The Gators' continued success starts with Speights
Posted: Wednesday September 19, 2007 11:07AM; Updated: Thursday September 20, 2007 4:28PM
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Before Florida could commence embarrassing Tennessee in football last Saturday, there was some basketball business to conduct: the distribution of a second set of national title rings. The Gator hoopsters, or at least all of them save for Lee Humphrey, who's plying his trade in Greece, stood before a sellout crowd at The Swamp and had their names called out over the PA system.
Fans roared for the Oh-Fours -- Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Al Horford and Joakim Noah.
They gave gone-and-back-again coach Billy Donovan a hero's welcome.
They were noticeably tamer with their applause for Marreese Speights.
Not because they have anything against the kid. A lot of them just aren't aware of how good Speights is going to be. He didn't have a chance to do much as a freshman, seeing that there was a logjam at his position, the kind of overcrowding that occurs when your center (Noah) goes ninth overall in the NBA draft, your power forward (Horford) goes third, your small forward (Brewer) goes seventh, your backup big man (Chris Richard) goes 11th in the second round, and there are only 40 minutes in a game.
While the household-name contingent of the Gators got to shine in public, Speights, who's 6-foot-10 and athletic and probably could've started in plenty of other frontcourts, was encouraged to focus on something else. Assistant coach Larry Shyatt called it "the importance of three-to-five."
Three-to-five, as in, 3-5 p.m. Practice time. "There, he was competing against some of the best large men in the country," said Shyatt, who likened the situation to what he and Donovan had at Providence in the mid-90's, where the careers of future NBA forwards Michael Smith, Dickey Simpkins, Eric Williams and Austin Croshere overlapped.
"I assume everyone told [the Friars' bigs] not to go there together," said Shyatt. "But they thrived on competition."
Speights, too, learned to thrive as the Gator Boys' de facto apprentice. He averaged 4.1 points in just 5.7 minutes per game in 2006-07, earning the nickname "Instant O" for his proclivity for scoring in the short bursts he was allotted.
His real development, though, occurred inside Florida's basketball facility. Shyatt recalls that by mid-February, Speights had progressed to the point that he led the subs to scrimmage victories over the starters on back-to-back days for the first time.
And so, when Speights was called upon for a surprise relief appearance in the national title game against Ohio State, he didn't choke. It was far from mop-up duty; Florida's strategy not to double-team the post got Horford, Noah, and even Richard in foul trouble. Speights was needed to defend a freshman slightly more famous than he: Greg Oden.
Oden scored five points with Speights guarding him for the final 2:06 of the first half, but the Buckeyes failed to trim the 11-point lead that the Gators had when Speights first hit the floor. The Gators' green freshmen then returned for a key four-minute, 23-second stretch in the second, at 15:16. He held Oden scoreless -- and knocked down a jumper that was a dagger for an Ohio State team that thought it had a reprieve while Noah and Richard were on the bench.
Speights played as if he were unfazed by the mighty Oden, who would go on to be the No. 1 pick in the '07 NBA Draft. "I used to guard my guys in practice all the time," said Speights, "and I think they're better than [Oden], so it was nothing."
Speights, who had also scored 16 points in a first-round rout of Jackson State, began to appear on draft boards for 2009. His name is currently ninth on DraftExpress' '09 mock and 24th on NBADraft.net's, impressive standing for a home-grown (St. Petersburg, Fla.) kid who didn't start playing organized basketball until the 10th grade.
Using close-to-home comparisons, there are expectations that he'll have Noah-like freshman-to-sophomore explosion and emerge as a Horford-like force in the post. Florida needs that to happen, considering that Speights is the only true big man remaining in the wake of the Oh-Fours' early departures and Richard's graduation.
There's a picture that was taken soon after the buzzer sounded on the title game, showing nearly all of the Gators celebrating in a pack, while Speights is off by himself, holding up his arms toward the crowd. His mom put the photo on his birthday cake in August, when he turned 20. Part of the summer was about him and the remaining Gators -- Walter Hodge, Dan Werner, Brandon Powell and Jonathan Mitchell -- separating themselves from the Oh-Fours and beginning to forge a new identity. From April until summer break, when Florida's Class of '07 freshmen arrived, he said the practice gym often felt empty, and "reality kicked in."
In late June, Speights went to the White House to be recognized for winning the national championship, and because the NBA draft was a week away, none of the Gators' old stars were part of the traveling party.
Making the summer much stranger was the matter of Donovan's brief departure to the Orlando Magic in early June. It was a move that, had it stuck, could have prevented Speights from reaching his full potential in college. "I tried to convince him to come back," Speights said of Donovan. "But he's a grown man, it was his choice. All I said was, 'You're the one who brought us in, and we wanted to play under you. We wish you wouldn't leave, but if you leave, it's your choice.'"
Donovan changed his mind one day after taking the Magic job. Not for Speights' sake; the coach decided that he'd rather continue building the Gators dynasty than get churned up and spit out of the NBA's coaching carousel.
The fact that he had the next Gators star ripe and ready to end his apprenticeship, though, was quite the bonus.