What's missing for Florida? Nothing
December, 18, 2013
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com
NEW YORK -- Suspensions and injuries, so forth and so on.
The song of this Florida basketball team has been played on the strings of a tiny violin. Not that the Gators were courting sympathy they wouldn't get, anyway.
This season thus far has been about what the Gators didn’t have because of injuries, both real and self-inflicted.
Let’s, however, talk about what Florida has -- perhaps the most complete team since Billy Donovan won back-to-back championships.
Solid big man? Patric Young. Check.
Inside presence? Will Yeguete. Check.
Shooter? Michael Frazier II. Check.
Wing player who can go inside or stretch you outside? Dorian Finney-Smith. Check.
Savvy point guard? Scottie Wilbekin. Check.
Elsa/Getty ImagesScottie Wilbekin's heady play at point guard adds to a Florida team that seems to have all the necessary components.
Gifted, impossible-to-stop athlete and potential wild card? Casey Prather. Check.
Great coach? Check.
Potential wunderkind freshman-in-waiting? Chris Walker. Check.
Florida has been to three consecutive Elite Eight games, but in each of those runs, something was missing.
What’s missing now?
“Florida is an elite team," Memphis coach Josh Pastner said after his team lost to the Gators 77-75 in the Jimmy V Classic on Tuesday. “We’ve played two elite teams -- Oklahoma State and Florida."
What makes Florida all the more intriguing, though, is that which you can’t quantify.
The Gators have scars, which Donovan talked about after the Gators' win Tuesday night.
He didn't speak as if his team is hung up on what it hasn’t accomplished, but it knows what it means to have scars.
Nobody has those anymore. Teams don’t cart painful memories around because players don’t last long enough to build up memories together. What you did lately has the shelf life of maybe six months. It’s all about muscle memory, not collective memories.
But the Gators have four seniors, which essentially qualifies them for AARP benefits. These are guys who remember the successes of three consecutive Elite Eight runs but also the flip side of three could-be Final Fours that ended short of the doorway.
“They’ve got a lot of scars on them; they’ve been through a lot," Donovan said. “And maybe it’s because they’ve been scarred enough and wounded enough, they understand that this is a journey."
The journey, however, could be another awfully good one for Donovan.
What he’s done at Florida is nothing short of exceptional. Pastner said after the game that the Hall of Fame should just bypass whatever grace period it has and induct Donovan immediately.
He was being flip, but the reality will be there someday.
This is a man who came into a football school, won two titles and watched that entire roster leave, only to rebuild the team into an elite winner again.
Yet because those successes ended in regional final berths and not the last weekend, Florida gets pushed back into the pack of good teams, not great ones.
That could change this season. Kentucky waltzed into the season as the prohibitive favorite in the SEC, but compare the Wildcats to the Gators right now. Each has been through its own share of hard luck and trials, yet Florida has emerged much more cleanly.
Why? Scars and experience. Losing a player to an injury and waiting for your point guard to serve multiple suspensions is nothing when you’ve been through things together. You get by.
“We’re just focused on right now," Prather said. “That’s all we think about is right now."
That doesn’t mean the Gators will march to the title. If this early season has proven to be anything, it is wildly unpredictable. Asked if he could exhale after coming through a run of four ranked opponents with a 3-1 record, Donovan said with utmost seriousness that he already was worried about Fresno State.
Nothing is in the bag. Florida isn’t so good that it can just kick back and wait for March to roll around.
Joakim Noah isn’t walking through that door, and so forth.
But this Florida team has the blocks upon which a champion can be built, the core fundamentals that we see more often than not (Kentucky and Anthony Davis being the anomaly).
Florida lost two games -- one by six at Wisconsin and one on a buzzerbeater at Connecticut. Neither time did they have their full roster.
And now they do.
"This is our team now; this is our core," Donovan said.
The rest of the world might be breathlessly awaiting the NCAA to allow Walker to make his debut because, after all, what are you these days without a stud freshman? Everyone has one!
But Donovan isn’t waiting on Walker, who enrolled in school this week. He watched him get eaten alive by Young in practice because he's a wide-eyed teenager going up against a man.
Walker is not the savior. And more importantly, he doesn’t need to be.
Florida has plenty just the way it is.