green that the game-changing play would come from Brewer.
“His eyes get big down at the defensive end,” said Green. “He wants to make that steal or the big play. He’s got that great anticipation.”
The fun factor is also a motivator. When the Gators lost three of four games in late February, Green’s dad, Sidney, a former All-American at UNLV and a former head coach at the college level, drove to Gainesville to spend some time with the 0-Fours — Taurean, Corey, Al and Jo — to remind them that the game has to be fun.
“Big Sid drove all the way from Orlando to check us out and talk to us,” said Noah. “He brought the Syracuse game from last year when we played them in the Garden. Taurean led us in that game offensively and defensively. What he wanted to show us was how on edge and how much fun we were having out there. We were so excited to be able to step on the court. There were times [this year] that people around me were able to take that fun away from me.”
Brewer said he’s felt the pressure on the Gators to repeat their championship run of last season. He said that whenever the team has felt the pressure, they’ve banded together and not just the 0-Fours, but all the guys.
“We’ve had a lot of pressure and we’ve been criticized a lot, but we just love each other,” said Brewer. “We have a lot of fun off the court so it makes it that much more fun when we’re together. Now that we’re playing basketball the way we’re supposed to it’s really fun.”
Friday night, Brewer says the Gators will definitely be ready to play.
“If you can’t get up for a game at this point this you shouldn’t even be playing basketball,” he said. “It’s March and we’ve got a chance to do something nobody’s done in 10-15 years and win a national championship back to back. If you can’t get up now you shouldn’t play basketball.”