The most important returnee for the Gators won't score any points or grab any rebounds. But Billy Donovan will employ his exceptional coaching skills to mold a young set of talent into a highly-competitive squad. After all, wasn't it just two years ago that four sophomores and a junior carried the Gators to their first national title after losing the supposedly irreplaceable triumvirate of David Lee, Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson?
This year's set of sophomores features 6-11 Mareese Speights, who figures to explode onto the national scene after showing repeated signs of brilliance in limited playing time last season. Just how good is Speights? According to no less an authority than No. 3 NBA draft pick Al Horford, Speights was the most dominating offensive force in the post during last year's Gator practice sessions and only the presence of outstanding sixth man Chris Richard, along with Horford and Joakim Noah, kept Speights from playing 10-15 per game as a freshman. Even so, Speights averaged 4.1 points and 2.6 rebounds during an average of six minutes of playing time per game.
Another key returnee who will complement Speights' inside play is junior guard Walter Hodge, the elder statesman on a UF squad that will include five freshmen and three sophomores among the nine scholarship players. As the seventh man in Donovan's rotation last season, Hodge provided strong play at both guard positions, regaining the explosive scoring ability he displayed in high school after struggling through his freshman season two years ago.
Hodge's ability to hit three-pointers (50 percent shooting), yet also handle the point, will allow Donovan the flexibility to use freshman Nick Calathes, a two-time Florida Mr. Basketball, at both guard spots, rather than having to depend on the youngster to immediately step into the leadership role vacated by the loss of junior Taurean Green to the NBA.
And while Calathes is only one part of a freshman class considered to be one of the nation's best, it is the other returning sophomores who will be critical to Florida's chances for a ninth straight NCAA tournament bid. Dan Werner (6-9) and Jonathan Mitchell (6-7) must step into prominent roles to complement Speights and Hodges in order to keep too many freshmen from having to play key roles too early in their rookie season.
Donovan knows that a lineup loaded with freshmen isn't a healthy situation in the rugged SEC, no matter how talented those freshmen may be. Calathes, high school teammate Chandler Parsons, Florida Mr. Basketball runnerup Adam Allen, Parade All-America guard Jai Lucas and Cincinnati leaper Alex Tyus may be ready to contribute in greater or lesser degrees as the season unfolds, but the four returnees will have to carry the bulk of the playing time for the Gators to minimize the rough patches of inconsistency that a lineup filled with freshmen can cause.
In addition to going after a ninth straight NCAA tournament bid, the Gators will be trying for a ninth straight 20-plus win season. With a schedule loaded with lightweights in November and December, the Gators should reach the 20-win plateau without too much of a struggle. But it's the SEC schedule that will determine Florida's ability to return for a try at a third straight national title.
Nobody in their right mind would pick the Gators to go all the way again. But with a roster packed with exceptional young talent, the Gators will be the X factor in the SEC East division. Whether that X stands for 10 (or more) league wins will be determined by how quickly the youngsters grow up, and adapt to Donovan's system, during those 15 games before SEC play gets underway in January.