Wednesday, October 22, 2008

MVG

Every day I ask myself a lot of questions. How safe is Pennsylvania for Obama? Did I make a mistake earning a journalism degree? If a Gummi Bear fought a Care Bear, who would win?

But the truly vexing question is this: who was the most important player on the 2005-2007 Florida Gator basketball teams that won back-to-back national championships?

The conventional wisdom after their first championship was that the Gators were a collection of unimpressive talent propelled to victory by great coaching and teamwork. After they won a second championship and three players were taken early in the first round of the NBA draft, that storyline faded away. It is true, however, that those teams were successful because the individual parts meshed with each other. While that made them beautiful to watch, it also has the effect of making a breakdown complicated. Remove one piece from the puzzle and the picture is much less impressive. So singling out one starter as the most important is difficult.

But as the Roman poet Horace once said, "Nothing is too high for the daring of mortals. We analyze national championship college basketball teams and vote for Sarah Palin in our folly." So let's storm some heavens. The candidates:

1. Al Horford, PF, 11.3 points per game in 05-06, 13.2 PPG in 06-07
The leading candidate because he was almost certainly the best player on those teams. He was the highest NBA draft choice (taken third overall in the 2007 draft), nearly won the Rookie of the Year award and should have the best NBA career of anyone listed here. Horford was the go-to guy in big situations; by the end of his career he had crafted a subtle and well-rounded offensive game. He could bull through defenders in the low post and hit perimeter jumpers from just inside the three-point line. His court vision and passing skills were outstanding. He was a key component in UF's last line of defense. The Gators' lone defensive weakness were the guards; Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey lacked the size and athleticism to stick with elite slashers. But Horford provided an emergency relief valve for Green and Humphrey; if they were beaten, they could still rely on their big men to block the shot.

2. Joakim Noah, C, 14.2 PPG in 05-06, 12.0 PPG in 06-07
My favorite member of this team, one of my two favorite athletes of all-time and generally one of my favorite people. I think the greatest compliment I can give him is to say that in some small way the world would be a duller place without Joakim Noah's existence. He's a strange dude off the court and a just slightly less duller place on it. You haven't lived until you've seen a gangly, pony-tailed, seven-foot-tall center leading the fast break. It's an experience. Joakim was the emotional heart of these teams (for what that's worth) and the second part of that stalwart defensive back line; together with Horford he succeeded in blocking and altering countless shots. UCLA head coach Ben Howland still has nightmares about Noah erasing every scoring opportunity in the 2006 Championship Game. But he was rather limited on the offensive end. He had no perimeter game to speak of, and John Wooden's eyesight never recovered after the first time he witnessed Jo's jump shot. (Though it should be pointed out that despite his pathetic form he was still a pretty good free throw shooter for a guy of his size; he hit 68 percent of his free throws during his time at UF, 73 percent in 05-06) Like Horford, he had exceptional vision and passing skills.

3. Corey Brewer, SF, 12.7 PPG in 05-06, 13.2 PPG in 06-07
A ferocious defender, Brewer was the guy Billy Donovan threw on the other team's best defender. Arron Afflalo sees Brewer and his absurd wingspan in his sleep. Corey was, in short, the defensive stopper on these teams. He clocked in at 6-9, tall enough to guard power forwards and the occasional center, but was fast and athletic enough to hang with guards. When Brewer played through mono at far less than 100 percent against Kansas in 2006, the Gators lost their first game of the season. When he sat out the game against Florida State, the Gators lost their second game of the season thanks to an explosive performance from Al Thornton. (They did win the games he missed against Providence and Southern but, well...you know, I think you get where the "but" is leading in this parenthetical.) He was a dynamic and infuriating offensive player, nicknamed "The Drunken Dribbler" by his teammates. For every defensive stop followed by a fast break and rim-rattling dunk there was a defensive stop followed by an out-of-control careening around and through every one of the nine other players on the floor and an eventual turnover. The Corey Brewer Experience was certainly that.

4. Taurean Green, PG, 13.3 PPG in 05-06, 13.3 PPG in 06-7
Point guards on championship teams take on almost mythical airs. They're credited with supernatural powers of charisma and leadership; by the time Michigan State won the national championship in 2000 Mateen Cleaves was regarded as a cross between Gandhi and Optimus Prime. Taurean wasn't a glamor player, but he was given much the same treatment. Very few players could go 0-for-7 from the field, score two points, dish eight assists in a national championship game and get lionized for the performance. But this is reading as overly harsh. Green (barely) led the team in scoring in 06-07 and was behind only Noah in 05-06. He was a lethal three-point shooter, especially coming off screens. He did get a little too much credit for his "game-manager" skills; he wasn't able to put up 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratios in either season, and he didn't have the athleticism to penetrate and dish like the elite point guards.

5. Lee Humphrey Not Just A Shooter, SG, 10.9 PPG in 05-06, 10.3 PPG in 06-07
Lee's certainly got the worst case here. Donovan and various announcers were obsessed with insisting that Humphrey was "Not Just a Shooter;" he could barely touch the ball in an ESPN-televised game without having that phrase immediately uttered by some excitable commentator. Well, he was just a shooter, Donovan's laughable claim that he was a lockdown on-the-ball defender notwithstanding. In 2005-2006 Humphrey took 299 shots; 246 were three-pointers. In 2006-2007 he took 305 shots; 246 were three-pointers. (As a wonderfully dorky aside, Humphrey was 113-of-246 from beyond the arc in both championship season) He shot a total of 43 free throws in two seasons. Humphrey was just a shooter. He was also an extraordinary shooter, an assassin who played a huge role in Florida's offensive gameplan. Opponents had a difficult choice when the Gators threw the ball into Noah or Horford: try to guard two future NBA big men one-on-one, or double team and leave someone open on the perimeter. Noah and Horford had the smarts and vision to find the open player, and if that player was Humphrey, the inevitable result was a three-pointer. He was deadly in both championship games, but his performance against Ohio State in the second was extraordinary. Time after time the Buckeyes would pull the game closer, and time after time Humphrey drove them to the ground with a three pointer.

The answer to our original question, I think, is Brewer, largely because he was the Most Irreplaceable Gator. He had no real back-up in either season; when he sat out, either with the aforementioned mono or an ankle sprain the Gators went to a small three guard lineup. That was their default setting last year, when Donovan was rebuilding after the loss of these five players. Horford was a better overall player but could more credibly be replaced by back-up big men Chris Richard and Marreese Speights. Much the same could be said about Joakim. Green was equally hard to replace, but simply wasn't as good as Brewer. Unsurprisingly Humphrey lags behind in this discussion; his game was too limited to lift him into the same category as the other four.

1 comment:

Tanto said...

Care Bear, duh.