How do you solve a problem like Mike Rosario?
That is the question Florida Gators head coach Billy Donovan was faced with both throughout the 2011-12 season and when it concluded last March.
How do you transform a player who only cares about scoring, makes poor decisions with the basketball and is quick to miss practice with injuries into someone who gives great effort defensively, takes care not to commit turnovers and plays through pain?
Put his career and his life in his own hands and make him take a good, hard look at what might happen if he fails to improve and succeed in his last opportunity.
“It wasn’t so much an ultimatum. It was a [choice of] you make the decision of what do you want. If you don’t want this, I’m OK. I totally get it. Totally understand, not a problem,” Donovan said on Monday. “I had no bitter feelings towards Mike last year, and I don’t think he had any bitter feelings towards me. It was a disconnect of me holding him accountable to the things that he needed to do that would be good for himself and good for our team.”
Donovan continued, “He really got to a crossroads at the end of last year where, ‘Am I going to do what’s being asked of me or do I want to move on and do something else?’ Really, the ball was put in his court. It was pretty clear.
“You need to practice every day, OK? You need to play the right way. You need to take care of your responsibilities off the court. If you can’t do those three things, I’m not going to play you. You’re not going to play. But it’s in your court. If you do those things, then your ability, your talent will get a chance to help our team and you’ll be in a position to play as much as you want to play.”
Now less than three full months into the 2012-13 season and with the team off to a 14-2 start, Rosario looks like a completely different player. Sure, he can still be careless with the ball on occasion, but Donovan will happily accept those occasional miscues considering the type of player Rosario has become otherwise.
He is working hard on the defensive end, passing up open shots to move the basketball, getting his teammates involved, improving as a leader and (as a result) playing 29 minutes per game – 15 more than he was a season ago.
Rosario has also been the Gators’ leading scorer on numerous occasions and is second on the team in scoring average with 12.5 points per game. He is even proving to be the team’s most consistent shooter in the backcourt, statistically speaking, as he leads Florida in all three categories.
Though he is the one that had to make the initial decision to turn around his career, Rosario credits Donovan with being a driving force and big-time motivator.
“I understood where he was coming from. I knew last year, I felt like in my play I didn’t really bring nothing to the team. That’s what really bothered me because I’m a competitive guy. I love to compete and I love for my teammates to reach out for me. I felt like last year I did not play my role and do my job the way coach would explain it,” the redshirt senior guard said Monday.
“I just told myself, coming into this year, this is going to be a special year for me. I’m just going to give myself to coach. My main thing coming into this season is I’m going to give my all to coach and I’m going to trust coach. I felt like, by me doing that, our trust level has grown a ton. By me giving him myself, meaning I came in and I’m like, ‘Coach, whatever you need me to do. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. I’m giving myself to you.’ I felt like last year I was too hesitant in that area on giving myself to coach because I really didn’t understand some of the things he would tell me.”
One of those areas in which Rosario has made a drastic improvement is on defense. He has gone from a big-time liability to a competent contributor who Donvoan is able to trust on the court even late in close games.
“[It’s] just me being locked in, just me being focused on the things that I can control and the things that coach needs me to do and my teammates need me to do,” Rosario said. “It’s just been incredible for me to have that mindset, locking in on the defensive end. I feel like I feed off that positive energy from Casey [Prather], Kenny [Boynton], Pat[ric Young], Will [Yeguete] and Scottie [Wilbekin]. Those are our best defenders. I’m the next guy that they need to buy in on the defensive end, and I feel like I’ve taken on that challenge. I’m embracing it.”
Not many players get a second chance let alone a third chance. Rosario’s second chance at becoming an all-around player came when he decided to transfer from Rutgers to Florida. He did not take to it right away despite having two offseasons and one full season on the sideline to learn Donovan’s ways and the Gators’ system.
“I knew I was in a special situation. I knew that this was the opportunity for me to grow as a person and grow as a player and hopefully make my dream come true of playing at the next level,” Rosario said. “The resume that coach has is unbelievable. This is my chance to really sit and listen to what coach has to say and give myself to coach because something special can happen out of this. I feel like I’ve been doing a great job with that.
“I came to that decision by myself. Just understanding what coach says to me and taking it and running with it. I just felt like, me coming in this year as one of the older guys and one of the leaders I knew that something was going to have to change in order for me to play the way my teammates need me to perform. I felt like, by me taking on that challenge, that coach basically put my back against the wall. I feel like I’ve been doing a great job responding to it.”
Donovan admitted Monday that he was “probably not” 100 percent sure he could get Rosario to make the changes necessary to be a total contributor “because he had not done it here up to that point in time.”
After an offseason in which he played for the Puerto Rican National Team and competed against some of the top players in the world, Rosario is now receiving plenty of credit and praise from Donovan, a coach that always believed in his ability but understandably questioned his resolve.
“The thing I’m trying to get Mike to understand – and I think he’s done a pretty good job this year – is that when he plays the right way, he’s got really good vision, he’s a good passer. When he makes simple, really good plays, it makes our team better. It makes him a much better, more effective player on the offensive end of the floor,” Donovan said.
“I think he’s made more of a commitment defensively in helping us get better because I thought last year he was really a weak defender and a guy that maybe wasn’t committed to it or [didn’t] see the value in it. As time has gone on, he’s done that. Mike has been much, much more consistent.
“He continues to progress. He continues to get better. I’m not so sure that Mike has ever done this for an entire year in college, so we’ve obviously got a long way to go. He still can get better. He can improve. But when he plays the right way and takes good, high-percentage shots, takes care of the ball and makes good decisions, he’s got a really good ability to get people open shots. We become a lot more difficult to defend when he does that.”
And if Rosario continues to play as Donovan commands, the former problem child may very well have a bright future after all.
Photo Credit: Associated Press