UF MEN'S BASKETBALL
A full Nelson
UF's senior guard having slow start
Published: Tuesday, January 7, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 7, 2003 at 12:30 a.m.
Two years ago, it was perfect.
AT A GLANCE
Florida vs. Mississippi State:
There was a half second on the clock. There was an off-balance 3-pointer.
There was no doubt it was going in.
After the game Florida coach Billy Donovan called it "one of the most unbelievable games I have ever been a part of" and "as big of a road victory as we've had."
It was two years ago.
It was the day Brett Nelson became a star.
Florida came back from a 7-point deficit in the second half and beat Mississippi State 81-80.
"As soon as it left my hand, I knew it was in," Nelson said. "It's right up there with the best moments I've had here."
With one shot, people stopped talking about Nelson's potential and began comparing him with some of the best shooters in the nation.
Nelson had shown signs of what he could do as a freshman. There was the 16-point performance against Illinois and the 15-point performance against Duke in the 2000 NCAA Tournament. That was Nelson's introduction to the college basketball world. But it was as a sophomore in Starkville that Nelson gave the first. Nelson had 21 points and hit 9 of his 13 shots in that game, the last of which was the game-winner.
It was perfect. It was also two years ago.
Two years ago, Nelson was Florida's best player. With three starters missing significant action because of injuries, Nelson seemingly carried the Gators to the SEC title. Kentucky's Tayshaun Prince won the player of the year, but no player was as valuable to his team than Nelson was to Florida.
Two years is a long time. For Nelson, with the way this season has started, it seems like light years.
When No. 11 Florida opens SEC play at 9 tonight against No. 7 Mississippi State at Humphrey Coliseum, Nelson is no longer the Gators' best player.
He's not the best senior. He's not the best guard. He's not even the best shooting guard.
Donovan's benevolence and loyalty is the only reason Nelson remains in the starting lineup. Players like Nelson don't struggle the way he has this season. Players like Nelson don't shoot 26.4 percent from the field.
Two years ago, Nelson was so revered that USA Today dedicated an entire page to how Nelson had the best shot in college basketball. Right now, the only thing separating Nelson and the worst shooting percentage on Florida is the .001 between him and freshman Rashid Al-Kaleem.
Nelson has hit 19 of 72 shots this season. Freshman phenom Matt Walsh is 69 for 122. That means Nelson would have to hit his next 50 shots to tie Walsh's shooting percentage.
"Against Miami he started to miss some shots and in the second half I had to sit him because mentally he wasn't into the game," Donovan said. "There was another game, Maryland where I had to sit him out."
Florida going down the stretch in big games with Nelson on the bench would have been unheard of, but during the wins over Maryland and Miami, Nelson was on the bench while freshman Anthony Roberson has been knocking down key shots down the stretch.
With every missed shot, Donovan can't help but take a longer look at Roberson, who has already shown brilliance during his freshman season. In the eight games since Nelson reclaimed the starting job at shooting guard, Roberson has outscored him 117-43.
"I don't know why it's been like this," Nelson said. "I know I'll be fine eventually."
Nelson spent almost all of last season hearing about how he was struggling.
What he would give to be "struggling" like that right now.
Nothing has gone as planned for Nelson this season. He missed Florida's first three games with an injured foot and during the first few games he was back, clearly wasn't at full strength.
"I think his foot feels good, he's not limping and he's moving a lot better," Donovan said. "He has no excuses. I think mentally, he's in a good place right now."
Wherever Nelson's head is now has to be better place than in the season's first two months. At his homecoming game against West Virginia on Dec. 3, Nelson received a standing ovation when he was introduced, but was hit by boos and taunts during and after the game. As a dejected Nelson walked off the court after a stunning 68-66 loss, several Mountaineer fans were screaming expletives directly into his face and calling him a traitor.
This was in the same arena that had held a "Brett Nelson Appreciation Day" in 1999 and is located less than 15 minutes from Nelson's home in St. Albans.
If the West Virginia game wasn't the low point for Nelson, then the Miami game surely was. After missing three shots badly, Donovan sat him for the final 15 minutes of regulation and both overtime periods. It was just the fourth time Nelson had been held scoreless during his time at the Florida. The first two came when he was a freshman and the other was last season against Ole Miss, when Nelson was battling the stomach flu.
"That's the thing that I think has been a struggle for me as a coach with Brett has been to get him to mentally and emotionally get over missing shots," Donovan said. "He just does not believe he should miss open shots. When he misses a couple of them, it really, really creates a problem for him. He really gets upset about it. I'm trying to get him to the point where he can move on to the next play."
Nelson said his foot has been a big part of the problem this season. In his first few games he was limping, and in the next few games he was still trying to get back in shape after missing a lot of practice.
"I was behind," Nelson said. "My foot was bothering me. I didn't do anything for three weeks. I had to get back into the swing of things."
The foot has healed, but Nelson's shot isn't out of traction yet. Donovan said his concern isn't that Nelson will eventually find his shot, but rather that Nelson will still be able to contribute for Florida on nights when nothing seems to fall.
"When Brett makes shots, he can do a lot of different things," Donovan said. "I think sometimes Brett, when he misses a couple shots, it throws him. There's a sense of `Well, what can I do?' Well, you can try to defend, go rebound, make the extra pass and get guys shots and when the shot's open, you've got to shoot the ball."
As tough as it has been for Donovan to watch Nelson struggle this season, he said the biggest key has been Nelson's attitude, something that was a problem at times last season.
"His attitude has been really, really good," Donovan said. "Last year I can tell you that his attitude wasn't great. He's handled it very maturely (this year). There have been times when I've had a problem with his shot selection, but he's been unselfish as far as passing and getting other guys the ball."
Conference play is usually the time of the season when freshmen start to get exposed and guys who were tearing through their teams "guarantee games" start to fall back to earth.
For Nelson, it's the exact opposite. As the schedule toughens up, so has Nelson. In each of his three previous seasons, Nelson has been more effective offensively after SEC play starts. Two years ago, Nelson's lowest output of the season was a 2-point performance against Florida Atlantic. Once SEC play began Nelson scored in double digits in 19 of Florida's final 20 games.
"I don't know why that's happened," Nelson said. "I guess it takes a little while for me to get warmed up."
Despite the slump Nelson remains one of the primary concerns for Florida's opponents.
"Brett Nelson is one of the toughest players I've ever played against," Mississippi State point guard Derrick Zimmerman said. "He can take a team apart all by himself."
Donovan's advice to Nelson has been simply, keep shooting.
"Brett really is a great shooter," Donovan said. "It's what he does best. If you take away what a guy does best, it's hard. It'd be like telling Tiger Woods he has to tee off with a putter."
Nelson's teammates agree.
"I'm not worried about Brett Nelson," Roberson said. "I remember watching him on TV when I was in high school and he was amazing. He still is. He's going to be fine."
Nelson thinks so. If his confidence is down, it's hard to tell. Donovan has always said that the best and the worst part of Nelson's game is that he's never afraid to shoot the ball.
"I'm pretty positive about how things are going to turn out in SEC play," Nelson said. "This year's going be fine."
Florida doesn't need Nelson like it did two years ago. With the exception of Christian Drejer, the team is healthy. The Gators have a plethora of shooters thanks to the addition of Walsh and Roberson. Florida can win games without Nelson. But to win the conference or make another deep run in the NCAA Tournament, Donovan's going to need to have the old Nelson back.
"He can add a different dimension to our team," Donovan said.
The second dimension begins tonight. The hope is that Nelson reverts back to the way he was two years ago.
Which would be perfect.
Dylan B. Tomlinson covers UF men's basketball for The Sun. You can reach him by calling 374-5054 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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