Gators have lost that look of a champion


Published: Wednesday, February 28, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 28, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

They're too good to be so bad. Tomorrow, we move into March, college basketball's championship month. A time for glory. A stretch of captivating Madness. If his Florida Gators don't cut the blundering, coach Billy Donovan's madness will unquestionably intensify.

His formerly imposing offense went into heavy late-season clunking. It continued too deep into Tuesday night. Rebounding has fallen off. An even uglier shock was a sleepy, malfunctioning Florida defense that flunked miserably for 30 minutes against Tennessee.

Donovan's kids would go into a furious rally, looking a bit like their former win-win-win selves. But the hole was too deep. It became the latest smackdown of Gators who, for now, have lost the look of national champions.

It's fixable, but what a job.

Taurean Green is the catalyst. When their point guard is afire, efficiently orchestrating offensive flow, with dynamic stretches of 3-point shooting, the Gators are all but invincible. But he has become badly gnawed by opposing defenses. Can the aplomb of No. 11 be repaired with March looming?

In a slide that began at Vanderbilt, accelerated at LSU and stumbled further in Knoxville, the No. 1 factor has been a throttling of Taurean. His playmaking has slumped, his shooting gone awry. Lee Humphrey, famous for 3s, also went into a misfiring funk, unable to lighten the load on Green.

Remember, in December, when Taurean broke apart Ohio State with artistic drives, going fearlessly at 7-foot wonder freshman Greg Oden? Triggering a 26-point demolition of today's No. 1-ranked team. But, lately, on Green sprints for the basket, he has been repeatedly derailed; lots of layups blocked.

Will he rally in March?

Joakim Noah is badly struggling. He exudes such emotion, frustrations are painfully evident. Jo's game is damaged by a repetitive flaw. At 6-11, with a body more bony than brawny, he has a nasty habit of bringing the basketball down to chin/chest levels. Inviting shorter opponents to be more defensively effective.

Is it too late for Noah to correct the blemish? Consistently grasping the ball at no lower plateau than, say, his signature pony tail? Consider the possibilities if flamboyant Jo, with arms extended upward, would accurately flick soft, little jumpers and jump hooks from a minimum launch of eight feet off the floor. Enemies who are 6-7 or 6-8 would find it far testier to cope.

He is a vital element.

At a passionate juncture late last spring, victorious vibes still gurgling from Florida domination of the NCAA Tournament, Jo chose to play Pied Piper, convincing three other starters to not take premature leaps into the NBA Draft. Returning en masse for a third UF season, seizing a shot at rare back-to-back national championships.

Noah, Green, Corey Brewer and Al Horford share far more than a basketball court. They are roommates. Constant companions, socially and educationally as well as athletically.

One for-sure Noah negative has festered. Returning for his junior season has unquestionably hurt Jo's prospects for a still-on-hold plunge into the NBA Draft. His stock is unlikely to again ascend the heavenly apex of 10 months ago.

Joakim was the relentless, ultimate hero as Florida smashed UCLA in Indianapolis, becoming America's champion. He became the symbol of Gator wows, leaping onto a Final Four platform, pounding a thin chest that encased a delirious heart. He'd played better than anybody, being voted MVP in an Indy landslide.

Soon thereafter, Noah could've been a top-two pick in the NBA Draft. Good for many bags of dollars. He might well have decided, at age 20, to get a driver's license, aiming to grip the steering wheel of some flashy Mercedes, Porsche or Hummer. Gator Nation should never forget what Noah passed up to again chase NCAA gold.

In the weeks ahead, challenges for Donovan's gang will be severe. All season, opponents have come at the Gators with expanded fervor. Eager to knock out the heavyweight champ. Five times now, Florida has been KO'd. Losing three of the last four with Kentucky coming to Gainesville for a Sunday bout.

The big goal remains Waterford clear for Noah and Gator comrades. They hope to win the SEC tournament, just like last season, but the larger deal would be to excel in March Madness like 2006.

I expect Billy D and associates to rebound. It will be startling if the Gators are not refreshed by the enormous tasks ahead. I expect them to handle Kentucky. Nobody has to tell any Florida player or coach that the scariest possible outcome would be an early NCAA stumble. A deeper wound than an SEC flameout. For this unique band, there can be no more powerful motivator than fear of failure.

Contact columnist Hubert Mizell at mizell3@cox.net.

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