Friday March 6th, 2009

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In the early morning of Feb. 11, tired and heartbroken, Nick Calathes laced up his sneakers as his teammates trudged back to their dorms. A few hours earlier, Calathes had stood at the free throw line at Kentucky's Rupp Arena. The Florida point guard had been fouled shooting a buzzer-defying three-pointer, and he needed to make all three free throws to force overtime. He had missed the first. And the second. He missed the third on purpose with the hope that the ball would spring off the rim and into the hands of a waiting Gator, but by then it was too late.

So, while the grown-ups in Gainesville slept and the students trickled home after last call, Calathes shot free throw after free throw. "To be the player I want to be -- and for our team to win -- in games like that, I have to make those," the sophomore said this week.

Calathes wants that responsibility, but the circumstances surrounding his first two seasons in Gainesville may have put too much on his shoulders. Calathes is a more complete player than any of the Oh-Fours, the quartet that led Florida to national titles in 2006 and 2007, but it's possible he could leave Gainesville without ever playing in a NCAA tournament.

Florida hosts Kentucky on Saturday at 2 p.m. in what amounts to a loser-retires steel cage match. Thanks to losses by both teams this week -- a flat Florida performance at Mississippi State and an unforgivable home loss to Georgia for the Wildcats -- a win Saturday probably won't be enough to secure an at-large bid. But a win combined with a few more at next week's SEC tournament might suffice. So Calathes, who is sixth in the SEC in scoring (18.2 ppg) and first in assists (6.4 apg), will make his last-ditch effort for the next -- he hopes -- nine days to make the NCAA tournament.

The tourney is where players build their legacies, especially 6-foot-5 point guards who, despite their technical brilliance, don't show up on the highlight shows because they don't dunk. "You're not going to see Nick on SportsCenter unless he hits a buzzer-beater or he just makes some really crazy passes -- just because it's not really his game," said older brother Pat, a former St. Joseph's player about to wrap his first season as a pro in Greece. "He's one of those players who can lead a team all over the court. At the next level, he's not the type of guy who is going to go out and score 30 points a game, but he's going to set up guys to score 30 points a game."

Given a chance to show off his mindbending court vision in the tournament with Gus Johnson providing the soundtrack, the nation might understand just how unique a player Calathes is. But when Calathes committed to Florida as a 10th-grader at Lake Howell High in Casselberry, Fla., he couldn't have had any idea making the tournament would be this difficult. The Gators hadn't been left out of the field since 1998, when Calathes was in third grade. Shortly before Calathes left home for Gainesville, he learned the Oh-Fours (forwards Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer, center Al Horford and point guard Taurean Green) had chosen to leave en masse after leading Florida to a second national title as juniors. Calathes would have to play a larger role than expected as a freshman, and unlike the Oh-Fours, who joined a Florida team that already featured David Lee, Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh, Calathes wouldn't have anyone to teach him how or how not to lead.

Gators coach Billy Donovan, who rarely finds himself at a loss for words, paused Monday when asked about his recent recruiting. Obviously, Calathes has been a hit, but other than Marreese Speights, who received as much criticism as praise before jumping to the NBA after last season, no other Florida recruit during that period has blossomed into an impact player. "You have to have a balance, and some of our deficiencies are probably due to a lack of recruitment on my part," Donovan said. "Sometimes it's hard to sign guys because you can't forecast the future."

Some recruits never made it to campus for reasons Donovan couldn't control. Derwin Kitchen and Doneal Mack (class of 2006) didn't qualify academically. Kitchen, a 6-4 wing, went to Iowa Western Community College before signing with Florida State, where he has emerged as a starter on a tourney-bound team. Mack landed at Memphis. After two seasons as a role player, Mack has started 26 games this season for a potential No. 1 seed.

Other players left the program. Class of 2005 forward Jimmie Sutton had knee issues and transferred. Class of 2005 wing David Huertas didn't want to sit for a season behind the Oh-Fours, so he transferred to Ole Miss, where NCAA rules required him to sit out a season. Huertas currently ranks fourth in the SEC in scoring with 18.5 points a game. Guard Jai Lucas, a prized recruit in the class of 2007, left in the fall after one exhibition game when he realized Calathes would spend most of the time at the point.

The players who stayed simply haven't developed as expected. For an example, consider this series of offensive possessions from the first half of Florida's 79-75 loss to Tennessee on Sunday. On the first, Calathes penetrated and found a forward Alex Tyus open under the basket. Tyus missed a layup. On the second, Calathes dribbled behind his back to split defenders Tyler Smith and J.P. Prince. As the Volunteers descended on Calathes in the lane, they left forward Dan Werner open on the wing. Calathes found him, and Werner clanked the three-point attempt. On the third possession, Calathes scanned the court from the top of the key. Before the Vols could adjust, Calathes hurled a pass over their heads to a wide-open Tyus, who caught the ball and dunked it.

Such is life for Calathes, who probably would lead the nation in assists if his teammates could finish on a more consistent basis. Calathes gets asked all the time if he feels like he's carrying the Gators. He always says no, but his actions suggest he feels pressure to do it all. Pat, who, in spite of the seven-hour time difference still talks to his younger brother almost every day, said Nick has worked hard at being a better vocal leader. But part of learning to lead is learning how not to force the issue. That's why Donovan benched Calathes for the last 2:44 of Wednesday's loss at Mississippi State. Calathes, who also tried to force a reverse layup at the end of the Tennessee defeat, had chucked an ill-advised three-point attempt far too early in the shot clock. In either case, Calathes would have served the team better by getting the ball to a teammate.

That may be the toughest intangible for the ultra-competitive Calathes to learn. He grew up playing hoops until the wee hours with Pat and his two step-brothers while father John -- who also was the boys' AAU coach -- refereed. Young Nick would throw himself into the games and come out bloodied. Even now, his skin is a collage of bruises, cuts and scars. Some are old, like the mark Nick bears from a long-ago chess victory against Pat. After checkmate, 10-year-old Pat, ever the sharpshooter, hit his younger brother between the eyes with the king. "That," Pat said, "was the last time me and him ever played chess." Some scars aren't visible. Calathes still reels when he thinks about the embarrassment from the national headlines spawned last fall by an athletic department investigation into his gambling on online poker. Though Calathes didn't break any NCAA rule, he still regrets doing anything that cast doubt on his integrity. "I probably shouldn't have been playing poker," he said. "There's no reason to play poker." Some marks, meanwhile, are fresher, the results of collisions from the pursuit of an NCAA tournament berth that may ultimately be futile.

Pat, who's Hawks made last year's tourney as an at-large team, wants badly for his younger brother to experience the thrill of seeing his team's name slotted into a bracket during the CBS selection show. "It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences," Pat said. "Just seeing your name pop up on the bracket, it was great. There's nothing like it in sports, period."

If Calathes stays in Gainesville another year, he'll probably get his chance. Assuming class of 2009 signee Kenny Boynton lives up to his lofty billing, the Gators' backcourt alone should be good enough to propel Florida into the tournament. But Calathes has yet to commit to a third year, and besides, he still hasn't given up on this year. "It would definitely be disappointing [to miss the tournament]," Calathes said. "I don't want to think about that."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.