HOOPS: UF Veterans Set Example For Freshmen

Brandon Powell is used to having brothers and sisters tell him what to do. He’s got six brothers and three sisters so he’s used to it by now. Northing really changed for him when he arrived at the University of Florida, either. The only difference is no sisters. He’s got 10 “big brothers” looking out for him every day.

Florida’s freshman guard from Memphis, never has to worry about waking in the morning, getting to class on time or knowing where to go or what to do. The veterans on the basketball team — all 10 of them — are there to make sure he’s getting through every day with the least amount of resistance.

“They’re calling to wake us up in the morning,” said Powell. “They know it’s hard as a freshman. They’re calling ot make sure we’re on time. They call for class, whatever … they just got our back.”

Some mornings it’s Corey Brewer who wakes him up with a text message. A few minutes later, he’ll get a second text from Chris Richard. The next day, Joakim Noah will make the first call or text.

He says his cell phone is “blowing up all morning and all day … they’re making sure we do the right thing.”

* * *

For Jonathon Mitchell, the 6-7 forward from Mount Vernon, New York, the idea of belonging to this band of brothers had a tremendous appeal. New York’s Mr. Basketball in 2006, he had his choice of top schools recruiting him, but Florida had a very special appeal.

“That’s what I looked for in a school,” he said. “I looked for that family atmosphere. That was one of my main decisions in coming to the University of Florida is because of those guys.”

He knows he doesn’t have to look far for help.

“I’ve learned something from every player on the team, all 10 of them,” he said.

* * *

Dan Werner, the 6-7 freshman forward from Middletown, New Jersey, took a circuitous route to the University of Florida. He had signed with North Carolina State but when Coach Herb Sendek resigned and subsequently took the job at Arizona State, Werner got his release. That opened up the recruiting once again and it pretty much came down to a Florida-Kentucky battle.

The Gators won it because of what Werner had seen during Florida’s run to the NCAA Tournament.

“There’s a lot to learn from them and how they play together as a team,” said Werner.

There has been no hazing or anything to make him or any of the other freshmen feel out of place. Far from it, they’ve been welcomed into the Florida family with open arms by the veterans.

“I’ve been pretty amazed at how they’ve embraced the freshmen and treated us like we’ve been here a couple of years,” said Werner.

* * *

Billy Donovan isn’t the least bit surprised at the way his veterans have taken to the task of bringing the “family” together. At one point, all of his veterans were freshmen and at some point, their “big brothers” on the team embraced them and made them feel like they were at the right place at the right time so it’s only natural that they would maintain the tradition of leading the young guys.

Donovan has gotten the first good look at the freshmen the past few days as the Gators prepare for a preseason exhibition trip up to Canada. The Gators will leave Friday and then they will play games on Saturday and Sunday. The exhibition games have allowed him eight valuable practice sessions with his team so instead of having to wait until October 15 to see first hand what they can do, he’s getting a real idea now of what they can do.

Donovan said Tuesday that his veterans understand that “they’ve got to be patient to help these guys and they’ve got to stay focused on trying to help these guys along the way.”

All of the veterans have gone out of their way to work with the young guys. Powell says that if he does something wrong, the vets will stop what they’re doing and work with him until he gets it right.

“If I’m messing up on a play, we’ll stop right there and get it done,” he said. “Whatever it takes, they make sure I understand it.”

Donovan praised senior Chris Richard for his extra efforts. In many ways, C-Rich is assuming the role that Adrian Moss played last year when the Gators made their run to the NCAA championship. Moss was the old man, the savvy veteran that offered experience and wisdom. Moss learned his lessons from players like Matt Bonner when he came along. He passed the wisdom down to the young guys. Moss is gone now so it’s Richard’s turn to take on the role of leadership.

“He has done a terrific job of trying to help our freshmen,” said Donovan. “He has really gone out of his way to help these guys.”

* * *

So far, Donovan likes what he’s seen of the young guys although he can’t get a full evaluation yet on Mitchell and Werner. Mitchell dislocated a thumb in practice last Friday so he missed three days. Werner hasn’t gotten in a full practice yet because of a bone bruise in his knee.

Powell and fellow freshman Marreese Speights, the 6-10 center from St. Petersburg via Hargrave Military Academy, have shown a lot of promise in the first few practices.

“Brandon has great competitiveness,” said Donovan. “He really works hard. He’s very focused and on edge. He gives us good athleticism on the back court and he can really shoot it.”

Donovan likes the size and athleticism that Speights brings to the post position but especially, he likes the work ethic.

“Marreese has worked hard and practiced hard,” he said.

It’s too early for Donovan to know what kind of impact the youngsters will have on his veteran team, but he thinks the future bodes well.

“I like those guys a lot and what their future holds,” he said. “What kind of impact they’ll make this year, I don’t know.”

They will be fitting in with a veteran group that Donovan says hasn’t let up one bit since they won the national championship back in April.

“I have not noticed any change in these guys at all,” he said. “From their attitude to their work ethic, I haven’t noticed anything different. They come in here and compete and they play hard. Sometimes maybe I need to stimulate them a little bit more but I don’t sense at all a level of uninspired, unemotional.”

Donovan more or less expected that it would be this way, especially with Al Horford, Noah and Brewer passing up NBA millions to come back for one more year at the University of Florida.

“I think by them coming back they put themselves in the position where they are challenging themselves,” said Donovan. “They’ve been good. I’m happy with our veterans, happy with our young guys, happy with the way things are going.”

* * *

Powell sees his “older brothers” as the perfect role models. By nature he is a hard worker but he’s also quite an observer of habits and attitudes. He learns a lot just by watching what others do.

“They [the veterans] want to get better as a college student and as a college athlete,” he said. “By me seeing the way they want to get better, I want to get better like them and as a college student too.”

Mitchell thinks about Noah, the most outstanding player in the NCAA Tournament who could have been the first pick in the NBA draft. He came back to UF for one more year and now he leads by example with the young guys, too.

“Obviously he works hard on and off the court,” said Mitchell. “In the classroom he does the right thing. He kind of leads the way for us freshmen. He was MOP of the NCAA tournament and got all these awards but at the end of the day he’s back here at the UF doing his school work.”

Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.