Tournament Tales: Marreese Speights

March 28, 2013
by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

Last week’s Tournament Tale featured Wayne Ellington, who eschewed the NBA Draft to return to North Carolina for his junior season in order to win an NCAA title. The player with whom Ellington was traded – Marreese Speights – didn’t have to wait nearly that long to reach college basketball’s summit.

Speights was born in St. Petersburg and played his high school ball in the Sunshine State. It seemed like a natural fit for him to attend Florida, although he joined a crowded frontcourt that included Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Chris Richard. And that frontcourt was coming off UF’s first-ever National Championship the previous season.

As a freshman, Speights averaged only four points and two boards for the Gators. But he found himself getting more and more time as the season unfolded and had his best performance of the year in Florida’s first win of the 2007 Tourney – a 112-69 drubbing of Jackson State.

Florida rolled through the rest of their bracket, and met UCLA – the team they mauled in the Championship game one year earlier – in the Final Four. The Gators downed UCLA again and faced off against Ohio State, who they topped in the title game, just as Florida’s football team had done against the Buckeyes months earlier in the Fiesta Bowl.

Speights recorded just one field goal in six minutes of play in the Championship game, but Florida’s title run was an experience for a lifetime. He returned for his sophomore season , averaged 14.5 points and 8.1 boards per contest and later declared for the NBA Draft.

As his Gators plan to take on an upstart Florida Gulf Coastal team in the Sweet Sixteen this weekend, the Cavs veteran forward recalled his freshman season in Gainesville in today’s Tournament Tale …

You were part of the National Champions as a freshman. What was that experience like when the Tournament began?

Mo Speights: I was shocked at everything as a freshman, especially the national championship game. But as far as the first game in the tournament, that was one of the best games I ever had. (16 points, nine boards) And after that, it was crazy. Everywhere you went – all the open practices, all the media. It was a great experience.

It’s got to be one of the best experiences of my life. Those were men, and they really prepared me for the NBA.

That season, your school beat Ohio State for the National Championship in football and basketball? When we play “Come On, Sloopy” at The Q, do you laugh to yourself a little bit?

Speights: (laughs) Yeah, I always like when they play that!

What makes Billy Donovan such a great coach?

Speights: He’s always going to get the best out of you. He’s a hard-nosed coach, but at the same time, he’s having fun with you. So he knows how to separate fun and hard work. That’s how good coaches do it.

If you’re not doing your job, he’ll let you know. If you’re doing a good job, he’ll let you know. He’s just a great coach.

How difficult was it to crack a frontline of Noah, Richard and Horford as a freshman?

Speights: That year, it was a really crazy year. It was fun, but I felt like practices were better than some of our games. There was no better frontline in college basketball than those guys, so going against them was better than the games, sometimes.

Growing up in St. Pete’s and playing high school ball in Florida, was UF on your radar the whole time?

Speights: (Florida) really wasn’t the school I was looking at. People really don’t know that when I was growing up I was a big Florida State fan. (Really because of football.)

Growing up, I really didn’t know anything about college basketball. And I really didn’t play until my sophomore year in high school. I was a football guy and I liked Florida State better than Florida. But everything worked out.

What are your thoughts on this year’s Sweet 16 team?

Speights: It’s a great group of guys. They’ve been there awhile. (Erik) Murphy, it’s his senior year. (Mike) Rosario’s been there for four years, he wants to win. (Kenny) Boynton, Patric Young. All those guys are good, they’ve been working hard the whole summer and the whole year. And it’s gonna pay off in the end.

Is it tough for an established program to go up against a fan favorite underdog like Florida Gulf Coast?

Speights: Yeah, it’s tough, but it’s going to be really tough for them because Florida is THE school in the state. (But now Coastal is going to wind up taking some of our recruits.)

One of my high school teammates went there. But that’s when it was still Division-II. They just turned D-I like five years ago. But it looks like they have a great group of players.

Are you confident in your Gators going against FGCU on Friday night?

Speights: Yeah, we’ll get past them. Cinderella’s time is going to run out, just like (Florida) did to George Mason (in 2006). We’re Cinderella-stoppers.

So yeah, Florida will be ready.