Florida finally went down in the NCAA tournament, but that’s not a bad mark for the one-time back-to-back college basketball champions. The Gators are back.
By BUDDY MARTIN
With a little assist from Thomas Edison, Mike White can suddenly see the light at the end of the tunnel — and that light is cast a little differently on his team’s future.
A few days ago, White’s Florida Gators didn’t exactly look like Sweet Sixteen material after their swan-song finish to the season.
Thanks to Edison’s light bulb clicking on over the head of 6-8 junior Devin Robinson, plus help from teammates Justin Leon (6-8 senior forward) and Chris Chiozza (6-0 junior guard), the Gators are now a legitimate March Madness dark horse and a tantalizing trendy choice.
Frankly, the Florida basketball team limped across the finish line – three losses in the final four games, including a third straight to a mediocre Vanderbilt team and a 10-point loss at Kentucky. And the last line of defense in the paint, John Egbunu, the 6-11, 225-pound Nigerian center, had already been injured and lost for the season.
The pendulum of emotion often swings for Gator Nation basketball followers. And now, my, how things have changed! The Gators are headed to a Sweet 16 Garden Party to play mighty Wisconsin, the slayer of overall No. 1 seed and defending national champion Villanova.
This is personal for me. I have made a wager with my Wisconsinite son-in-law Jeff – his state’s finest cheese against my Marion County, Florida’s best boiled peanuts on Friday’s game in the Big Apple.
Just for the record, I have already won a steak dinner bet with my literary agent Byrd Leavell after my Gators crushed his Virginia Cavaliers. Peter Luger’s Steakhouse in New York sounds just about right.
Why not the lottery next?
The fortunes of Florida are tied to the late success of Robinson, whose career high-tying 24 points versus East Tennessee had one CBS color analyst raving effusively about him “possibly becoming a (NBA) lottery pick if he keeps playing like this.” (My sources say balderdash to that idea.)
Robinson has always been a player of considerable promise, who was, in fact, passed over by the same Virginia program that he helped annihilate, 65-39. Frankly, Robinson has been perceived by some as a bit of a moper.
Until now, especially when his shots weren’t falling, Robinson was not known for his rebounding/blocking-out skills and he was an average defensive player. He got downright stubborn about his sulking, to a point where he was called out by his senior teammate Kasey Hill, who went as far to say that Robinson’s behavior was sometimes pouty.
Well, Robinson’s light is now on and burning brightly.
“When things wouldn’t go his way, if the ball wouldn’t go in, he would shut it down. Now he wants to win,” Hill said. “That’s the big difference. He doesn’t care about his game or how it’s going for him. He’s got so much better defensively. He really loves to challenge and guard some of the other guys’ best players. If he didn’t change, we wouldn’t be here, honestly. He’s a big part of our success.”
It has been quite a turnaround. After a team meeting earlier in the year and a conversation with White, Robinson pulled the keychain to that 100-watt bulb. And voila! He became a leader, a better defender and rebounder, and his scoring line fattened up with three-point bombs and delicious dunks. He admits he had been a bit lackadaisical.
“I feel like I still lacked in being more of a vocal leader and just being more engaged and playing with a little bit more energy than I did,” Robinson told the media in Orlando. “I got a little comfortable. I just gotta take it to a new level, get outside my comfort zone.”
The turnaround by Robinson can be chalked off to good coaching by White and his staff, who felt all along Robinson had more to offer. When Egbunu went down, they asked Robinson for more.
In the last two games, Robinson has been almost Jordan-esque – maybe not a lottery pick, mind you, but certainly he has moved up on some draft boards for the future.
In two NCAA games, Robinson averaged 19 points and nine rebounds, shot 60 percent from the floor, hit four 3-pointers, has two blocked shots and grabbed several key offensive rebounds.
The Gator coaches had issued a similar challenge to Chiozza, whose energy and hustle off the bench also inspired the Gators in their first-round win over East Tennessee.
In January, Florida lost back-to-back SEC games and began to fizzle. Chiozza became concerned about his own play and sought out his coach for counsel. White remembers it well.
“It’s a great story – he comes into my office one day on his own accord, and it was after our home Vanderbilt loss,” White said. “It was the day of that big meeting that we’ve talked about a bunch. He says, ‘Coach, I haven’t been myself. I haven’t been playing well. I don’t know what’s wrong. I’m focused on the wrong things.’ And again, here’s a guy who’s got a pretty good argument to play more minutes and he’s had some really big games and he’s not starting.
“But that has kind of been our biggest strength this year,” White said. “We’ve utilized our depth, and I think Chris was a little bit hung up on that early in the year. So he just made a big maturity decision, and he comes in and says, ‘Coach, I’m going to do whatever I have to do just to help this team win.’ And naturally he starts playing his butt off, and since then he’s been the best version of Chris Chiozza.”
Among those extremely impressed in the first round win over ETSU was former Gator Heisman Trophy winner and Steve Spurrier, who was sitting in the stands at the Amway Center with his friend and former Florida teammate Allen Trammell.
“That Cheeso guy – how do you say it, Che-ozza? – is really fun to watch. He’s one of the quickest guys I’ve seen on the court and he can really, really jump. That guy would make a great defensive back prospect!” exclaimed Spurrier, who himself was an all-state basketball player, good enough to have received a basketball scholarship to Tennessee.
This may or may not be related, but Chiozza’s best friend is Robinson.
“I knew him before we got here,” Chiozza said. “We met each other at camps in the summer of junior year and we were both getting recruited by Florida so we used to talk about coming here. And I had committed before him so then once I committed he was just like ‘Well I might as well go there.’ So we knew each other our whole senior year and we got here together in the summer and we were roommates.”
Together, these roommates have lifted the hopes of the Gator Nation, which is hoping its team will be lifting the championship trophy in Glendale, Ariz., on April 3.
The light could be awesome from there.
(Buddy Martin has been one of America’s great sports journalists as a columnist, editor, broadcaster, author and TV producer for five decades. He has won close to 200 awards, including an Emmy. He co-wrote the best-selling book “”Urban’s Way” with coach Urban Meyer and recently releasased his latest book, co-authored with Steve Spurrier, titled “”Head Ball Coach. My Life In Football, Doing It Differently — and Winning.” The book is available on Amazon and already is a best-seller.
He is a third-generation Floridian and journalist, having begun his early career at the Ocala Star-Banner where his father and grandfather also launched their careers. From there, Buddy had a distinguished career in newspapers as editor/columnist at Florida Today, Gannett News Service, the St. Petersburg Times, The New York Daily News and The Denver Post. As managing editor of The Charlotte Sun in Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte, Martin directed coverage of Hurricane Charley which won many state and national awards — and was one of three finalists in the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news.
For his role as an associate producer and editorial consultant for the NFL Today Show on CBS, Buddy was awarded an Emmy.Returning to his hometown a few years ago, Martin has served as editor in chief of Ocala Magazine and a columnist for Ocala Style.
Martin is the author of eight books. He also wrote the autobiographies of two Hall of Fame athletes – Terry Bradshaw and Dan Issel — and was awarded an Emmy while working with Bradshaw on “The NFL Today” at CBS Sports.
Among the awards he or his newspapers have claimed were best Best Lifestyle Section nationally (Penny-Missouri), Best Sunday Sports Section nationally (APSE), Best Feature Writer New York State (Associated Press) and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in breaking news (2005). He has been named best columnist or sports columnist in Florida for both magazines and newspapers six times.
Buddy is a Gator through-and-through. He was educated at the University of Florida.
He is a regular contributor to woodypaige.com.