Florida’s Vernon Macklin has come a long way from his time at Georgetown

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press - Vernon Macklin played two seasons at Georgetown, going to a Final Four. Now, a well adjusted leader at Florida, he dishes out advice to his teammates about deep tournament runs.

NEW ORLEANS — The experience factor will be perhaps the most interesting story line when Butler and Florida take the floor Saturday afternoon for their Southeast Region final. The Bulldogs, fresh off an appearance in last year’s national championship game, are chock full of players who have vivid memories of what it’s like to cut down the nets en route to the Final Four.

Until last week, Floridahadn’t won an NCAA tournament game since its NCAA title runs in 2006 and 2007. But there is one Gator who’s been in this position before — 6-foot-10 senior Vernon Macklin.

As a freshman at Georgetown in 2007, Macklin played limited minutes for the Hoyas on their run to the Final Four. Since then, it’s been a long journey for Macklin, a Portsmouth, Va., native who drew comparisons to Kevin Garnett and appeared destined for NBA stardom coming out of Hargrave Military Academy.

Now 24 years old and averaging 11.2 points and 5.4 rebounds as the Gators’ primary front-court presence, Macklin still looks back on his first postseason run, and his time in Washington in general, as one of the more frustrating periods in his life. The tribulations he endured have only made his contributions this season more rewarding.

“To be honest, I was at Georgetown but I only liked a selected few players, and me and the coaching staff didn’t get along as I thought we would,” Macklin said Friday. “I’m not gonna say [Coach John Thompson III] didn’t care at Georgetown, it was just the position I was in. It was Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert, so I wasn’t in a position to really be cared about.”

So following his sophomore year at Georgetown — when he averaged 3.4 points and just 12.8 minutes per game — Macklin tried to escape his problems. He transferred to Florida because he saw the strides his good friend, current Philadelphia 76ers forward Marreese Speights, made under Coach Billy Donovan to become the No. 16 pick in the 2008 NBA draft.

From the moment he visited Florida’s campus in the summer of 2008, Macklin said, he finally felt at home. He points to his tour guide, Gators senior forward Chandler Parsons, as “one of the greatest bonds I had in a long time.”

But when Macklin hit the court as a redshirt that fall, he encountered a harsh reality — one that seemed all too familiar from his days on the Hilltop: Just because somebody says you’re supposed to be a superstar doesn’t necessarily mean it can happen right away.

“John Thompson’s a terrific coach and a great guy, and I just told Vernon: ‘Listen, there’s things that the coaching staff at Georgetown asked you to do, that I’m gonna ask you to do. There’s no way getting around it. You gotta block out, you gotta defend, you’re gonna have to screen.’ ” Donovan said. “And I think the one thing Vernon did that I really respected and admired, there were some things that went on that he even acknowledged he needed to do differently.

“I think that was probably a sign of him being young and probably frustrated. I don’t know if a lot of times people can identify with somebody that has the ‘big-ticket, Kevin Garnett’ label, and now all of a sudden you’re not living up to it. Now you get kind of labeled as being a bust, you’re not as good. There’s mental baggage that comes with dealing with that, and I think that was maybe Vernon’s way of handling it, not taking responsibility.”

This, it seems, is why Macklin has relished his role as the elder statesman for a veteran Gators squad that is enjoying its first taste of postseason success since the days of Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer, the nucleus of Florida’s national championship teams. Macklin said this week he’s been giving his teammates tips on how to stay fresh while dealing with one-day turnarounds. He scored nine points and grabbed five rebounds in Florida’s win over Brigham Young in the Sweet 16.

Macklin still remembers what he did in one of his first team meetings as a Gator. He asked Donovan to let him stand up and speak to the entire team. And though he may not be the player everyone hyped him up to be out of high school, what Macklin said that day tells you a lot more about what he’s become than any basketball game will.

“I wanted to tell them my point of view and where I came from because I didn’t want guys to think that I was just running from a situation at Georgetown. There was more to it,” Macklin said. Donovan “made me be more of a man. I’m glad he did it for me. He changed me a lot.”

 
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