It has been a few weeks now since Florida's scintillating run to the Final Four crashed and burned on a Saturday night in Dallas to a UConn team that seemed to have destiny on its side. While the dream of a national championship was cut short, the memory of what made the Gators great will always have a private place in Billy Donovan's heart. If you look at the Gators from the perspective of size, talent, athleticism and depth, they probably should have never won 30 straight games and made it to Dallas but what they lacked in tangible assets they more than made up with chemistry and discipline.
At his first press conference since the previous season ended, Donovan didn't dwell on what could have been nor did he gush about the abundance of tangible assets that he will have at his disposal for the 2014-15 season. With a roster that will feature five players 6-8 or taller – six if South Florida transfer John Egbunu elects to petition the NCAA and is granted a waiver that will allow him to play immediately – to go with more shooters, quickness and athletic ability than perhaps any year since 2000 and certainly more than they had last season, the Gators are fixtures in nearly every all too early preseason poll for next year.
It's good to have tangible assets, but tangible assets didn't exactly take the Gators to last season's Final Four.
There was chemistry. These guys not only loved each other, but they liked each other. There are plenty of teams where everybody genuinely loves each other but when it comes to liking the way they play together so much that each player on the court becomes almost an extension of the other four? Well, that's a totally different story. Chemistry involves loving and liking each other. Chemistry allows five players to function as one on the court.
That was never a problem for Donovan's Gators last year.Nor was discipline.
"The one thing that never got talked about last year with our team – and I thought was the most important thing about our team – was how disciplined our team was in every aspect," Donovan said Thursday morning at the Florida basketball practice facility. "Defensively, we were very, very disciplined. You never ever saw Patric Young break down defensively guarding pick-and-rolls. Scottie Wilbekin, same thing; was really, really disciplined ... (Will) Yeguete, disciplined ... Casey Prather, disciplined. (Michael) Frazier even got even much more disciplined. Executing on offense, we were much more disciplined."
If you need an explanation how a team that really didn't have enough size or depth in the front court, wasn't nearly as quick as half the teams they played, wasn't going to win any dunking contests and really had only one shooter ran the table in the Southeastern Conference, went 3-0 at the SEC Tournament and then won four straight games in the NCAA Tournament by 10 or more points before finally going down, then take a look particularly at discipline.
That team didn't miss many assignments. They understood their limitations but knew they could overcome them by staying true to executing their assignments even when the games got to be a grind.
How else could the Gators have won so many close games?
So now we fast forward to a season that is a little more than five months from its beginning. On paper, if you look at what the Gators bring to the court you understand why some experts are calling them dark horse candidates to make it back to the Final Four.
Being capable of getting back to the Final Four is one thing. Having the discipline to get there is something altogether different and that's what Donovan zeroed in on Thursday morning.
"The group we have coming back right now is not a disciplined group, and in order for them to be successful they're going to have to get disciplined," Donovan said. "Now, I'm not talking about discipline in terms of off the court. I'm talking on the court – of doing your job more often than not and getting that reliability and accountability and responsibility that you are going to do your job."
Frazier is the only returning starter. He's the best pure shooter in the country and as he proved last year, a very underrated defensive player who benefitted from having to play small forward and defend players often 5-6 inches taller the summer before for Donovan's gold medal winning Team USA at the FIBA World 19-and-under championships.
Dorian (Doe-Doe) Finney-Smith, last year's SEC Sixth Man of the Year, DeVon Walker, and former McDonald's All-Americans Kasey Hill and Chris Walker also return to form Florida's experienced core for next season, but Donovan says their 2014 summer has to be all about developing the habits of disciplined players.
"We had Doe Doe, Kasey Hill, Chris Walker, DeVon Walker; all those guys had discipline problems last year," Donovan said. "That's why you saw them up and down. That's why you saw their minutes during the season up and down. Their discipline was up and down."
As the point guard who will have to fill the shoes of All-American and SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin, Hill probably has to make the greatest leap forward. An absolute blur when it comes to transitioning from one end of the court to the other, Hill has the ability to become the most difficult point guard to match up with in the SEC and perhaps the country. He had games like the one he had against UCLA in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in which he scored six points, grabbed six rebounds and handed out 10 assists off the bench, and then there was that nightmare against UConn when he turned the ball over four times and registered zero assists.
"There were moments when Kasey Hill showed us some great flashes of who he can be," Donovan said. "And then there were signs of giving up 3-point shots and guys going around him. Now, that never happened to Scottie Wilbekin.
"Now, Scottie wasn't always that way. He developed into that. Patric Young developed into that. Kasey Hill needs to develop into that."
Hill is not alone in the need to leave the wild streaks behind for a calmer, more measured response on the court. Donovan noted that Chris Walker "has a long way to go with his discipline" and that Finney-Smith is "the one guy who should be much further along in his discipline." They aren't the only ones. The rest of the roster will be filled by guys who didn't play last year so it will be a total group experience this summer.
Becoming a disciplined team will not happen overnight but it doesn't have to. It will begin with chemistry and the spillover from that development will be a gradual smoothing out of the rough edges before the Gators open their next season in November.
Next year's team won't have the benefit of seniors like Young, Yeguete, Wilbekin and Prather to provide constant role models and inspiration, but Donovan is hoping that the lessons learned last season won't soon be forgotten.
"What was it that these guys saw and took from that group?" Donovan asked rhetorically. "Hopefully, they've taken from this group how disciplined they were, how connected they were and how they played together."