Florida's run would not be, without Lee

Published: Saturday, February 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 31, 2003 at 11:41 p.m.

It was October, well before the Florida basketball team would play its first game and long before the grueling conference season would start. David Lee stood outside the UF practice facility with a look of determination on his face.

"Everybody is worried about the post play with Udonis (Haslem) gone," he said. "I'm telling you right now it's going to be OK."

Despite the fact that Lee had a clearly different body than he had at the end of last season, I still wondered. Who didn't? Haslem had left behind quite a legacy of dependability. Lee and the other players expected to man the post were an uncertainty at best.

But Lee was unwavering in his confidence.

He knew he had put the work in, gaining close to 20 pounds by eating, lifting, eating and then eating. Five meals a day went down his throat and into his chest and arms. He could always jump, but he had to get bigger if he was going to play in the physical SEC against the likes of Mario Austin, Erwin Dudley and Marquis Estill.

That much he found out the hard way.

"I thought I could dominate in college," he said. "It was a little bit of a surprise."

Instead, with a body that had spurted eight inches between his freshman year and senior years in high school, Lee was ill-equipped to be a force inside. He played well enough to be named to the All-SEC Freshman team, but Florida needed more this year.

"I told him and everybody once the season ended that we'd see how much they worked by their bodies when they came back," said Florida coach Billy Donovan. "With David, the physical play of the league neutralized him a little bit. He was probably thinking there would be no adjustment period as a freshman.

"He could do one of two things - cast blame or get better."

Lee got better and it has really showed in Florida's first six SEC games.

The 6-foot-9 sophomore is among the conference leaders in rebounds with 9.2 a game. He is second on the team in scoring in conference games at 12.3 and is shooting 67 percent from the field.

This much is certain - Florida would not be one of the major stories in college basketball if Lee had not emerged.

He is not Haslem, but his numbers as a sophomore are better than Haslem's were during Florida's run to the national title game. Especially the rebounding.

"David and Donnell Harvey are the best two rebounders I've coached at Florida," Donovan said. "Udonis wasn't a great rebounder. David rebounds a bigger area of the floor."

He showed that in Florida's last game against LSU, grabbing 11 before a muscle spasm in his left leg forced him to miss much of the second half.

"It's a lot different this year," Lee said. "Last year, I was getting bounced around at power forward. It's not like I'm throwing Mario Austin down, but I'm holding my own this year."

During the pre-conference schedule, Lee showed signs of his emergence, but was not as consistent as he needed to be. The post was still a question mark. After recording 21 rebounds in the first two games, he had only 12 in the next three. At Florida State, he had two points and three rebounds and had only three rebounds at Miami.

But after going home for Christmas, he came back with a renewed vigor.

"I was disappointed in my play in the first half of the season," he said. "I tried to energize myself, get my intensity level up."

Lee has been helped by a different style of play for the Gators this season. Rather than employ the traditional low post offensive scheme that made Haslem such a force in his last two seasons at UF, Donovan has spread the floor to give Lee and Matt Bonner, as well as Florida's other frontcourt players, more room to work.

"The biggest thing David has done is play defense and rebound," Donovan said. "If we were getting beat up defensively, it would be difficult for us to win."

But Florida is winning and Lee is as big a part of it as any of his teammates. He already has two double-doubles in SEC play and had had at least seven rebounds in those games.

And his touch around the basket has improved. Lee is now more than just a guy who dunks the ball.

But it the rebounds have been the biggest boost to a team that came into the season with one major question - who will crash the boards?

Lee has provided the answer. And he can usually provide that answer after each game.

"I keep count," he said. "I go into every game thinking I want to get three or four offensive rebounds a game. The only time I was surprised was against Vanderbilt. I thought I had seven or eight and they told me I had 10. I was pretty pumped."

Pumped, pumped up and pumping enthusiasm into the nation's fourth-ranked team.

You can reach sports columnist Pat Dooley by e-mail at dooleyp@gvillesun.com or by calling 374-5053. You can see Pat on "Sports Showdown" with Larry Vettel on WGFL-CBS 4 Friday at 11 p.m. and Saturday at 11:30 a.m.

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