UF learns from struggles

Published: Monday, January 6, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 5, 2003 at 10:56 p.m.

Sometimes nonconference play can be very misleading.

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From left, Matt Bonner has been Florida's most consistent scorer, Justin Hamilton has been the leader on defense, and David Lee has continued improving in the post this season.

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR/The Gainesville Sun

It was a year ago. After Florida tore through its early schedule, the Gators sat at No. 2 in the nation and the Final Four was mentioned in just about every other breath while discussing the team's potential.

While such talk in January is always premature, last year it was especially so.

Florida hadn't been tested. The Temple win to open the season seemed impressive, but it became glaringly apparent later in the year that the Owls weren't the team they were the previous year. Michigan State was another win over a ranked opponent, but the Spartans fell out of the polls right after the loss to Florida and had to make a late run to make the NCAA Tournament. Arizona? Well, the Gators lost that game.

This year the tests have been much more frequent. Granted, Kansas doesn't appear to be as good as many thought before the season, but Florida did beat them at the neutral site. Maryland is a far cry from last year's national championship team, but winning in College Park is still an impressive accomplishment.

With this year's Florida team, the progress can be seen in the struggles.

After losing to Stanford and West Virginia early in the season, it appeared the Gators were continuing with a trend of losing close games. Florida had lost its last eight decided by five points or fewer. Since then, the Gators have beaten Florida State by 1, Maryland by 5 and Miami by 1 in double overtime. All three were on the road. In all of last season, Florida won just one close road game, an overtime win over Tennessee in the SEC opener.

While many thought the difference this season would be the senior leadership, it has actually been the youth of the freshmen who deserve the majority of the credit for the Gators recent play. Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson have far exceeded expectations. Walsh leads the team in scoring, and Roberson is second, despite playing off the bench the last eight games. In 8 of 13 games this season, Walsh or Roberson has been the leading scorer.

While the freshmen have deservedly garnered a healthy share of the attention this season, senior Justin Hamilton has been quietly brilliant on defense and has shown he's more than capable of picking up the offensive slack when needed. Hamilton has already had to cover four All-Americans this season, in Eastern Illinois' Henry Domercant, Kansas' Kirk Hinrich, Maryland's Steve Blake and Miami's Darius Rice. Hamilton held Domercant, Hinrich and Blake to single-digit scoring. Rice, who at 6-foot-10 has seven inches on Hamilton, scored 32.

It should come as no surprise that senior forward Matt Bonner has been Florida's most consistent offensive threat. Bonner has scored in double-digits in 10 of Florida's 13 games, and in two of the games that he didn't, he played less than 20 minutes in blowout victories. Bonner's rebounding numbers are down a bit from last season, but he has given every indication he can continue to play at the level that earned him All-American honors last season.

Sophomore center David Lee continues to improve. Lee struggled during the final two games of the Preseason NIT, but has scored in double-figures in five of the last eight. Lee is going to have trouble defensively against some of the top centers in the SEC, but it's going to be just as much of a mismatch when guys like Mississippi State's Mario Austin, Kentucky's Jules Camara and Alabama's Kenny Walker try to match his quickness and his ability to pass the ball.

The biggest question mark has been senior guard Brett Nelson. He missed the first three games of the season while recovering from a foot injury and had to catch up to his teammates after missing three weeks of practice. The biggest reason for Nelson to be optimistic is his penchant for starting slowly. The last three seasons, Nelson has scored more once conference play begins than he did before it, a strange stat considering how much tougher the schedule gets.

Other than Nelson, Florida's biggest concern may be its depth. Other than Roberson, there hasn't been a player who has consistently contributed key minutes off the bench. Obviously, this problem gets a lot better when Christian Drejer returns, which is expected to be in time for the Jan. 15 game vs. Tennessee. In the meantime, if Adrian Moss or Bonell Colas could play well enough that Florida coach Billy Donovan would be comfortable giving them 15-20 minutes of playing time a game, the Gators would be much better off.

Right now, things aren't exactly going too badly for the Gators. Florida is on the cusp of re-entering the top 10 and has won seven straight. The Gators have already passed tests they weren't even required to take until deep into conference play last season. They've won close games, and have done so with players missing time because of injuries.

At this time last season, everyone was talking about Florida. Now, thanks to losses to Stanford and West Virginia, that's not necessarily the case. For a basketball power to be a bit under the radar has to be a pleasant change for the Gators.

Plus, it's always better for people to be talking about the Final Four in March rather than January.

You can reach Dylan B. Tomlinson by calling 374-5054 or by e-mail at tomlind@gvillesun.com

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