NCAA champions anchor Florida basketball's all-time starting 5
Editor’s note: SDS will roll out every SEC team’s all-time starting 5 as we gear up for March Madness. The series starts with Florida, the last team to win back-to-back national championships.
GAINESVILLE — Florida basketball is a national brand these days, and an elite, winning one.
It hasn’t always been this way, of course. The program had little in the way of positive history before 1996, with only five NCAA Tournament appearances (two vacated by the NCAA in scandal), one SEC Championship and one magical Final Four run, in 1994, under journeyman program-fixer Lon Kruger.
But ever since former Athletic Director Jeremy Foley took a chance on a young New Yorker named Billy Donovan, with Final Four credentials as a player and assistant but little experience as a head coach, the Gators’ fortunes have changed dramatically.
Since 2000, the Gators are one of the 10 winningest basketball programs in the NCAA, completing the evolution from perennial doormat to national powerhouse.
In that time span, Florida has won 6 regular season SEC Championships, four SEC Tournament championships, completed the first 21-0 SEC campaign (18-0 in conference, 3-0 SEC Tournament) in league history, reached four Final Fours and of course won two national championships. They’ve also advanced to the Elite 8 on eight occasions. Only bona fide blue bloods Kansas, North Carolina, Kentucky have advanced to as many or more Elite 8s this century.
And while Donovan’s departure caused many to wonder if Florida’s emergence as a burgeoning basketball power would be short lived, Mike White is proving himself to be a more than capable heir to the program Donovan built, guiding Florida to the Elite 8 last season and set to receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament again come Selection Sunday.
With outstanding facilities, a beautifully renovated arena, and another highly-regarded recruiting class on the way, the future for Florida basketball appears bright.
Great success usually means you’ve had some great players, and Florida is no different.
Florida has served as the college destination for multiple future NBA lottery picks, NBA draft picks and NBA All-Stars over the past 20 years, and the end result of all that talent passing through Gainesville has been plenty of winning.
But even with all the great players who have graced Florida’s program, picking an all-time Florida starting 5 wasn’t as difficult as you might imagine.
— Everything Gator (@EverythingGator) October 9, 2014
Here’s the All-Time Gators starting 5.
Point Guard: Scottie Wilbekin (2010-2014)
Choosing the best point guard at Florida was a brutally difficult task.
On the one hand, Dan Cross, who led Florida to the Final Four under Lon Kruger in 1994, merited consideration, and Cross was especially spectacular when the lights were brightest in the NCAA Tournament. And Ronnie Montgomery’s vision helped pace the great, albeit dirty, NCAA squads of the late 1980s.
On the other hand, Billy Donovan was a Zen master at identifying point guard talent and developing it, and the list of point guards in his tenure reads like a “Who’s Who” in leadership, from the playground balling of Jason “White Chocolate” Williams to the brilliant and crafty Eddie Shannon to the tenacious Justin Hamilton to the versatile Brett Nelson to the fireplug that was 5-9 Erving Walker to the lighting speed and defensive intensity of Kasey Hill.
But in the end, two names stood above the rest: current guard Chris Chiozza, a highly-touted, crafty, quick, tough and quiet leader from Memphis who just set Florida’s career assist record, and Scottie Wilbekin.
In the end, Wilbekin was Florida’s most complete point guard of all time.
Wilbekin was a diamond-in-the-rough Donovan plucked from his own backyard, and the 6-2 guard was so eager to get to UF he skipped his senior year of high school and enrolled at Florida a year early. That decision, according to Donovan, probably impacted Wilbekin from a maturity standpoint throughout his career at Florida, and Wilbekin spent time suspended and in Donovan’s doghouse at various points.
A defensive specialist early in his career, Wilbekin was a two-time selection to the All-SEC defensive team. As his career progressed, so did his shooting percentage, improving from 28 percent behind the arc and 35 percent overall as a freshman to 39 percent behind the arc and 40 percent overall as a senior. Wilbekin finished his career with an assist to turnover ratio of nearly 3 to 1, and he is one of only give Gators (Chiozza, Shannon, Nelson, Hill) to be in the top 10 in school history in assists and steals.
Wilbekin was best when it counted most, and helped Florida advance to at least the Elite 8 all four years he was on campus, reaching the Final Four as a senior while collecting SEC Player of the Year honors and leading the team to a school-record 30 consecutive victories and unbeaten SEC record.
It’s enough for a close win over Eddie Shannon, who helped Donovan lay the foundation for his empire, and Chiozza, who will lead this group into the NCAA Tournament.
Shooting Guard: Mike Miller (1998-2000)
There’s a great story from Chris Harry, who does fine work covering Gators basketball for Floridagators.com, about Mike Miller’s return to Gainesville to the Auburn game. The short version is that as Miller took the floor to receive an ovation from the crowd as a Gators great, a fan in the stands said: “That’s the guy who started it all.”
With Florida basketball, that’s largely true.
As critical as Eddie Shannon was to the success of the early Donovan teams, no recruit was bigger than Mike Miller.
A South Dakotan who grew up shooting basketballs into a barn door until dusk- yes, he was almost straight out of the movie Hoosiers– Miller, a 6-8 McDonald’s All-American with astonishing skills, stunned the college basketball world when he spurned Roy Williams and Kansas, who had recruited him since ninth grade, to sign with a young coaching staff led by Donovan, over a thousand miles from home.
Miller simply “wanted to do something different, and be a part of starting something,” he would tell me years later.
Boy did he ever.
Miller was a key player on a Sweet 16 team as a freshman who blossomed quickly into an All-SEC talent and the team’s leading scorer and second-leading rebounder as a sophomore.
And of course, he hit that shot, which helped Florida escape a first round 5-12 upset to a plucky little school named Butler, and advance all the way to the National Championship game in 2000, where it lost to Michigan State.
Miller went on to become selected No. 5 overall by Orlando in the 2000 draft, win the NBA Rookie of the Year in 2001 and NBA Sixth Man of the Year award in 2006, and collect two NBA championship rings as a key bench player for the Miami Heat.
But mainly, he’s the guy who started it all at Florida.
Small Forward: Corey Brewer (2004-2007)
Stacy Poole could score prolifically, despite multiple injuries and a lack of surrounding talent. Chandler Parsons was marvelous and the first Donovan acolyte to win SEC Player of the Year. Matt Bonner was the Red Mamba, the astute, crafty, pick and pop legend who fit like a glove in Donovan’s motion offenses.
But the pick is still Brewer.
The lone McDonald’s All-American from Florida’s historic “04s” recruiting class, Brewer was a highly-decorated athletic swing man from Portland, Tennessee and the only of the 04s to start from Day 1 as a freshman.
Brewer averaged 13 points a game as a Gator and was named the Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four in 2007 in pacing Florida’s run to a second consecutive national championship.
But it was the lanky wing’s work on the defensive end that earned him acclaim. His length gave him the ability to guard elite wings and his quickness the ability to guard elite guards, and Brewer quickly became the one of college basketball’s elite stoppers.
His work on UCLA star Aaron Afflalo was critical to Florida winning its first national championship in 2006, and Afflalo was clearly rattled by the prospect of facing off with Brewer a year later in the Final Four. An early UCLA substitution of Afflalo for a young Russell Westbrook didn’t work either, because- you guessed it, Corey Brewer.
His length on the perimeter clearly bothered Ohio State in the 2007 championship game, too, one of the key reasons the Buckeyes shot 4-for-23 from behind the arc.
Brewer tallied 176 steals in his career, good for No. 7 all-time despite only playing three seasons, and his 69 thefts as a junior are the second-most in a single-season in school history.
He was drafted No. 7 overall by the Timberwolves, and has played 11 seasons in the NBA, winning a championship with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011.
Power Forward: Al Horford (2004-2007)
Believe it or not, this was the toughest debate.
In the end, it was just about keeping the band together, which is why Al Horford edges Gators great Neal Walk for a spot in the Gator All-Time Starting 5.
Walk would be the team’s Sixth Man, if we had one. A truly dominant big with great feet, Walk was Florida’s first basketball All-American and remains the program’s leader in scoring average (20.8 points a game). He still stands 8th all-time in points and remains first all-time in rebounds and rebounds per game (a crazy 15.3!). He helped Florida earn its first postseason tournament bid — to the NIT in 1969, and was selected second in the draft, behind only Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) in that year’s NBA Draft. He played 12 years professionally and to this day remains the only player to have his number retired by Florida.
Nevertheless, the choice here is Horford, the steady and quiet yin to Joakim Noah’s passionate and fiery yang.
Like Walk, Horford’s dominance in the orange and blue was staggering.
“Big Al” remains in the top 10 all-time at Florida in rebounds, blocked shots, double-doubles, field goal percentage and dunks made. His 187 assists are most among Florida forwards or centers in a career as well, and a great testament to his versatility, which has served him well in the NBA, where he has made five NBA All-Star teams.
An All-American in 2007, Horford helped Florida fell upset bids from Purdue and Butler in regional action before scoring 11 points and adding 11 boards competing against Ohio State’s Greg Oden in the national championship game.
Center: Joakim Noah (2004-2007)
Was there any other option?
The least highly-regarded of the 04s, Noah’s relentless work-ethic and motor helped him transform from a freshman fan-favorite largely resigned to the end of Donovan’s bench to the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player as a sophomore.
Because Noah played so sparingly as a freshman, his name isn’t all over the Florida record books.
But make no mistake — the gargantuan nature of that leap is the largest reason Florida captured its first national championship, and his play against UCLA in the national championship game, where he scored 16 points, grabbed 9 rebounds and blocked NCAA Championship game record 6 shots, landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Noah’s gregarious personality, oddball pony tail looks and swagger made him reviled by opposing fans, but revered him to Gator nation. When he opted to return for his junior season, despite whispers that he would have been the first pick in the NBA Draft, his legendary status at Florida was cemented forever.
And that was before he helped the Gators win back-to-back national championships.
— Sentinel Sports (@orlandosports) February 20, 2016
How Good is this team? A “Scout’s” Take:
I’ll take this five against any SEC All-Time 5 and like my chances. But here’s what Kevin Brockway, the longtime Gators basketball beat writer from the Gainesville Sun and without question one of the best in the basketball writing business had to say about my team:
“Noah, Horford and Brewer will go down as the greatest Gator frontline in history, and one of the most underrated college basketball frontlines ever,” Brockway said.
“Wilbekin had all the intangibles of a great leader and defender at the point guard position, though many around the program will tell you that Vernon Maxwell, though unreliable, was the best pure talent to ever wear a Gator basketball uniform. Another great frontline player from the late 1960s was Neal Walk, who remains Florida’s all-time leader in rebounding and was taken second overall in the 1969 NBA Draft behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. All in all, though, a formidable starting five.”