“I’m telling you, that’s inspiring,” is what I told Billy Donovan as we walked out of the Georgia Dome Monday night. Billy looked at me and chuckled but then realized I was serious. “I really appreciated you saying that,” he said as we continued to chat about how different and special this team has been.
“These players understand what’s going on,” Donovan continued. “They knew if they continued to count on each other, that the next guy was as unselfish as the first that good things could continue to happen. The biggest compliment I can pay these guys is that they were as coachable this year as they were the day they stepped on campus.”
Donovan had just piloted the Gators to a second consecutive National Championship, with this one being very different than the first. “Last year we were hot and kind of came out of nowhere. Played well and won it. This year came with all kinds of expectations and the guys had to deal with that. I was proud of how they did that and held up their end of the bargain.”
“Coach just held us accountable to our own promise,” Al Horford explained. “We said we were coming back and we were coming back to win it. Coach just said we were accountable for all of that and he held us to it.”
The Gators ability to stay true to their mission all year long is perhaps the most impressive feat of all. No agents, no amount of pressure to grab onto the individual glory invaded the team concept that was the hallmark of their success.
The championship game against Ohio State was no walk. The Buckeyes played hard and tough and hit Florida with everything they had. Greg Oden was “a beast” as every Gator player described him. But Florida was able to respond to every run by OSU. Whether it was a key three by Taurean Green or Lee Humphrey or a key defensive stop, Florida got it done.
As if to show what kind of team they really were, the Gators did things differently this year. Joakim Noah was the Most Outstanding Player of last year’s final four and he couldn’t stay out of foul trouble in the title game. So the Gators looked elsewhere for their points and defense. Chris Richard made a huge contribution and Maureece Speights had six quality minutes.
That’s where Billy Donovan is going with his recruiting.
Speights didn’t have to play much this year but will be counted on next year to contribute inside. His issue is staying in school. Donovan has Dan Werner, who he has to re-instill shooting confidence and Walter Hodge at the point. His class of incoming freshmen is supposed to be the best in the country.
Donovan mentioned in his post-game press conference that this Gator team should be mentioned with some of the best of all time. “From a team standpoint,” he clarified in the hall outside the locker room. “So you’re saying they can beat all of those teams?” one writer asked. “No,” was Billy’s response. “So they couldn’t beat those teams?” the scribe pressed. “I didn’t say that,” Billy explained. “If one of those coaches said to me “my team is better from a team standpoint’ I’d dispute that.”
And Donovan is right.
From a team standpoint the Gators didn’t have an equal for the last two years and perhaps could find a way to beat anybody with their teamwork throughout history. I don’t know.
But I wouldn’t bet against them.