Reined-in Rosario reigns for Gators in round of 32

By Adam Silverstein
March 25, 2013

It all started over the summer when redshirt senior guard Mike Rosario received a blessing from Florida Gators head coach Billy Donovan.

Rosario, who recognized “that he screwed up” during his redshirt junior season with the Gators by slacking off and failing to meet Donovan’s expectations, asked his coach if he would be alright with him trying out for the Puerto Rican National Team as it competed for a spot in the 2012 London Olympics.

Donovan agreed and Rosario made the team. Though he did not play much for Puerto Rico – and the team did not qualify for the Olympics – Rosario came away from the experience humbled, hungry and more mature than ever.

Gone was the player who boggled his coach’s mind by missing 10 days with a hip pointer. “My daughter could work through that,” Donovan exclaimed back in October. Rosario rejoined Florida basketball as a player that understood the importance of being a great teammate, working through injuries and being both accountable and responsible not only on the court but off of it as well.

Semblances of his progress were noticeable early in the season. Donovan named Rosario a starter just a few days before the Gators’ first exhibition game and praised him for becoming a more trustworthy person and player. His changed attitude combined with his natural ability allowed Rosario to remain on the court long enough to lead Florida in scoring for a large portion of the 2012-13 campaign.

His court time increased immensely, as did his scoring and ability to contribute to the team, and the Gators were better for it.

Yet no better paradigm could be created to depict the effect Donovan has had on Rosario over the last two seasons than the way the first weekend of the 2013 NCAA Tournament unfolded for the Rutgers transfer.

On Friday, in Florida’s second-round game against Northwestern State, Rosario barely played in the first half after picking up two early fouls. When he was reinserted back into the contest in the second half, he failed to box out a player and whiffed on a couple of defensive assignments. Donovan pulled him from the game and he never returned, totaling just 15 minutes of court time on the evening.

“I got asked after the Northwestern State game, ‘Geez, you sat Mike Rosario for 11 minutes.’ I didn’t sit Mike Rosario for 11 minutes, he sat himself. And we needed to move on without him,” Donovan explained. “There’s times where he can be a little carefree, can be a little bit loose, and he cannot block out or miss an assignment and those kinds of things.”

The next day, Donovan called Rosario to task.

“What I tried to do [Saturday] was really challenge him in the morning when we met I front of the team. [I said] that he’s got a responsibility. He’s a fifth-year senior and it’s his first NCAA Tournament appearance and that’s the focus he comes with? Like, there’s something wrong with that. And I think he felt bad about it,” he said.

Rosario took his coach’s challenge to heart and ensured that he would not play on Sunday like he did on Friday. Just two days later, after being forced to realize that he himself was the sole reason for his benching, Rosario performed the exact way Donovan taught him and saw the results against Minnesota.

“I just felt that in the first game I wasn’t on edge and coach expects a lot out of me, being a fifth year senior,” Rosario said. “I just felt that coming into that first game I wasn’t doing my job. Everybody has a job on the team to do and that’s something that coach teaches us every day in practice and every game. If you have every guy on the same page, doing their job, that’s how you have great teams. I felt that I let my team down by not doing that the first game. So I was beating myself up about it.”

“I just told myself, I can’t let my guys down because I was beating myself up about the first performance that I had in the first game and I just thought that I didn’t bring that full Mike Rosario for the first game,” he continued. “I just felt like that I had to come out in the second game and really be on edge and help my team in every way possible to win this game.”

And that is exactly what Rosario did.

He played with high levels of energy and passion, was aggressive on defense and did not force offense but rather let his scoring come within the flow of the game. His teammates – notably junior point guard Scottie Wilbekin – found him wide open on the perimeter time and time again and he possessed the necessary confidence to knock down the big shots that fueled his team to victory.

One after another. After another. After another. After another. After another.

There were three misses scattered in his nine three-point attempts but no one remembers those. The highlights that will live on from Sunday are the six swishes of the net from both corners and all around the three-point line.

Not only did he score a career-high 25 points (at UF) on 8-of-12 shooting, he was accountable on the defensive end, grabbed two steals, only picked up a single foul and did not commit a turnover in 25 minutes.

Donovan certainly saw each ball go through the net. He was not thinking about Rosario’s scoring but rather the journey it took to extract this type of performance.

“The one thing I always say about Mike is Mike will assume responsibility. He is not a finger pointer. He does not blame other people. He’ll take responsibility,” Donovan said.

“More than anything, Mike let’s me coach him. He let’s me coach him. But I’m on him all the time. A lot. Because I want him to be the best he can be on and off the floor. And when he’s allowed to be that way – maybe class is not quite that important or I come a little late to practice or I’m not really ready to play. No. You just sit down. There needs to be some level of discipline. But he takes it, he moves forward.

“So someone asked me going into this game, ‘How do you think Rosario will be?’ And I said, ‘He’ll be fine because he’s got a very short term memory and he moves to the next challenge pretty quickly.’”

“I think a lot of times for players sometimes the best motivating factor is the bench, when you have the opportunity to sit somebody down,” Donovan continued. “For him, he probably reflected on Friday night and said, ‘Geez, I’m fortunate I got another day here to play, I’m not going to show up against Minnesota like that.’”

Donovan funneled Joakim Noah’s energy, passion and enthusiasm and turned it into high levels of production. He taught Udonis Haslem that, despite being undersized for his position, effort can make up for a lot when it comes to rebounding and contributing to a team. Chandler Parsons, after some hand-wringing, developed his game and became an all-around player who is now a burgeoning star in the NBA.

But it would be quite easy to make a case that Rosario is Donovan’s greatest success story even if he is not the most consistent player on a nightly basis.

“Like I told coach and the guys, it’s a very emotional moment for me because two, three years ago I wasn’t in this situation and now being with this program and being under coach and with a good group of guys, it’s a great experience,” Rosario said after the game. “The one thing that coach talked to me before I transferred here, he said you’re putting yourself in big moments and big games. Just being in this big situation like that, I really took full advantage of it [Sunday].”

Rosario certainly made the most of his chance at redemption on Sunday. For someone who plays with as much emotion as he does, Donovan was not surprised at all to see him step up and come through for his teammates and the fans.

“In order to be a great teammate you really got to be an affectionate guy and a caring guy and a loving guy. And he expresses himself a lot of times verbally how he feels about his teammates, how he feels about being here. I think that’s just who he is. He’s not a selfish guy; he’s unselfish,” Donovan said. “The reason our relationship at times has been maybe somewhat rocky is because I’ve held him to a really high standard of accountability on and off the floor. And I think that when he, as he mentioned [Sunday], is on edge and he is focused, he plays better, he performs better.

“He’s a great kid. I love coaching him, I love being around him, because he’s an affectionate, loving kid. We try to do some things community service wise with our guys – whether it be a children’s hospital or homeless shelter – I’ve never been around anybody on our team, or over the years that I’ve been there, that is more engaging with young kids or people that are less fortunate. I mean, it’s unbelievable watching him carry on conversations. He has an incredible part about him that’s really unique and special.

“But he also has this other part of him that sometimes he’s a little bit loose and carefree and lacks some responsibility. And I think that you got to hold him accountable. When you hold him accountable, he generally responds.”

Donovan contends that games and victories are all about the players, their preparation off the court and actions on the court. Like most great coaches choose to do, he shoulders the blame for the defeats and failures.

As far as Rosario is concerned, Donovan should be giving himself a well-deserved pat on the back. In fact, scratch that. When Rosario’s collegiate career eventually comes to an end, knowing Donovan, the progress Rosario has made as a player and person coupled with the affection he will undoubtedly show that fateful day will likely be all the appreciation his coach will ever need.

Photo Credit: David J. Phillip/Associated Press


  1. zurbo says:

    great article sil

  2. Jen Pippin says:

    As I said in my FB post yesterday: A Ros(ario) by any other name would still be as Sweet(16)!! Good job! Now let’s go get FGCU.

  3. Marlex says:

    Great article. Rosario has been fun to watch this season with the energy he brings.

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