The Gators do this every year, and every year, the expectations far exceed the reality. Last year, Florida made it to number one before the Gators were exposed as too slow, too dainty and too schizophrenic to be taken seriously. While Coach Billy Donovan's troops did mount a valiant charge to get to the SEC Tournament finals where they were sunk by Kentucky, a week later there wasn't enough bubble gum to fill the holes and Manhattan sent the season to the bottom of the sea.
So why should we expect anything different from this year's Gators? Why should we take Florida seriously after two easy wins over Jacksonville and Florida Atlantic, followed by Saturday's impressive skewering of the Providence Friars in the Orange Bowl Basketball Classic at Miami's America Airlines Arena?
Well, for starters, it seems that there is a measure of toughness that has found its way back into the program and there is the kind of quickness that hasn't been seen since the 2000 team pressed Duke so hard in the first half that the Blue Devils had starters barfing in the halftime locker room. The newfound toughness and quickness are evident in the returning starters of last season, but the old guys are not the source.
It's the freshmen. The kids. They're the energizing force that has this team playing harder than we've seen Florida teams play in four years. They're the ones who are providing the depth that allows the Gators to press once again, the all out, 90 feet of in your face harassing defense that we came to know as Billy Ball when Donovan came to Florida. The freshmen are the ones making this team fun to watch once again.
Senior David Lee is off to the best start of his career at Florida. Matt Walsh is shooting lights out from beyond the arc, and Anthony Roberson has finally evolved into a point guard who can score rather than being the scorer who is forced to play the point. Lee had 16 (5-9 from the floor, 6-6 from the line) points and a game-high seven rebounds against Providence, dunking on anyone who would try to challenge his quick moves to the hoop. Walsh had 21 points for the second straight game Saturday, hitting 7-11 from the field and pouring in ten straight points in the second half when Providence had cut the Gators lead to seven. Roberson had 17 points and seven assists, his points coming on a variety of three-point jumpers and quick drives to the hoop and his passes crisp, accurate and timely.
That's the kind of production you expect from guys who have started their entire careers at UF, though, and their production alone wouldn't have allowed the Gators to win this game going away. Instead, it was the energy of three of the five freshmen that was the set of jumper cables that delivered instant energy to Florida every time the Friars made a run.
Point guard Taurean Green led the freshmen with 13 points, two assists and flawless ball handling. Al Horford had five points, four rebounds, a steal and a blocked shot and Brewer turned in four points, two rebounds, four steals, two assists and a blocked shot. They hustled. They played fearlessly. They played hard.
Brewer's impact could not be measured simply by the stat sheet. The one-man assassin with the skinniest legs this side of a Mars Blackman (It's gotta be the shoes) Nike commercial and tentacles for arms, was such a disrupting influence that he had the Friars making mistakes when he merely feinted in their direction. In addition to the four steals, he got his hands on at least five other passes, forced at least two other bad passes with his quickness, plus altered two shots other than the one he blocked.
The real value of Brewer is that he doesn't have to score points to be as valuable as any of the Gator starters. Clearly, he is the fifth option in the offense, but he can create points for himself and for others with his defense and his hustle. During Walsh's run of ten straight Gator points, Brewer was the catalyst. His third steal set up a Walsh three to extend the Florida lead to 67-55. He outhustled everyone to retrieve a rebound of a missed shot, then found Walsh beyond the top of the key with a perfect pass that was converted into a second straight long distance three. He got his blocked shot to stifle one Friar possession at the 5:10 mark, then got his fourth steal which set up Walsh, who went to the line for two free throws at 4:12.
Walsh indeed provided the offense the Gators needed at this critical point in the game when Florida transformed it from a close game into a blowout, but it was Brewer's game-altering defense and hustle that opened the door for Walsh to get the job done. Brewer did the dirty work, all the little things that add up to game-winning effort. He seemed to fly all over the court, mixed it up under the rim with the big guys, and collected more than a few floor burns.
It was a good win over a good team that just four nights ago gave number one ranked Wake Forest all it could handle. It was also a win in November and yes, there are still a lot of games before the Gators reach the SEC part of the schedule in January. Once again, the answer is yes, we've been down this road before, the one that only sets us up for heartbreak once the schedule gets tough.
Perhaps at some point in December or into the SEC schedule, these freshmen will find a way to go into a cocoon, disappearing when the pressure begins to mount as only it can in an SEC schedule that provides no nights off for good behavior. Perhaps the freshmen will fade into the sunset the way the Gators did against Manhattan last year in the NCAA first round.
It is unlikely because it's not just the way these kids play, it is the attitude with which they play the game. Throw in the talents of 6-11 Joakim Noah and 6-4 Cornelius Ingram to go with Brewer, Green and Horford and you have five kids who just seem oblivious to the pressure and expectations. They don't just play the game with unceasing energy, they get after people and have fun doing it.
You see the fun in the way they bounce around on the court and throw their bodies after every loose ball. You see it in the way they hustle to compensate for mistakes they make on both offense and defense. Oh, yes, they do make mistakes, but the mistakes are tolerable because each mistake seems to provide a shot of compensating energy. Every time there is a mistake, the freshmen seem to bust their collective butts a bit harder to make up for letting their teammates down.
It's the kind of hustle and attitude that we got used to back in the days when Major Parker and Brent Wright played for the Gators. That was a contagious effort produced by those two. They played hard. They didn't back down from anyone. They got the job done.
That's the way the freshmen are playing, but there is one key difference. These guys have more natural ability than Major or Brent ever had. If they can maintain that high level of energy and find a way to keep the desire to excel within the framework of a team, then this group could be very, very special.
Best of all, they could be the driving force that allows the veteran stars like Lee, Walsh and Roberson to have the kind of years that could take the Gators deep into the tournament. It's way too early to tell if that will happen, but the signs are there.
And the signs look so good.