Not long after Mike Rosario arrived in Gainesville, he quickly became one of the most popular guys in town.
I know this, because I saw him seemingly everywhere.
Whether it was at the barbershop or simply meandering around campus, I continually came across Florida’s much-ballyhooed transfer from Rutgers, who was the toast of the town without playing a second for the Gators. Everywhere he went, he drew a crowd.
I knew little about Rosario’s background upon his arrival, just that he was a McDonald’s All-American and played at famed St. Anthony’s high school under the more famed Bob Hurley.
So it came as a shock to me that the guy who had nearly everyone he encountered wrapped around his finger was also a labeled problem child.
Rosario was undoubtedly Florida’s most enigmatic player last season, causing on-lookers to scratch their heads with his play, wondering where exactly was the player who scored over 1,000 points in his two seasons at Rutgers.
Things weren’t much better off the court for Rosario either. Reports of missed classes and a refusal to play through minor injuries continued to bury Rosario’s reputation, as his antics became message board fodder.
When the Gators’ season ended unceremoniously in the Elite Eight, Rosario’s future at Florida was nebulous at best. With Erving Walker’s graduation and Bradley Beal’s ascension into the NBA ranks, Rosario was chanced with an opportunity to become a central figure on the court for Florida.
Before he could be counted on to take a prominent role however, UF coach Billy Donovan wanted assurances from the senior-to-be that tasks such as going to class and attending practice would no longer be laborious affairs for Rosario.
“Really, the ball was put in his court,” Donovan said. “It was pretty clear you need to practice every day, you need to play the right way and you need to take care of your responsibilities off the court. If you can’t do those three things, I’m not going to play you.
“Come to practice every single day, the trainer will determine whether you can practice or not and you need to play the right way on the court. I think he has done that to this point, so I give him all the credit.”
As easy as it was for a casual observer to notice Rosario’s uninspiring play last season, it has been just as easy to see the sense of urgency which he has displayed this season during his time on the court.
Last year, Rosario was arguably the Gators’ biggest question mark. This year, some fans have left Florida games wondering if he isn’t UF’s best player.
When asked what’s different about this season than any he’s had on the collegiate level, Rosario points steadfastly at his team.
“One thing that stands out right now is that I’m on a team that’s enjoying the moment,” Rosario said. “That’s something I missed when I left high school. My high school senior team, we enjoyed each other. … We sacrifice for one another and that’s one thing I love about this team.”
During his last year in high school, Rosario’s St. Anthony squad marched towards a perfect season, capturing a mythical national championship along the way. Rosario was the unquestionable star of the team, a role which carried over to his time at Rutgers.
When Rosario arrived at Florida though, it wasn’t easy to shed the role which he had become so accustomed to.
“It was a challenge coming in,” Rosario said. “I had to deal with coming from Rutgers. I was the leading scorer, playing about 36 minutes a game and scoring 16, 17 points a game. I knew coming here those things would change. I would have to sacrifice something to reach my full potential.”
During their meeting at the conclusion of last season, the one where Donovan laid everything out on the table for him, Rosario said he began to understand what his coach wanted from him. He recognized the changes he was asked to make would ultimately be as beneficial to him as they would his team.
“I knew last year I felt like in my play I didn’t bring nothing to the team, and that’s what really bothered me,” Rosario said. “I just told myself coming into this year, this is going to be a special year for me. I’m just going to give myself to coach. … I felt like by me doing that our trust level has grown a ton.”
Rosario could have easily moved on from Gainesville after his troublesome year. He could have immediately infiltrated a smaller town and smaller program, gripping new sets of eyes with his easy smile and even easier scoring ability.
But Rosario’s interest was piqued by what could happen if he stayed at Florida — both on a personal and team level.
“I knew I was in a special situation,” Rosario said. “I knew that this was an opportunity for me to grow as a person, grow as player and hopefully make my dream come true of playing at the next level.
“I felt like the resume that coach [Donovan] has is unbelievable. I felt like that this is my chance to really sit and listen to what coach has to say and give myself to coach because something special can happen out of this.”
It’s too early to predict how special this season will ultimately be, but so far, the Gators have shown strong traces of previous “special” teams seen in Gainesville.
Donovan’s system is set up in a way where every player has an opportunity to get their due shine, and perhaps no one on the Florida roster has taken advantage of that this season more than Rosario.
In the Gators’ last game at Auburn, it was Rosario who went off for a team-high 22 points. Two games before that, he poured in 18. Whenever Florida has needed an offensive spark this season, Rosario has been there to lend a helping hand.
The Gators have torn through the SEC this season in a way perhaps never seen in Gainesville, and Rosario has been a big part of that.
After home games, no matter how big or little his point production, Rosario eagerly steps into the open O’Connell Center corridor where the media gathers for interviews.
He often comes out onto the hard, slick floors with his shoes noticeably absent — it’s clear Rosario has grown comfortable in Gainesville.
Like anywhere he goes, Rosario often draws a large crowd — every reporter waiting their turn to get in a word with the engaging New Jersey-native.
Mike Rosario has changed quite a bit since arriving to Florida, but one thing has remained constant.
He’s still one of the most popular guys in town.