You might think that an NIT team that lost it's leading scorer would be in for a rough season. Add in the fact that in addition to leading the team in scoring, that same player also led the team in minutes, steals and assists, and was second in rebounding, and you would almost be a fool to believe that the team wouldn't struggle this year. After all, college basketball is a game of stars right?
Well, as the 2009-10 Florida Gators are proving...maybe not.
Now, let's not get crazy. These Gators have some talent, most noticeably five-star recruit Kenny Boynton and former McDonald's All-American Vernon Macklin. They've got some SEC veterans in Dan Werner and Chandler Parsons, and a sparkplug of a point guard in Erving Walker. So this isn't a “Hoosier” storyline, where the collective will of some underachievers can overcome long odds to beat better teams.
But let's be real – did you see the Gators, a team that is coming off back-to-back NIT appearances, jetting of to an 8-1 start? Knocking off Michigan State and Florida State? Especially after losing their Mr. Everything in sophomore guard Nick Calathes?
There's no question that without Calathes, who opted for the NBA Draft but then signed with a Greek team, many thought the Gators would face an uphill battle all season, relying largely on unproven or younger players. Yet here we are, mid-December, and the only team to vanquish the Rowdy Reptiles so far has been #5 Syracuse, a game that was tightly contested throughout. Rather than putting everything on the shoulders of Calathes, as was often the case the last two years, these Gators are getting it done with teamwork, chemistry, and a passion for the game. As history tells us, this can lead to good things in Gainesville.
Think back a moment. When the Gators lost blue-chippers Matt Walsh, David Lee and Anthony Roberson in 2006, replacing them with a skinny kid with big hair, a stiff forward with limited offense and an unproven point guard, how did you think things would turn out? If you said National Champs, then you need to accompany me to Las Vegas sometime, because you have a gift.
But much like that year, when Joakim Noah, Al Hoford and Taurean Green more than filled the shoes of the departed stars, teaming with Corey Brewer to give the Gators their best two-year run in school history, this Gators team understands that teamwork is the most critical element in building a successful season. Granted, it's unlikely that they'll see three players develop into lottery selections like that team did, but it's the lesson that is important here. That lesson? It's wonderful to have a superstar, but it's even better to have five guys on the floor who function as one.
Just look at the stats. Boynton leads the team in scoring. Walker leads the team in assists. Parson and Alex Tyus set the pace in rebounding. Ray Shipman leads the team in steals. Instead of relying heavily on one guy, the Gators have had a number of players carve out a niche for themselves, and they're all contributing.
Furthermore, this team seems to enjoy playing with each other. Last year, despite his enormous ability, rumors abounded about Calathes' prickly attitude and rocky relationship with teammates. Often, it appeared some players were hesitant on the court, not wanting to incur Calathes' icy glare, and thus putting even more of the burden on his shoulders to carry the team. This led to a team that fell apart in close games, going just 6-8 in games decided by seven points or less.
But things are different this year. With a more balanced attack and some renewed confidence, the Gators appear to be a new team this year. Parsons has not only embraced a sixth-man role, but has thrived, averaging 12 points and six rebounds and using his size to create mismatches. Walker has been fearless leading the team, never hesitant to drive down the lane or body up his man on defense. Boynton has had some ups and downs, as have most freshmen not named John Wall, but he has also shown flashes of the potential that made him a highly-touted recruit. Tyus and Werner are playing smarter and with more vigor, perhaps due to the addition of Macklin down low. The Gators have fully embraced the team concept, and as a result, now find themselves being mentioned as a surprise threat in the SEC this year.
Now this team isn't perfect. Walker and Boynton are a fine backcourt, but their lack of size will hurt them when they match up with teams like Kentucky and Tennessee. Although Macklin brings some much-needed size to the post, the depth is still a little shaky, and if he gets in foul trouble, the Gators will struggle against bigger teams. Their outside shooting has been hot and cold so far, and against the more explosive teams on their schedule, one cold streak could doom them. They don't have the overwhelming athleticism to match some of their SEC brethren, which could hurt in conference play.
But there's no question that Gators have already surprised some with not only their hot start, but their improved play and renewed enthusiasm for the game. This team seems to genuinely enjoy playing with one another, and that's an ingredient that has tasted really good to Gators fans in the past.
After all, there may be an “I” in NIT, but not in team.