BASKETBALL: 2004 RESPECT EARNED, NOT GIVEN

While all eyes were on pigskins and cocktails this weekend, the sound of a bouncing ball approaching can't be ignored. The Gators men's basketball team is preparing for their season under the watch of Coach Billy Donovan with the mindset of earning their respect in 2004.

Last season, UF was fueled by hype. Being handed a No.1 ranking early in the season did more harm then good as Donovan and company finished the year out of the rankings and searching for an identity.

Weak defense, lack of toughness and offensive inconsistency proved to be the true story line for a team that began the season at No. 7, but lost when it mattered most. The first polls were released today and the Gators found themselves at the No. 22 spot in the country, a far cry from the top ten ranking they received a year earlier with the exact same starting five. Donovan gave his thoughts on his starting group last week at Southeastern Conference Media Days.

"We are fortunate to have a very gifted offensive team," he said. "We have our three guys who shoot very well, and when they are on, we are hard to beat. When those guys are having an off night, however, we are very vulnerable. They cannot carry the team by themselves. We are working on stepping it up on defense. With or starters returning we have a good base to start with, but we need to fill in that base with good defense. If we can become a good defensive team, then we will go far."

The experience of a heavily gifted starting five, coupled with talent some talent at backup positions should bode well for Donovan's Gators as they make their push to climb up the rankings.

Kentucky (9), Louisville (13), Mississippi State (14) and Alabama (18) all lay on the Gators schedule this year. Providence, Vanderbilt and FSU all garnered votes for the top 25 and also will tip off against the orange and blue this year. Donovan went into detail about his SEC foes this year this week.

"I am expecting a lot out of Alabama because they have Kennedy Wilson who is a very good player, and LSU also has a lot of their starters back and I expect them to be a top contender," he said. "Tennessee, who is being overlooked by many, also has all five starters back and I expect they will do well this season. Arkansas will also do well because they have a lot of young talent. They have recruited well."

Without the hype, the new defensive minded Gators will be looking to improve upon last year's 20-11 record. Defense is the word in the Gator camp as senior David Lee went as far as too mention it was their new strong point.

"Our strengths would have to be our defense and rebounding," Lee said. "At the first practice of the season Coach (Donovan) showed us the depth charts and we were ranked first and second in the rankings, and that is a strong thing. We need to work on our shooting and then continue to concentrate on ensuring these fundamentals. If we do not shoot the ball well, we will have to depend on these techniques."

UF's under the radar approach to this year will start off with two exhibition games against Florida Southern on Nov. 2nd and Eckerd on Nov. 9th before jumping into the regular season schedule at Jacksonville on Nov. 19th.


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