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Florida Gators’ Mike Rosario drives Billy Donovan — and opponents — ‘nuts’

Even when things are going well for Florida guard Mike Rosario, coach Billy Donovan will not give him an inch of slack.

He rides him harder — publicly, at least — than any player on the team. He blistered him after a game this month for “thinking he’s Tom Seaver, trying to throw the ball across on a one-handed rope pass up into the stands.” And in November, after Rosario delivered a sharp performance to help beat Wisconsin, Donovan praised his overall play but included, “he makes some wacky plays sometimes that drive me nuts.”

The approach is working. Donovan, who is viewed as a master of basketball psychology, has been instrumental in Rosario’s transformation. He scored 25 points Sunday to push No. 3 seed Florida into the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16, where it will face 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast at Cowboys Stadium on Friday (9:57 p.m., TBS).

“Playing for Coach Billy is an unbelievable experience,” Rosario said merely 12 hours after Donovan benched him for the majority of UF’s first-round win over Northwestern State. “You’ve got to be accountable for a lot of things and be responsible. I thank him for it because I really grew into a man.”

Rosario, a redshirt senior, repaid him by blossoming into a vital part of the starting lineup. He is second on the team in scoring at 12.5 points per game and is shooting 44.9 percent from the field. His latest gem was his best as a Gator: 25 points on 8-for-12 shooting, including 6-of-9 from three, and no turnovers in a second-round victory over Minnesota.

He did that despite lingering pain from a sprained ankle and a dislocated ring finger on his left, non-shooting hand. He did not have that kind of toughness a year ago. He missed 10 days’ worth of practices and games due to a hip pointer, prompting Donovan to say his teenage daughter would have recovered more quickly.

Though they still have hiccups, like when Rosario stood carelessly as a Northwestern State player breezed past him for an easy rebound last week, their connection has improved substantially. Rosario went from possibly leaving the team a year ago to playing 29.4 minutes per game this season.

“The reason our relationship at times has been somewhat rocky is because I’ve held him to a really high standard,” Donovan said.

“The one thing I appreciate, more than anything, is Mike lets me coach him. 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. There needs to be some level of discipline, but he takes it and moves forward.”

The Gators seem mildly amused when Donovan aims a one-liner at Rosario during practices and they see his tactics producing positive results.

“He gets after Rosie because he knows he can handle it,” forward Erik Murphy said. “And obviously it works.”

Rosario has learned to value Donovan’s criticism and enjoys his new role. Being a semi-star on the Gators is a better life than being the focal point of the piddling Rutgers program he left in 2010.

Playing an hour or so from his hometown of Jersey City, N.J., Rosario led Big East freshmen with 16.2 points per game. He averaged 16.7 as a sophomore. Over those two years, he took 15 shots per game, compared to 9.8 this season.

While it was fun to shoot at will and pile up points, he was dissatisfied with the results. Rutgers went 30-34 in those two seasons, never coming close to the NCAA tournament.

“This was what I needed,” he said of his move to Florida. “I had to accept my role and concentrate on winning. I love to compete and I love to win. I really am a team guy. It was the best thing for me.”

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