Men's Basketball Headline
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Remember the exhilaration of those back-to-back NCAA championships?
Just a decade earlier, the University of Florida had a virtual bare plate of tradition to feast on, yet there the program was in 2006 and 2007 ascending to heights unmatched by even some of the true blue bloods of the game -- Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Indiana -- during college basketball's modern era.
Never has there been a greater Gator climb.
Or a more agonizing fall.
"The guys who came after them had no clue," UF coach Billy Donovan has said.
For Donovan, the 2008 and 2009 seasons brought levels of frustration the likes of which he wasn't prepared for. At the apex of his exasperation, Donovan kicked his team out of the UF basketball complex -- unworthy of its walls, he reasoned -- and made the team practice at a high school across from campus. It wasn't for lack of talent as much as a lack of winning intangibles.
Part of the blame fell to Joakim Noah, Al Horford and friends. The standard they set in practice, preparation, focus and fortitude was unmatched and thus hung an unattainable bar of expectation for those that followed.
Result: back to back trips to the NIT.
The road back to relevancy began in the 2009-10 season and continues to wind through the Southeastern Conference (and beyond) more than three years later. Kenny Boynton and Erik Murphy were freshmen when the orange-and-blue reboot began. Mike Rosario arrived a year later, via transfer from Rutgers, to further the cause.
Florida won the SEC in 2011.
Boynton, Murphy and Rosario -- 99 wins, two SEC championships, four NCAA berths, a pair of Elite Eights and more than 3,400 points later -- will say goodbye Wednesday when the trio is honored in a pre-game ceremony before the 11th-ranked Gators (23-5, 13-3) take on Vanderbilt (13-15, 7-9) in the team's final home game of the season.
The families of all three will be on hand for what figures to be as emotional as any moment they've experienced on the O'Connell Center floor.
"I know my mom is going to cry," Rosario grinned.
Murphy went one better.
"I'm definitely going to cry," he said.
"I don't think so," he said.
We'll see about that.
Four years of memories jammed into a few minutes of recognition -- surrounded by loved ones -- has a way of getting through the thickest of skins.
Even a Gator's skin.
Here are their stories, thumbnail style.
>>> KENNY BOYNTON: Volume shooter, volume player
A top-10 national prospect and the most heralded player to come out of Florida in years, Boynton had his pick of any school and the country.
And most everybody thought he was going to pick Duke.
Boynton, though, committed to UF and gave Donovan a recruit he had to have at the time, given how the wheels were spinning with the program.
He arrived in Gainesville with tremendous fanfare and started from Day 1 for a team that went back to the NCAA Tournament.
"I didn't think I'd be here four years," Boynton said.
He was the No. 2-rated guard in the nation, behind only John Wall. After scoring 33 points a game at Plantation American Heritage -- with a career-high of 61 -- Boynton had the look of a rare Gators one-and-done, but four seasons later he's remained a UF constant and now ranks as the No. 2 scorer in school history with 1,940 points and who-knows-how-many-more to go.
"He will go down as one of the best to ever play here," Donovan said.
The streaky Boynton has had his rough stretches, be them runs of cold-shooting games or last-second shots that did not fall. But in addition to being a volume shooter (1,591 field-goal attempts rank No. 1 all-time), Boynton has been a volume competitor, missing just two practices and starting all but three games his entire career (with a play UF-record 4,414 minutes).
Boynton may not have thought he'd be at Florida in 2013, but he'll leave with his name throughout the record book and as one of the winningest players in program history.
"After the season, I'll look back on my career," he said.
Like all Gators, he hopes the time for that reflection is at least a month away.
>>> ERIK MURPHY: Stretch 4 nightmare
Even when he was a gangly big man in high school, Murphy picked his moments to float around the perimeter and shoot the long ball.
Not that it was in his blood. His father, Boston College star Jay Murphy, was a big-time scorer and rebounder, but made most of his living around the paint.
Things started slowly at UF for Erik, who averaged less than four points a game his first two seasons and contemplated transferring after his sophomore year.
"It was tough. I had a lot of people telling me a lot of different things," Murphy recalled. "When it really came down to it, I talked with Coach and the thing he said was, 'What do you really want to do? It's your life. You've got to make a decision for yourself.' For myself, I loved it here and wanted to stay here. When I really thought about it, it was a pretty easy decision."
And a good one. For both parties.
In the last two years, not only has Murphy flourished in Donovan's system to become one of the best 3-point shooters in the country (currently 46.4 percent), he is one of the true match-up dilemmas in all of college basketball. Not many teams want to commit a post player to running the 3-point line, but that's the beauty (and luxury) of having a "stretch 4" power forward.
Murphy, at 43.7, is on pace to finish in the top five in school history in career 3-point percentage.
Earlier this year, the Gators played a game at Yale, about 80 miles from Murphy's home town of South Kingstown, R.I. Two buses of family and friends made the trip, only to learn upon arrival a broken rib suffered during practice had sidelined him for the game.
Murphy won't have two busloads pulling into the O'Dome lot Wednesday, but a handful of family members will be there.
"It snuck up, no question," he said of his swan-song home game. "It's hard to really grasp."
Last year, Murphy watched from the bench as UF's lone senior, point guard Erving Walker, took the senior day walk to halfcourt and into his mother's arms. Walker, an emotional cyborg, had tears in his eyes.
"That goes to show how much emotion comes with that because of how much everybody's invested in the team and the program," he said. "When you finally come to the realization that it's your last game at school here, it's something special."
>>> MIKE ROSARIO: Rough transition was worth it
A playground and high school legend from New Jersey, Rosario was the first McDonald's All-American to play at nearby Rutgers -- and he did not disappoint.
Try more than 1,000 points his first two seasons in the Big East Conference.
But Rosario, who played for the prep powerhouse Jersey City St. Anthony's, had trouble playing for a conference bottom-feeder -- not to mention trouble with his coach -- and went looking for a chance to play for championships.
Once a Gator, hello reality check.
"I knew the transition was going to be tough, especially from the position that I was in before, playing 36 to 38 minutes and scoring 17 points every game," Rosario said. "Basically, it was going to be a whole new chapter."
Rosario sat out the 2010-11 league title season under NCAA transfer rules, then spent much of '11-12 butting heads with Donovan -- or "Coach Billy," as Rosario calls him -- on everything from on-court decisions to practice participation to off-court responsibilities.
"I still stuck it out," said Rosario, who averaged just over 14 minutes per game and only 5.6 points against SEC teams. "You have to be accountable for everything you're doing. That's something I've learned since I've been here. You have to understand those things, make the right choices and the right decisions. I really trust him."
In '12-13, Rosario leads the Gators in scoring at 12.9 points per game and has been one of the team's most consistent performers in SEC play. That doesn't mean the road hasn't been rocky. Rosario, in fact, was benched just last game for his in-game decisions against Alabama. His replacement, Casey Prather, was spectacular in relief.
Rosario was equally great on the sidelines in cheering his teammates on for one of the biggest wins of the season.
"He was absolutely phenomenal on the bench," Donovan said. "I've really got a lot of respect for Mike in that part of it. Winning is important to him."
Tonight, Rosario (and his fellow seniors) can win a championship all to themselves in the final time on their homecourt.
Can there be a better way to go out?
"No," Rosario said. "It's perfect."
GATORS GAME BOX
Vanderbilt at No. 11 Florida
Tip-off: Wednesday, 8 p.m. (O'Connell Center, Gainesville, Fla.)
Records: Florida 23-5, 13-3 (SEC); Vanderbilt 13-15, 7-9 (SEC)
TV: SEC Network (Dave Neal and Barry Booker)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 134/XM 199
Need to know: The Gators have already locked up a share of the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship -- their sixth in the program's 80-year affiliation with the league -- but can claim the title outright by beating the Commodores. A UF win would give the Gators no worse than a two-game lead over Alabama and Kentucky with just one regular-season date remaining. ... Florida is 14-0 at home this season and can wrap up the second unbeaten season at the O'Connell Center under Coach Billy Donovan. UF went 18-0 during the 2006-07 season en route to a second straight NCAA title. ... The Gators have fallen back in the SEC pack relative to their offensive production, failing to reach 70 points in five of the previous eight games, but they remain atop the league in scoring defense (53.4 ppg), defensive field-goal percentage (.376) and 3-point percentage defense (.299). ... Vanderbilt leads the all-time series 64-60, but UF is 22-12 against the Commodores under Donovan, with wins in four of the previous five meetings. ... The Gators are led by senior guard Mike Rosario (12.9 ppg), who struggled in Saturday's comeback win over Alabama and was benched for nearly all the final 11 minutes. Despite going 2-for-7 from the floor and 0-for-5 from the 3-point line against the Crimson Tide, Rosario is averaging 13.7 points and shooting 45.5 percent against SEC opponents. ... Also against Alabama, senior guard Kenny Boynton (12.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg) became the No. 2 scorer in school history with 1,940 points, while classmate and forward Erik Murphy (12.4 ppg, 5 rpg) has made 46.4 of his 3s this season. ... Backup forward Casey Prather is playing the best of his career and is on pace to become just the third player in UF history to shoot at least 65 percent with at least 100 field-goal attempts. Heading into the game, Prather has made 59 of his 90 shots (65.6) and is averaging 6.8 points per game, but 9.3 over his last seven. ... After losing six of eight, Vandy has strung together three straight wins (against Mississippi State, Georgia and Auburn) and is trying to avoid playing in the new Wednesday opening round of the SEC Tournament. ... The Commodores rank next to last in the SEC in scoring at 60.2 points per game, but more than a third of their points come from the 3-point line, where Vandy ranks third in the league at 35.7 percent. Almost 38 percent of their field goals this season have come behind the arc. ... The team that shocked No. 1 Kentucky (unbeaten throughout SEC play) in the finals of the conference tournament last season was gutted by the graduation of seven seniors. ... These Commodores are led by 6-4 guard Kedren Johnson (13.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg) and 6-9 forward Rod Odom (10.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg). ... Five Vandy players shot 35 percent or better from the 3-point line, topped by 6-5 guard Kevin Bright (7 ppg, 5.6 rpg) at 44.3. Bright was named SEC Freshman of the Week after combining to average 12.5 points, 7 rebounds and 58.3 shooting against Georgia and Auburn, making a 3-point shot 0.8 seconds to play in a 1-point win over the Bulldogs.