Remind me if you’ve heard this tale before: Florida signs a group of basketball players who all appear to have considerable upside, but feature only one player all the hoops bluebloods wanted, and he’s an unpolished, athletic defender more than a program-changer.On signing day, the Gators class ranks on the edge, or just in, the top ten recruiting classes as ranked by most services. At least one player in the class is an afterthought, and he’s a big man of French descent, thought of mostly as a motor guy with significant athleticism who can help fill out a rotation at a program whose reputation is tempo on offense and pressure on defense. There’s a forward from Tennessee; he’s athletic, tenacious on defense and a Mr. Basketball but not a jump-shooter and it will take time for him to figure things out offensively. There’s a point guard in the group too. He’s a coaches kid and a gym rat, but he’s not even considered the best in his state at the position. The class lacks a shooting guard, which is concerning because that’s an area where there isn’t a quality reserve. Regardless, Billy Donovan is upbeat about the class, and seems most excited on signing day about the lesser-known commodities. He insists they are players large on potential and even larger on a desire to learn and play basketball. A group of gym rats in the mold of the man who will coach them. The previous years had been tough on the coach, and he seems quietly confident this is the group that ushers in happier times.
Now nod your head and say it out loud: that’s a pretty fair description of Florida’s fabled “04’s”. Corey Brewer played the role of McDonald’s All-America, coveted by the sport’s elite despite offensive limitations. Joakim Noah’s role above is obvious, but it bears mentioning that the only “pub” he received from services summarizing Florida’s class had to do with who his father was, not who he was as a player. Al Horford was the eye-brow raiser, a Mr. Basketball who needed to figure things out offensively, but was relatively highly recruited. There is “considerable upside here despite offensive limitations, especially with a body ready to play,” one publication wrote. Taurean Green the coaches son, gym rat and by no means the most coveted point guard in the state of Florida. The class itself was a consensus top ten, but not top five, group.
The program, coming off five consecutive years of first weekend NCAA Tournament agony, was in such need of new blood and difference-makers that many wondered if that type of class was enough. After all, the last two years had ended with the still-young Billy Donovan in tears at a press conference, famously wondering if he needed to do something different. Yes, in March of 2004, Florida had won a postseason game. And they’d fought valiantly against Villanova, probably the hottest team in the country entering that tournament, in the second round. But the general image of Florida basketball before the “04’s” signed was of a program that couldn’t escape the first weekend in the NCAA tournament. And the lasting image, for fans and people close to the program, was still of a tearful Donovan the year prior, after the loss to Manhattan. A young coach in tears and unsure of everything except that he needed to change.
Enter the “04’s.” That class was different. The results: 3 SEC Tournament championships, a regular season conference championship, and back-to-back national championships, are, and will remain, unparalleled in the boring until Norm Sloan history of Florida basketball.
The “04’s”, well-regarded but by and large not coveted, redefined the phrase “Florida Basketball.” What came before them, including under Billy Donovan, was the makings of a nice story, a highly competitive seven years, and a good, but not great, program. What came with them was greatness, and the final affirmation to what perhaps only Billy Donovan (and maybe Jeremy Foley- though that’s a different discussion for another day) thought when he took the job. Florida can be a great program. Florida can be among the nation’s elite. Florida Basketball can be a brand.
Fast forward three years from Al Horford’s “Back-to-Back” shimmie shake at the Georgia Dome, and maybe even Billy Donovan was wondering if Florida’s elite-status was sustainable. Yes, the NIT teams managed to keep the program’s impressive 20 win season streak going, but the lasting images were of a center, Mo Speights, who left for the NBA after a sophomore campaign where he essentially played hard when he wanted to, living, as Billy Donovan himself put it, on the reputation he garnered by “hitting one jump shot in the national title game”; a selfish, defensively disinterested star in Nick Calathes (a more talented, less interested star than Anthony Roberson had been before him); an embarrassing NIT exit at Madison Square Garden, and a hard-fought, but defensively-limited (being kind) squad getting Jimmered out of the NCAA tournament two hours after it started in March 2010.
The press conference questions, and talking head commentary, following the BYU loss were brutal if not inevitable and yes, fair. Were the “04’s” a perfect storm, a tidal wave of talent and ability and chemistry that helped a good program overachieve its way to historical greatness? Or was it fair that Florida suffered regression, even if the regression was worse than most would anticipate? Did Billy Donovan think UF was close? Was Donovan passionate enough, after the Magic flirtation and the return to Gainesville, where he almost certainly already had earned tenure, to again claw his program back towards the mountaintop?
Billy Donovan, rarely one to deflect away criticism or biting questions with coach-speak, did so at the BYU postgame press conference. Donovan talked about being proud of his young team, of how teams “learn” to win games. He lavished praise on Jimmer Fredette and BYU’s coaching staff. He praised the improvement of freshmen guard Kenny Boynton. But he made no promises about the future. It was a fascinating silence.
And so it was on signing day in 2010 Donovan stood quietly at a podium in a not-so-crowded press room and talked about his newest recruiting class. He was cautiously optimistic and thrilled all at once to have Patric Young, the McDonald’s All-American from Jacksonville, who had offers from everyone and many smart analysts, like Jay Bilas, thought was a lottery-pick type big. He was pleased with the group’s eyebrow-raiser, Casey Prather, the program’s third big-time signee from the state of Tennessee, who he felt would fit in seamlessly because he was immensely “coachable”, a favorite Donovan word. One publication agreed, calling Prather “perhaps the best defender in the country, who would fit in perfectly as a minutes guy in Florida’s pressure system.” The offense would come. Will Yeguette, the French kid, was all motor and upside. He hadn’t been playing basketball that long but Donovan loved his defense and athleticism and thought he’d be a difference-maker altering shots and rebounding. Scottie Wilbekin was a “gym rat”- a phrase Donovan reserves for his most beloved players (yes, this includes Matt Walsh)- and what was more, he was a coach’s son, a well that Donovan had dipped into with Taurean Green in the past with great success, and he felt the youngster fit that mold more than Jai Lucas, another’s coach’s son who hadn’t panned out. Wilbekin was so young, Donovan anticipated he would need time to develop as a person. Donovan vowed Florida would do its best to ensure that happened too. Cody Larson was in this group, too, thought of as a stretch forward with “sneaky athleticism” and Florida’s second big-time recruit from the state of South Dakota. Hopes were high for him as well, but he got into trouble, stayed in Donovan’s doghouse, and ultimately transferred back home to South Dakota State after two years in Florida’s program. Together, Donovan felt he had a sound and diverse group that could immediately help the program. They all could defend. They all seemed to play smart. For these reasons, Donovan was confident. He was “very excited” to coach these kids. Nearly four years later, he was right to be.
The “10’s” aren’t finished playing. In a perfect world, they’ll play at least 19 more games together (the number it would take for Florida to win the SEC Tournament for the fourth time in school history and reach the Final Four for the fifth time in program history). House money after that. To this point, they’ve been a part of two regular season SEC Champion clubs. They’ve won 101 games, the second highest total for a senior class in school history; reached two SEC Tournament finals, and three Elite Eight’s (no other program in America has equaled that feat.) They are currently the architects of the nation’s third longest home winning streak, at twenty-six games and counting. That’s already an impressive resume, and would remain so if the season ended tomorrow. Instead, they’ll play five more games in the O’Connell Center before what promises to be an extraordinarily emotional senior day game against Kentucky March 8th. That game will, in all likelihood, determine who wins the SEC regular season championship. A third regular season title would be tremendous, an accomplishment unmatched by any class, including the “04’s.”
No matter what happens, one thing is clear- and this is typed with all due respect and deference to Kenny Boynton, Vernon Macklin, Chandler Parsons, Erik Murphy and Mike Rosario: it is the “10’s” who restored this program to elite status in college basketball. And it is the “10’s” who have a chance to be generationally great in the coming month and a half.
As we all know, Florida has started the season in splendid fashion, better than most would have imagined given suspensions, their own version of the Shakespearian “plague on both your houses” injury bug that has hammered Florida athletics in the past several months, and a brutal non-conference schedule. They are 6-0 in conference play, including a very impressive win on the road at Arkansas, where the Razorbacks are nearly invincible, without arguably their finest basketball player, “10’s” member Casey Prather, and Saturday’s dismantling of a very talented Tennessee, a team that has been the program nemesis for nearly a decade. Still, there are lingering questions, some fair but most not, about how good this Florida basketball team can be. The answer, both the schedule and empirics suggest, is it can be great, a word we deploy too often to describe a team that is merely good.
What Florida has done thus far this season is impressive.There are quality wins against Florida State (# 26 RPI, # 23 Ken Pomeroy), Kansas (# 1 RPI, # 11 Ken Pom), Memphis on a neutral floor (# 32 RPI, # 32 Ken Pom), Richmond (# 47 RPI, # 59 Ken Pom), and @ Arkansas (# 64 RPI, # 44 Ken Pom), and Tennessee (# 51 RPI, # 29 Ken Pom). The losses are both narrow defeats, @ Wisconsin (# 3 RPI, # 12 Ken Pom), where hardly anyone but the Badgers win, and a buzzer-beater defeat @ Connecticut (#38 RPI, #33 Ken Pom), in front of 9,500 crazies. All of this is good enough to give the Gators a current RPI of # 6, and a Ken Pom ranking at # 10.
Well-documented among Gator fans, but a bit less noticed nationally, is that in both defeats, Florida was short-handed. Florida played Wisconsin without the services of Dorian Finney-Smith, perhaps the most underrated sixth man in college basketball, and Scottie Wilbekin, perhaps the most underrated point guard in college basketball. At Connecticut, Florida fell without Wilbekin in the final minutes, a problem compounded by the absence of talented freshmen point guard Kasey Hill, who missed the game with an ankle injury. This meant Florida was forced to let Michael Frazier II, a capable ball-handler but by no means a point guard, and Dorian Finney-Smith, a good ball handler but a natural forward, run the Gators offense, on the road, in a close game, down the stretch. That it took a fluke bounce on a Shabazz Nappier miss to allow UConn to win at the buzzer may say more about how good the Gators are than any other takeaway from the game.
From a metrics perspective, this Gators team is not quite the world-beater last year’s Elite Eight Team was. Last year, the Gators ranked # 1 or # 2 most the season in the Ken Pom rankings– a set of rankings, for the unfamiliar, that rank teams largely based on statistics, weighing things like offensive and defensive efficiency very heavily. These statistics have, for about a decade, been very valuable in the NBA, but only recently have become trendy among the college basketball rank and file.
This season, the Gators are ranked #10 in the Ken Pom rankings. The disparity between last year’s team and this year’s team is marked on offense (last year they closed at # 12 in offensive effficiency, this year they are # 30), and subtle on defense (last year they closed # 4, this year they sit # 9), but there are reasonable explanations for these disparities.
First, no team among the elite in college basketball has been hammered by more injuries and suspensions, with the possible exception of Michigan State, who have been without star forward Adreian Payne for several games, and now will be without their best rebounder, Branden Dawson, for a while after he injured himself punching a table. No really. While the Payne injury is a big deal for a team in a tougher league, and the Dawson injury is damaging to the Spartans’ frontcourt depth, Florida’s injury and suspension plague has been something of a pandemic, with Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Kasey Hill and Dorian-Finney Smith all missing games, forcing Billy Donovan to shuffle starting lineups, and more importantly, player rotations, more frequently than at any time during his tenure. This can adversely impact your ability to run a complicated motion, ball-screen offense, and at times, it has. It also can impact your ability to defend, because when you’re constantly changing rotations on the fly depending on who is and who isn’t on the training table, your ability to scout and gameplan is affected, and when your limited personnel-wise, you are of course open to more mismatches defensively and have to do things you’re not used to doing defensively to compensate. As such, as Florida gets healthy, one would expect them to rise in the Ken Pom rankings. Indeed, Miles Simon at ESPN wrote this week that among the college basketball elite, Florida is perhaps the team that can improve the most down the stretch. (paywall) Even if the Gators Ken Pom ranking doesn’t improve, they are well-situated, thanks to the out-of-conference schedule, to receive a seed higher than last year’s three seed, which, in theory, creates a more navigable path to a Final Four. And, of course, Ken Pom rankings aren’t the “be all and end all”– both Florida’s National Championship teams ranked lower in the Ken Pom totem pole than the 2012-2013 Gators.
Second, there is of course the Chris Walker saga and its impact on Florida. With “Free Chris Walker” tee-shirts and celebrity tweets from the likes of Dick Vitale and Jay Bilas suggesting the NCAA has botched the eligibility questions, Walker’s status is the question mark surrounding this team garnering the most attention. That’s fine, though probably not altogether fair.
Andy Hutchins at Alligator Army wrote a very thoughtful piece on Chris Walker this week, and an underlying point worth remembering with Walker, which has been shouted from the Gainesville hilltops by Billy Donovan and anyone who will listen, is that even if the NCAA decides Chris Walker can play basketball for the Gators, he certainly won’t be a player that immediately makes the Gators the best team in America. Hutchins argues that a “best-case”, realistic, but high expectation for Walker would be that he impacts the Gators the way Donnell Harvey did when he joined the team in the 1999-2000 campaign and helped Florida reach the national championship game. Harvey, of course, was a raw, athletic power forward with no offensive polish or even skillset to speak of, but he helped Florida immensely on defense and is remembered fondly for his ability to alter and block shots, as well as a thunderous Elite Eight dunk against Oklahoma State that essentially iced a Final Four trip for the Gators. By most accounts, Chris Walker is a bit more threatening than Donnell Harvey on the offensive side of the ball, but the defensive comparison is relatively fair. To me, the better “comparison” is something between Donnell Harvey and a freshmen Joakim Noah, who provided great energy for the Gators off the bench and finished fourth on the team in blocked shots and fifth in rebounds, despite being eighth in minutes played.
More importantly, Walker offers more offensively than both (he has the makings of a jump shot), and he could give the Gators devastating depth on the block, spelling Patric Young, Will Yeguette or rebounding machine Dorian Finney-Smith and giving Donovan the ability to play a “big” lineup in the mold of his brilliant Green-Brewer-Horford-Noah-Richard rotation in 2006-07. That’s a significant wrinkle, and one that could assuage what is becoming the “book” on defending Florida, demonstrated rather capably by Alabama last night: limit Prather’s penetration in the line by zoning Florida and force them to take three pointers. It is by its nature harder to do that if Florida can play big, for even limited minutes, and prevent defenses from getting under the screening action that frees up penetration for the likes of Prather and even Finney-Smith. Point being, Walker’s impact can be sizeable, even if his minutes are consistently limited.The only safe thing to say about Chris Walker, though, is we just don’t know if he’ll ever play for Florida, and even if he does, he won’t be close to the most important player on this team moving forward.
The most important players will be the “Ten’s”, who, at 100 wins and counting, have a half-season to cement a legacy of greatness. It isn’t fair to say it is Final Four or bust for them to be remembered fondly, but life isn’t particularly fair and college basketball is a sport where, especially at schools where football matters, March is what people remember most. The “Ten’s” have been a roaring success in March, but a Final Four has remained elusive. If the Gators as a collective unit are to reach a Final Four, it will be the “Ten’s” who get them over the hump.
Scottie Wilbekin has been splendid this season, posting numbers very comparable (actually, better) to the much-more nationally acclaimed Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft, who, in his twenty-seventh year at Ohio State…I digress. More than any other player in that recruiting class, Wilbekin represents who Billy Donovan is as a coach and man and what Florida is as a basketball program. With much less fanfare than hall-of-fame coaching contemporaries like Tom Izzo, Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski, Donovan prepares young men for life and then for basketball, in that order. Donovan was right when Wilbekin signed that because the Gainesville native was so young, development would be both about maturing as a person and a player. The former took longer, but it would appear Wilbekin, to his credit, has responded to the coaching and accomplished a great deal on both fronts. From a basketball perspective, Florida must have Wilbekin to win against the elite or even above-average teams, as close games this year against UConn, Arkansas, Alabama and to some extent Kansas have bore out– and that won’t change with Chris Walker or without him.
Casey Prather, a deserved midseason Wooden finalist, who Donovan says is “finally playing with a clear head”, has been brilliant as a senior. He is, without question, the guy in the “Ten’s” class that represents what Florida basketball is about on a player development front. Like David Lee, Chandler Parsons and Erik Murphy before him, Prather has improved every season just in-time to shine as a senior. Like the three above, there have been flashes before, though with the other three those flashes were much more prevalent than what we saw with Prather before this season. Prather will remain the key to this team both defensively, where he gives Florida length it needs to play its various zone defenses and the flexibility it needs to confidently guard the best player on other teams in man without worrying too much about mismatches; and offensively, where his ability to get in the lane and draw fouls has moved beyond “keeping defenses honest” on the perimeter to focal point. As Dick Vitale wrote today, Prather has blossomed and become, as SEC play moves deep into January, the guy on Florida you don’t want to beat you.
Patric Young is critical with Chris Walker and remains vital to this team without him. He hasn’t been the lottery pick he was projected to be when he arrived on campus. What he has been is a fantastic student and citizen who has developed into one of the best post defenders in college basketball and a kid with a capable enough offensive game to allow Florida, when they’re at their best, to run their offense inside-out, which is exactly what Billy Donovan’s best teams have done in the past. Young’s frequently inflamed knees must hold up, as must his effort levels, but he’s the body down low that allows Prather to move more freely as a slasher in the lane offensively and he’s the defensive presence that must be accounted for when you try to rebound against Florida. Dorian Finney-Smith’s prowess on the glass is partly about talent, but also about the presence of Patric Young.
Finally, Will Yeguette is Florida’s motor and to some extent, its heartbeat. Yeguette’s defense has long been appreciated, but it is how his length and athleticism affect spacing and allow Florida to press and trap that make him so critical to the Gators’ success. Yeguette’s absence was most felt in this regard when he missed the 2012 NCAA Tournament, and Florida fell short in the final minutes against Louisville largely because they simply lacked enough inside to keep Louisville off the glass and honest in the paint. With Yeguette, Florida probably heads to the Final Four and brings Brad Beal with it– a house money proposition for a team that Kentucky would have had to defeat a fourth time to win a championship. Without him, they fell just points short. Yeguette is probably the one guy, of the “Ten’s”, who is most important in a continued world without Chris Walker– but with Walker– he’s the guy who allows Florida to crush you down low with wave after wave of rotational depth.
These four players, beyond anything else, are the engine of Billy Donovan’s basketball team, and, having now restored the program to consistently elite status, they have one last shot at a Final Four.
Yes, among them there isn’t a lottery pick. The “04’s” had three. Yes, it’s heady stuff to bring the “04’s” and any subsequent group of Gator basketball players up in the same sentence. And yet, I often chuckle when anyone, fan or analyst, says it is unfair to compare Florida players (or players at any program, really) to the great players that came before them. Of course it isn’t unfair. Those players, whether it be Florida’s “04’s” or the great point guards of Kentucky or the waves of stars at Duke or North Carolina, are what make each basketball program “destinations.” History books matter in sports because they help set benchmarks for the future and standards of excellence to pursue. And history books expand, meaning the ability to be appreciated as a stand-alone group and compared to a group formerly great isn’t mutually exclusive. No one is going to argue the “Ten’s” haven’t succeeded at Florida because they haven’t reached a Final Four. They’ve already restored, and perhaps help establish, Florida as a perennial elite powerhouse program. A Final Four is about adding to that legacy, and cementing it, on a “stand-alone” basis, so that when years from now when the names of other Gator greats under Billy Donovan or whomever are on the tips of our tongues, the names of the “Ten’s” are ones we always remember, in sentences separate from the only recruiting class with which they compare, the immortal “04’s.”