Mike Rosario shows newfound maturity, commitment at surging Florida
On Feb. 11, 2012, Mike Rosario was not playing a basketball game for Florida. The hip pointer dictated that, yet another nagging affliction shoveled onto his ever-swelling collection. But Rosario could work. Trainer Dave "Duke" Werner advised that sitting around wasn't helping, and a flourish of activity might hasten recovery. Rosario countered by saying he couldn't go. The hip hurt too much.
After more prodding and counter-protests, Werner insisted Rosario get dressed, put on sneakers and prepare to break a sweat during the team's shootaround in order to gauge the injury. Rosario finally agreed. A short while later the Gators took the floor, prepping for a showdown with Tennessee. Mike Rosario emerged wearing flip-flops.
Per Billy Donovan, Werner detonated like a holiday fireworks grand finale. What is your problem? Donovan asked Rosario. What are you doing? Then came the supplications, the explanations of pain too great to bear, to which Donovan offered a razor-wire coaching point: Hey, Mike, that's not flying here.
In the midst of a quietly revelatory final season, Mike Rosario wonders why he ever thought it could fly at all. "That's something I adapted to, too, in a sense," he said. "Now, I understand he's not going to tell me anything to hurt me. Now, if 'Dukie' tells me, Mike, this is not going to hurt you if you go out there and do this and that, then I'm on it. I'm jumping on it."
As the fourth-ranked Gators welcome Ole Miss on Saturday, the 6-foot-3-inch guard from Jersey City, N.J., by way of Rutgers, finally has both feet in. Once a prep supernova expected to redeem his home-state program, Rosario is enjoying deliverance of a different kind, ranking third on his team in minutes (29.1) and points (11.9) per game while shooting at career-best rates. Never mind his comfort with coaches and staffers; it's payout from a trust established by Rosario's own recalibrated approach.
"I said, Mike, I give you a backyard to play in. OK?" Donovan said. "You got a backyard to play in right now. The problem with you last year is you kept jumping over the fence. You were in somebody else's backyard. So now what I have to do is, all of a sudden now, we gotta like tie you to the tree, for fear of jumping over the fence. Just play in your backyard. You don't need to be four houses down. Be where you're supposed to be. You'll expand what you do when you show a level of accountability."
Donovan hastens to note none of the failings were five-alarm misdeeds, that he in fact loves his veteran guard's heart, loves how Rosario puts an arm around a teammate scuffling through practice or asks the coach how he feels when Donovan has a cold. But 25 missed practices last season were 25 missed practices. And that idle chatter can't be ignored in the context of, say, backcourt mate Kenny Boynton missing an estimated two workouts in four years.
The gilded prep career at famed St. Anthony led to abdicating his focal role in a rebuilding effort at Rutgers, which led to all of 14.4 minutes per game in 2011-12 when Rosario returned to action post-transfer. The Gators backcourt teemed with talent like Boynton, Bradley Beal and Erving Walker. Rosario exacerbated the challenge by permitting back issues here or hip issues there to sidetrack him. You guys don't know how much it hurts, he'd plead. It all precipitated a postseason sit-down with Donovan in which Rosario sought assurances he'd get a chance. The coach told the player nothing would change unless he did.
Signs of slippage triggered the September talk. Donovan told Rosario he would not play unless he met three conditions: He couldn't miss a class, he couldn't miss a practice if the medical staff deemed him able and when he played, he had to play the right way. The invisible fence had been erected. Rosario has missed two workouts since.
"We had that conversation and I basically wanted to come to a conclusion -- OK, coach, I want to do everything possible for me to have the best senior year of my life," Rosario said. "There was a lot of questions everyone was asking. Why did Mike transfer? Why did he do this, why did he do that? It was to better my future, and for me to get better. I felt that in those areas I have improved especially as a man, taking on responsibilities and taking on ownership. Now coach can really sit there and say, OK, I trust Mike in this situation. That's the trust I wanted to build with coach and we're finally there."
That the journey was so arduous and gloomy was perplexing given the buoyant, considerate personality involved. When Florida visited Shands Hospital for Children, Rosario vigorously dived into one-on-one matchups with patients awaiting transplants or cancer treatments, while tentative teammates lingered back. At the St. Francis House for the homeless on Thanksgiving, Rosario delivered trays of food and then sat down for conversations with those he served. "He's a good dude, who has a great heart for people who need help," Boynton said.
Then there are Rosario's formative basketball years spent at unyielding St. Anthony under legendary coach Bob Hurley. When he considered Florida as a new home, Rosario explicitly told Donovan he wanted to be held accountable. He got what he asked for and, ironically, wilted. One working theory: Rutgers' dire need for Rosario to thrive under any circumstances, combined with the program's doldrums, softened what had been a die-cast mentality.
"I feel like that all came from me going from winning so many games in high school and then not knowing how to handle losing," Rosario said. "Losing for those two years at Rutgers brought down a little bit of that winning aspect in me, because I was just so used to winning, and when you go 3-16 in conference or whatever the case may be, thoughts start to run through your head."
Those thoughts no longer betray him. Rosario has battled multiple maladies this year, the latest being a toe injury. Before a Wednesday game against South Carolina, Boynton overheard his roommate telling trainers he wasn't all the way there while getting taped. That night, Rosario played 25 minutes and tied for the team-high with 15 points on 6-for-11 shooting in a 39-point blowout. "I know he was in pain, but he never complained," Boynton said. "He just goes out and plays. No one from the outside would know Mike seemed hurt."
He has gone from making things difficult on himself to making things painless for everyone. "When he's better at attacking and then realizing 'I really don't have something, and I probably shouldn't create something,' and he starts incorporating the other guys on the floor, he makes the game easier for other guys," Donovan said. "When he plays the game the right way and gets guys open looks and moves and passes the ball, it really adds a different element to our team."
Ask Rosario the last time he was this happy playing basketball, and he rewinds to 2008 and his final season at St. Anthony. That team was, well, preposterous, featuring Rosario and Travon Woodall and Dominic Cheek and Tyshawn Taylor. Six future Division I players filled the rotation. Rosario was one of several glimmering cogs, a piece, for a regimented and dominant outfit. He lost sight after that. But it's in looking back that he sees clearly what lies ahead.
"This team reminds me a lot of that team because we enjoy playing with each other, and most importantly, we all are focused on one thing as a team, and that's to win, win, win," Rosario said. "No matter what it is, no matter what we gotta go though, on the road or at home, at the end of the game we have to win. That's something my teammates understand on this Florida team. We gotta worry about what's going on now. Not what happened in the past, not what happened two days ago. It's on to the next. We have to be living in the now."
Brian Hamilton is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @ChiTribHamilton.
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