Whether they were plopped on an oversized sofa in the confines of their own home or tightly squeezed into the bleachers of the O’Connell Center amongst the rest of the rowdy reptiles, the giddy feeling many Gators fans felt as the game clock met its expiration last Saturday was hardly solitary.
This Florida basketball team appears to be for real.
The verve in which fans chanted “It’s great, to be, a Florida Gator,” as the exuberant crowd filed out of the O’Dome, was not just a simple exclamation of school pride after beating — err, destroying Missouri 83-52 — but also the realization that this Florida team may just be the best squad in the country.
If the win by itself wasn’t enough, then certainly the nighttime endorsements by ESPN pundits Digger Phelps and Jay Bilas were almost enough to corroborate the Gators’ return to the upper echelon of college basketball’s hierarchy.
Although the Gators have managed to make consecutive runs to the Elite Eight in the past two seasons, Florida hasn’t experienced this much mid-season hype since a group of roommates named Al, Joakim, Corey and Taurean suited up for the orange and blue six years ago.
What lies next for the Gators is how the team will handle their newfound success and expectations. Senior guard Kenny Boynton said on Saturday that he hasn’t been a part of a run like this during his tenure in Gainesville.
Boynton’s coach, Billy Donovan, has certainly experienced firsthand the type of engulfing attention which can instantaneously be heaped on a team, as he has been a part of three separate runs to the national championship game during his time in Gainesville.
Each of Donovan’s teams has its own separate identity, including this year’s, which only lost two players from last season’s squad. Donovan believes that it is the players and their attitudes which help shape how the team performs collectively.
“The makeup of your individuals on your team has a lot to do with how your team performs, plays and prepares,” Donovan said. “If you’ve got players inside your team who can’t handle success, can’t handle failure, can’t handle adversity, cannot handle injuries, cannot handle setbacks, cannot handle when things go their way, you’re going to have a very fragile team.
As far as Donovan’s back-to-back national championship teams led by that jaunty crew of roommates, “mentally fragile” is a description which can hardly be used. The 2006 and 2007 teams were known as much for their game-time tenacity as their captivating personalities.
The current Gators’ squad definitely has its own collection of characters, as well as a dogged on-court competitiveness. However, when asked if he sees a similarity in this year’s team and its mentality and the successful groups of years past, Donovan stated there is and there isn’t.
“I don’t think personality-wise we have anyone on our team like Joakim Noah, Al Horford or Corey Brewer,” Donovan said.
“But every individual, every person is created differently, so for me to compare and say this guy is just like this guy, I think we’d be doing both of those players a disservice. This team has got its own identity, its own challenges and its own things it has to deal with.”
While it appeared that Donovan was going to offer up simple coach speak in an effort to avoid painting his current team in a dimmer light than that of his previous group, Donovan quickly shared his true feelings on the subject.
“But with things you’re talking about needing to have, I don’t know if instinctively for our team this year that is something that has been easy for them,” Donovan said. “Whereas maybe as for some of the teams I’ve had before, its maybe been a little bit easier, because it’s been more of a reflection of their makeup.
“Patric Young has really grown, and that wasn’t his nature when he came in here. His nature was, ‘Why are we working so hard? We work hard every day.’ And Joakim Noah didn’t have that mentality; he couldn’t get enough. He wanted more, more, more, more, and we kind of had to pull him back.”
Before the start of the season, Donovan compared his team’s impending journey to an ascent up a mountain. After abrupt endings to the past two seasons — two seasons which could have just as easily been national championship years as they were unceremonious NCAA tourney exits — the will to restart a journey is one that can potentially wane with each passing failure.
“That’s the part where the more invested you are in the team as a player, the more painful it is when you lose,” Donovan said. “When you’re not invested, winning or losing doesn’t bother you. That’s because they’re not necessarily invested.”
Donovan believes as it stands right now, the team he will take to Athens, Ga., on Wednesday is an invested group.
The Gators may not enjoy the exact same mental makeup as the once-in-a-generation figures which made up the 2006 and 2007 title teams, but Florida’s current crop is a special team in its own right. The Gators appear to have weathered the storm which came in the form of two very winnable early-season losses.
However, the time to show how far they have really come will start now — amid arguably the best stretch for Florida basketball in quite some time.