A year later, UF is rebounding in many ways


Published: Thursday, January 27, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 29, 2005 at 11:21 p.m.
A year ago it might have been one of those games that slipped away. Billy Donovan was willing to admit that Saturday.
A year ago, Florida was different. A year ago, Florida couldn't survive 6-for-20 shooting from Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh. A year ago, if the Gators out-rebounded an opponent by 15 it would have been a surprise.
Because a year ago, Al Horford and Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah and Taurean Green were playing in high school.
Because Chris Richard was still trying to figure things out.
Because Larry Shyatt wasn't coaching anywhere.
Because of all of those things, Saturday's game against South Carolina did not get away. Florida won because of a group of freshmen whose energy sparked the Gators to their best first half at home this season.
But mostly, Florida won because it owned the glass once again.
"Last year, we lost four or five games in the SEC because we got killed on the boards," said forward David Lee.
This year, Florida has the top rebounding margin in conference games. Last year, two years ago, the Gators were too soft to win a game where they didn't shoot well. Now, they just clean up their misses.
Florida is averaging 12 more rebounds than its opponents in its SEC games, 17 more than its last four.
There are many reasons for those numbers. One of them is that Florida hasn't faced the SEC's best rebounding teams. That will change when the Gators play three ranked teams in the next 10 days.
"We'll find out what kind of rebounding team we are," Donovan said.
Right now, they are an awfully good one, in part because of the addition of Shyatt as an assistant coach.
Shyatt has been harping on the art of boxing out to these players since the first day he stepped on the floor of the practice facility. When a shot goes up - whether it be practice or a game - every player has to find his man and make contact with him.
"You have to go hit him," said guard Matt Walsh. "We didn't do that last year."
But the biggest reason Florida is a different team on the boards this season is that Donovan finally has a group of freshmen who have shown up on campus with little ego.
They have respect for the veterans and the enthusiasm of youth. This isn't a group of freshmen wondering how long it will take to get them to the next level.
"There's a different mindset," Donovan said. "They don't think they have all the answers. Their attitude is such a rarity now. I have fewer problems than a lot of coaches have."
On Saturday against the Gamecocks, it was Lee who had the numbers with 18 points and 10 rebounds and it was Richard who was the surprise with nine points and five rebounds.
But it was the freshmen who made the difference.
It started in the first half when Noah came in with his blow-torch energy, lighting a fire underneath a team that was showing little energy. Combined, the freshmen came up with 17 of Florida's 39 rebounds.
But it's more than the simple statistics.
Florida is different inside now even with Adrian Moss still out with his bad back.
"We're so much deeper inside," Lee said. "And everybody is different."
Noah has the amazing wingspan. Horford, Lee said, is the best at boxing out. Richard is the bull. Lee is the old man who has been through three SEC schedules already.
The depth in the frontcourt allows Donovan to keep fresh legs on the court.
"Coach is always saying, 'Two new bigs, two new bigs,' during the game," Walsh said.
All of the big guys in the world don't help if you don't box out and create space, if you don't position yourself for the rebound. That's where Shyatt has helped.
Of course, the big tests are still down the road. Lawrence Roberts is waiting. Alabama is coming. Kentucky is always there.
South Carolina is an athletic but undersized team. So is Auburn. Georgia ... well, we won't get into Georgia.
But we saw teams last year (like Manhattan) beat Florida to rebound after rebound. We've seen Gator teams over the last three years struggle on the boards and struggle in the postseason. If the new Billyball is as much about getting missed shots as it is taking threes, these Gators are off to a good start.
"They're long, they're lean and they're powerful," said South Carolina coach Dave Odom.
It has been awhile. You can reach sports columnist Pat Dooley by e-mail at dooleyp@gvillesun.com or by calling 374-5053. You can hear The Pat Dooley Hour each weekday from 11 a.m. to noon on The Star 99.5-FM.

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