Anxiety is part of being UF fan


Published: Wednesday, March 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
I'm struggling to guess how far Billy Donovan's kids will go. They're so young that lone senior Adrian Moss must feel like Methuselah, the biblical ancestor of ark captain Noah who lived to age 969.
On this basketball ship, there is a Noah called Joakim who just turned 21, one of four University of Florida sophomore babes with critical roles in an ever-evolving, endlessly confusing season now edging into March's mad challenges.
David Lee graduated to the NBA from the Gators of '05, then backcourt gunners Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh opted to trade further Gainesville eligibility for premature, seemingly ill-advised stabs at pro hoops riches.
Donovan's roster got scary skinny. Eight scholarship players. A coach dealing with mass inexperience and diminishing expectations. In a preseason national poll, the Gators ranked 37th, uncharacteristically low for the Billy D decade.
If, last Thanksgiving, some basketball god had promised, "You'll be 22-6 at February's end," anybody with an orange-and-blue shirt and documented sanity would've grabbed it quicker than a fat boy going after a bulging burrito.
Those are the numbers and we're still not sure what the appropriate Gator Nation emotion should be: (a) glee, (b) disgust, (c) hope, (d) anxiety or (e) uncertainty? I'd go for e with a sweet sprinkling of c and a quest for a. Enjoy the ride, whatever the outcomes, in a fast-ebbing regular season with SEC and NCAA tournaments ahead.
How fun was their 17-0 start, even as unrealistic expectations flourished? Stunning, overachieving stretches but involving a formidable chunk of less-than-imposing opponents. They were a Lee Humphrey three-pointer at Tennessee away from being No. 1 in the country, but realism should've been screaming into our ears . . . that a dozen or more schools were unquestionably stronger.
Anxiety became a frequent Gator Nation houseguest. A 5-6 run that followed the 17-0 was confusing, blessed with exotic wins over LSU and Kentucky but also two stomach-souring failures against South Carolina. Deeper into February, we saw reaffirmed the queasiness of playing road gigs in places like Fayetteville and Tuscaloosa.
So here we are, with lukewarm Georgia coming up tonight in the Gator closer at home, then a Sunday experience at Kentucky. Donovan is searching for momentum, hoping for a 2-0 windup and jumping to 24-6, knowing an 0-2 isn't out of the question. Coaches don't dare get caught looking ahead, but somewhere in Billy's mind he surely wonders how March will work out.
You and me? It's OK if we glare ahead. I'll try to be fair, and realistic, searching for what would be a break-even result in both conference and national playoffs. I say, two wins in the SEC deal, and anything else is heavy gravy.
Same goes for the bigger dance, which means rising to the NCAA Sweet 16. Losing at the first step in either competition would be a whopper bummer. Any success beyond round one may well deal with luck of the draw. At their best, these Gators can beat anybody; but at their wobbliest, well, remember the Gamecock double.
Noah - the ponytailed sophomore, not the ark guy - has been an extraordinary element. I can't remember a 6-foot-11 bloke who hustled more, so draining a thin body that Donovan must carefully calculate Joakim bench breaks.
In a second loss to Tennessee, as Vols coach Bruce "Sultan of Sweat" Pearl was drizzling on the O-Dome sideline, Noah took an uppercut from Big Orange guard C.J. Watson. A tooth went flying. If they'd allowed it, Jo would've put the bicuspid in a pocket, wiped away gushing blood and kept on competing.
Donovan's dudes have been a fun and intriguing cast to observe. Just when you think they're clicking, there comes a clunk. When you're about to write off these Gators, magic will suddenly reappear. Always, we must remind ourselves . . . that they are so youthful, and their depth so shallow, and the growth curve still loaded with room.
Tauren Green played what I quickly assessed as an "atrocious game" in the home loss to Tennessee. Shooting badly, being turnover prone, falling sadly shy as a feeder of Noah, Al Horford, Chris Richard and other UF bigs.
I needed more perspective. Remembering the load that has been cast on the 20-year-old sophomore point guard, with sidekicks Humphrey and Corey Brewer being hobbled, and Roberson-Walsh long gone. Donovan sees Green with clearer eyes.
"It's tough for us to match up in the backcourt, with such a shortage of depth," said the coach. "Tauren, given the burden he has dealt with, has been pretty terrific. Inconsistencies, sure. But the young man has held up well, always coming back, like in our loss at Alabama where Green was a 1-for-8 shooter in the first half and then led us to a strong second half that almost pulled out the win."
Brewer is a unique talent. So quick, so lean, so athletic but often a chap who goes out of control, bumbling into bad passes and even tripping to the floor. "It's a challenge that is coachable," Billy said. "Corey needs to work at recognizing when he's beginning to lose control. Being able to stop and get reorganized rather than losing the basketball. I expect that to come."
Humphrey, a relative elder as a junior, can be a dazzling three-point shooter but his season hit a slide after Lee went head over handlebars in a campus bicycle accident, messing up a shoulder. If he gets back to full bombs-away confidence, the March factor can be large.
Donovan is pushing his troupe. Challenging. Daring at times. After a weak start at Alabama, he threatened Humphrey, who had become shy with his outside launches. Billy told Lee to quit passing on good 3-point looks or his biker butt would be on the bench.
Whatever it takes. Nobody knows how far the Gators will go. One round in the SEC and NCAA? Two? Deeper and richer? I'm going to strain to understand who they are, what they are, and enjoy the pursuits.
You can reach columnist Hubert Mizell by e-mail at mizell3@cox.net.

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