Over the next two days, OGGOA will continue its look at the three seniors set to be honored Wednesday evening as the Florida Gators basketball program celebrates Senior Night at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
The biggest on-the-court story of the 2012-13 campaign for the Florida Gators has been the turnaround of redshirt senior guard Mike Rosario. A huge question mark coming into the season, Rosario has matured from a score-first, team-second player to one who puts winning over everything else and has, in turn, become the team’s leading scorer and one of its most trustworthy offensive options.
As head coach Billy Donovan has made perfectly clear over the last year, Rosario was anything but dependable during his first season playing for the Gators.
“He had a hip pointer and he was out for 10 days. That’s just mind-boggling to me. Ten days for a hip pointer? My daughter could work through that!”
Donovan uttered those words in October while recalling how frustrated he was with Rosario’s work ethic during the 2011-12 season. A model of inconsistency, Rosario saw just 14.4 minutes per game of playing time and averaged just 6.6 points per contest. It was his inability to be reliable off the court, in practice and on defense that hurt him the most because when Rosario did see time and played responsibly, he proved that he could be an effective part of the team.
That all changed over the summer when Rosario returned to Florida after spending a few months with the Puerto Rico National Team in its quest to earn a place in the 2012 London Olympics. Puerto Rico ultimately failed in its charge, but Rosario learned valuable lessons during his time out of the United States and was humbled by the experience. He returned a changed man with a brand new outlook.
“He’s really grown in a lot of ways,” Donovan said of Rosario on Monday. “He’s come a long, long way, and I’m proud of the progress that he’s made as a player. He would not even have been remotely into a situation last year to do what he is doing this year. He could not even do that. He missed 25 practices. He missed five games. He was in and out of practices. He was hurt. You couldn’t even rely on him.
“Now he’s gotten to a place where you know we can rely on him. He’s leading us in scoring in the league, shooting a pretty good percentage. He cares about winning; he’s trying to play the right way. He’s done some very positive things for us from a year ago.”
Rosario may very well be Donovan’s best work.
He went from being irresponsible and unreliable to suddenly dependable and accountable. And in his final year of college basketball, Rosario is averaging career-highs in field goal percentage (.451), three-point shooting percentage (.354), free throw percentage (.846) and assists (2.2) while being more careful with the ball and playing 15 minutes more than he did a season ago. His 12.9 points per game are certainly not a career-high – he averaged better than 16 points per contest at Rutgers – but they are a team-high and coming within the flow of the game.
Deciding to transfer two years ago was probably one of the toughest choices of Rosario’s life. When he looked back at that moment – and what has occurred subsequently from that point until the present – on Monday, Rosario smiled knowing that he made the right choice in the long run.
“I knew the transition was going to be tough, especially from the position that I was in before, playing 36-38 minutes per game and scoring 17 points every game. I knew that coming into this situation I was going to have to basically do a whole new chapter. I just looked at it as a challenge, just being a part of this program and this winning tradition here was going to be a different standard,” he said.
“I knew coming into this situation it wasn’t going to be easy and that’s why I knew that I was going to have to take on the challenge of playing behind Erv[ing Walker], Kenny [Boynton] and Brad[ley Beal]. Me being an experienced player coming here, I knew that it was going to be tough, but I still stuck it out and I just came in with the mindset every day of just getting better. I felt like if I just keep that mindset and I just keep doing the things that I can control, everything will fall into place for me. I just knew that if I kept that focus, everything would work out.”
Before progress could be made, however, Rosario had to figure out a way to get along with Donovan. Used to everything being handed to him and going his way, allowing himself to be coachable was a very difficult adjustment for Rosario to make in his basketball life. In the end, he figured it out and came to the realization that Donovan’s teachings were exactly what he needed and only going to benefit him in the long run.
“When I first got here, I didn’t really understand coach as far as you have to be responsible for everything you do, be on time for everything. It was just a different transition because I was so used to basically, if you gave me an inch I would take a yard when I was at Rutgers. It was different,” he said.
“Playing for Coach Billy, it was his way or the highway. That is something I realized and I understood after having [Erik Murphy] explain things to me, having Chandler [Parsons] explain things to me, Vernon [Macklin, too]. Just understanding coach to a high level of you have to take on that leadership role and you have to be responsible for your actions and you got to be accountable for everything you do. That’s something I’ve learned since I’ve been here. By me understanding those things and making the right choices and the right decisions, I’ve built trust with him.”
Unfortunately for Rosario, as he found out on Saturday, trust only goes so far and must not only be earned but maintained by actions. With Florida trailing at home against Alabama, Rosario began playing sloppily, rushing passes and taking bad shots. Donovan gave him a moment to correct his actions but was forced to bench him, a move that ended up working out in the Gators’ favor down the stretch.
“We get [Rosario] up the right-hand sideline and he thinks he’s Tom Seaver trying to throw the ball across on a one-handed rope pass up into the stands,” Donovan recalled after the contest. “OK, I’m going to bite my tongue on that one. And then we get a baseline drive. Enough. Out. Sit down. Someone else will play. And I love Mike. This is not a ‘doghouse’ thing. At the same time, we have to understand the right way to play.”
On Monday, Donovan said he was exceedingly pleased with the way Rosario responded to his benching and that it would not impact him starting the next game.
“He was absolutely phenomenal on the bench. He was great. He was up cheering, he was talking, he was trying to encourage guys. He was fine. I really got a lot of respect for Mike in that part of it. I think winning is important to him. He wasn’t playing well,” Donovan explained. “He was very excited after the game, very happy after the game and really very positive on the bench with guys during timeouts and even during the course of the game.”
And Rosario, who once would have huffed and puffed at being pulled, sulking on the bench while Florida came back to win the game, instead completely understood where Donovan was coming from and did the best he could to help while being forced to sit down with a towel around his neck.
“In that situation, you got to know when you’re wrong and you got to know when you’re right. I knew, in that game, I wasn’t playing the way my team needed me to play and I wasn’t playing, what coach would say, ‘the right way.’ Sometimes you got to look at it as it’s not about the individual, it’s about the team. I knew that that game I wasn’t playing the right way so I had to let someone else step in and give our team what we needed,” Rosario said.
“I felt that Casey Prather and Will [Yeguete] went out there and really contributed to the point where we needed those guys to bring something to the table that game. I’m proud of Casey because Casey has been through some ups and downs, too. For him to go out there and perform how he did when we needed him to go out there and really make something happen, it really meant a lot to me because everyone was questioning why coach had me on the bench in the second half.
“It’s not about me. It’s about the team. I felt that me being on the bench, I still had a lot to say and a lot to do from the bench as far as me telling our guys to get up on the bench and clap for those guys and stay inside the process. The process was we got to win this game no matter what, whether I’m on the court or I’m off the court, I still have to have that positive energy for my teammates.”
Rosario continued, “I think I probably would’ve handled that the wrong way a couple years ago. That’s just because I didn’t understand the things I understand now as far as being accountable, building trust with your head coach and just knowing your teammates have higher expectations for you as far as you being experienced and you knowing how to handle situations like that. I feel like you build a lot of trust off that with your teammates also.”
This Mike Rosario did not exist one year ago, but Donovan is more than pleased that he does now. This Mike Rosario cares about his teammates, puts winning above scoring and will likely have some tears in his eyes when the Gators celebrate Senior Night on Wednesday before their showdown with the Vanderbilt Commodores.
“It’s going to be a very emotional day for me because I had a lot of people doubt that I couldn’t make it up to this point. There were a lot of people back home saying that, by me making this transition leaving Rutgers for Florida, everything is not going to work out and things are not going to go the way how I’m expecting them to be. I just felt that, in my heart, I can really make everything happen that I want to happen,” he said.
“Only thing that I can do is control the things I can control. Coming into this situation, everyone was just ‘why’ asking me why this and why that. As coach would tell us, you got to block those people out because it’s just a distraction to the process. I felt like I did a great job doing that with my transition coming here. I had to be patient and wait until my turn, I guess. I knew that it was going to come if I just kept up on the process and kept working hard. I just never lost sight of that of getting better every day. I just felt that by me having that mindset and doing those things, up to this point everything is paying off for me right now.
“I’m just going to stay humble and Wednesday will be an emotional night for me because my family is here and my mom is here. For her to see me at my last home game and being out there and she’s there to watch it, it will be a great experience for me. … It’s going to be a very emotional day for me, because I know my mom is going to cry. It will be a great experience.”
Rosario’s mother will not be the only member of his family in attendance. His father, sister, aunt, niece and others will be in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. Smiles will be wide, tears will flow, and if Rosario has his way, an outright Southeastern Conference title will clinched by UF in front of his family and friends.
Though Rosario was on the bench and ineligible to play when Florida won the outright SEC regular season title in 2011, he has reservations about including that on his collegiate resume. A win Wednesday would vault the 2013 SEC Championship to the top of his career accomplishments as he had an active hand in capturing the crown.
“An SEC title would be important to me because the one that we won two years ago, I felt that I didn’t contribute in that one but I still got a ring,” he said. “Knowing that this year has been special so far and the other two seniors – Kenny and Murph – it’s kind of perfect in a way because all the ups and downs that I’ve been through the past couple of years I’ve been here, to contribute to an SEC Championship this year and win it straight out would really mean a lot.”
Donovan will undoubtedly join Rosario’s family with a big grin and warm embrace during the Senior Night festivities. And though Rosario will likely draw a scowl or two from his coach throughout Wednesday’s contest, he knows that by playing the right way, there will never be a question that his head and heart are in the right place.
Photo Credit: Associated Press