With four starters gone from last year’s Final Four team, the challenge this year is to build the same mindset in players that weren’t counted on to show that consistent defensive effort last season.
What made last season special for Florida basketball was a rare combination that can’t be counted on every year. The group of four seniors in the starting lineup was rare enough for college basketball in an age dominated by one-and-dones, but Florida’s group of seniors had scars from failure. They went through hard times in their first three seasons, including sitting in the losing locker room of an Elite Eight game three times before finally breaking through as seniors.
But what has this group gone through?
Michael Frazier is the only returning starter on this year’s team, and many young players will be forced into key roles. Kasey Hill will be the team’s starting point guard, and the Gators won’t have an experienced option behind him. Last season, the Gators turned the offense over to SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin and Hill only needed to sub in for a few minutes a game.
Dorian Finney-Smith was named the SEC Sixth Man of the Year last season, but now likely forced into a starting role, can he handle the challenge of being consistent every game after a year marred with inconsistency? After he serves his three-game suspension, can Chris Walker handle being a rim protector and develop enough of an offensive game to make an impact?
There are questions all over a roster without the experience of other teams. But of all the questions about who will score or who will start, the most important one is how the Gators will defend.
“We don't have that defensive nastiness that we had a year ago, and we're going to have to work hard to develop it,” Billy Donovan said. “What kind of identity we can create on the defensive end of the floor remains to be seen. That's certainly something we're going to have to work really hard at.”
The scars that last year’s team had are now gone. They knew about handling tough road venues and bouncing back from gut-wrenching losses. They knew how to improve, how to watch and learn from film, but most importantly, last year’s seniors knew how to put losses behind them.
Donovan has no idea how well his team this year will be able to do that. When adversity hit last year, it was a senior that would step up and talk. Who can be that player this year?
“Last year's team worked really, really hard, and the results that we got were extraordinary,” Donovan said. “But that team also in the past had worked very, very hard and didn't get the same results. So that's going to be a challenge that these guys have not been tested, that they can come out there, work really hard, but may not get the results due to a lack of experience and not being prepared to handle that.”
Outside of Frazier, Donovan was quick to point out that no other player returning this year showed any consistency last season. The seniors provided consistent effort and produced more often than not, but they’re gone, leaving an important need for consistency. A lot of the leadership will fall on Frazier’s shoulders. Kasey Hill needs to be more vocal, simply because of his position as the point guard.
But for a starting lineup that will feature multiple players that were on the Florida bench last season, can they learn to buy into what it takes to reach the same level that last year’s team did? The Gators won 30 straight games at one point last season because of that consistent effort on the defensive end, and the players that will be counted on this year didn’t always show they could be counted on to defend every night while coming off the bench.
“There were moments they played exceptionally well,” Donovan said of this year’s players in backup roles last year. “There were moments they really did a great job, but there was a discipline issue on the court in terms of being reliable guys, game-in and game-out. That is going to be a challenge.
“That's one thing I thought about last year's group, they developed a great level of discipline on the defensive end of the court. They were really good at what they were doing. That's something we have to develop.”
Finney-Smith, Hill and Walker were first counted on to produce last season. In Donovan’s mind, all those three players know at Florida is winning. That’s his concern going into a season where all three will be thrown into bigger roles. Without the experience and hard times that last year’s seniors went through, he’s unsure that they’ve been through the hard times to truly want greatness.
But Donovan also made sure to point out that it’s not their fault. All they’ve known is success since they came to Gainesville.
“I don't think it's entitlement,” Donovan said. “I think it's a lack of not living in the real world. What I mean by that is I've been doing this for 25, 26 years. I've never been a part of a team that won 30 straight games. We went 125 days without losing. When you talk about a guy like Dorian Finney Smith, Kasey Hill, Chris Walker, when you talk about guys being young being involved in that, that's all they really know.
“There's an expectation part for them. I think they're hopeful they can get back to that point, but they haven't had to face a lot of adversity. Personally maybe at different points in time they did, but we never faced a lot of team adversity.”
That was the talk throughout the offseason, but even Donovan knows, there’s no way to prepare your team and know how they’ll handle adversity until they’re put in a situation where they have to. In the weeks leading up to the season opener on November 14, that’s where the focus of the coaching staff will remain -- putting the players in as many difficult positions as possible to see how they will react.