Donovan knew he would lose David Lee since he was a senior and for the last half of the 2005 season, everyone was speculating that this would be the year that Anthony Roberson bolted for the NBA. That Matt Walsh would investigate the NBA came as a shock but it was an even bigger shock that his investigation turned positive. Walsh has a legitimate shot to go in the first round now and he's told Donovan that he won't be back for the 2005-2006 season. Roberson is expected to make the final confirmation that he won't be back any day now.
Instead of being a contender for a national title for the upcoming season with Walsh and Roberson leading the way, the Florida Gators will be trying to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together to maintain their streak of 20-win/NCAA-bid seasons that is now at seven straight. Instead of a senior class of three with Walsh, Roberson and 6-9 fifth year center Adrian Moss, the Gators will have one senior, two juniors, four sophomores (five if Cornelius Ingram plays basketball again instead of simply concentrating on football) and four freshmen. With Walsh and Roberson the Gators would be considered top five material. With either Walsh or Roberson, Florida would still be top 15. Without either one, Florida will be fortunate to be considered a top 25 preseason team.
"I'm obviously happy for those three guys (Lee, Roberson and Walsh)," Donovan said Tuesday night before he spoke to the St. Augustine Gator Club. "David was inevitable because he was a senior but for Matt and Anthony right now it's pretty clear that both of those guys won't be back next year. So this allows myself, my staff and our team to move forward in terms of what we're going to have next year personnel-wise. I really like the kids we have on our team. They're all really great kids, they work hard and they have a good, tough, competitive attitude but there's no question that when you lose the scoring we've lost with Roberson, Walsh and Lee not, just last year but the last two years --- the next closest guy we have in scoring is Corey Brewer at about 7.5 points a game …. we've lost a lot of 3-point shooting, a lot of low post scoring and a lot of scoring in general so we're going to have to find some different ways to score this year."
Florida's run to the SEC title was aided by the contributions of four true freshmen who found their roles and accepted them without complaint, allowing the Gators to put a team that had real chemistry on the floor. As the season progressed, the team grew closer and the comfort level the players had with each other was evident in the unselfish way that they shared the basketball and handled the task of team defense.
The freshmen weren't required to dominate in any one role but instead they had the luxury of fitting in and contributing in the areas where their games were most advanced. Al Horford concentrated on rebounding and defense. Joakim Noah gave quality minutes in the post off the bench contributing energy and hustle that often revived the team. Taurean Green was the backup point guard who often allowed Roberson to slide over to the shooting guard position. Brewer was the team's defensive ace whose job was to silence opponent's top scorers. Roberson, Walsh and Lee took care of the scoring load.
Now, there is no go-to guy or proven scorer, at least not one who sticks out at this moment. But Donovan doesn't necessarily see that as a problem.
"I'm not really concerned about someone emerging into that [go-to guy]," he said. "If we can get 4-5 guys averaging between 10-14 points a game that's going to be it for us scoring-wise. I don't know if we need Al Horford or Corey Brewer scoring-wise to get us 18-19 points a game. I think we've got to become a team that is very balanced. When you lose a guy who's getting 19 a game, another one who's getting 16 and you've got another guy getting 14, it's tough to make that up so we have to do that with numbers. We have to be a team where there's not a dropoff offensively because we can get a good number of guys scoring."
Donovan was an assistant coach to Rick Pitino at Kentucky on a national championship team that didn't have a dominating scoring threat. His best team, the 2000 edition of the Gators that made it to the NCAA finals only to lose to Michigan State, spread the scoring around. Mike Miller led the team with a 13 per game average.
"Mike Miller was a guy that averaged 13 points a game and was a great player for us," he said. "We have to do it collectively as a group by being unselfish and trying to create some offense off our defense."
Finding points might be a bit easier than finding leadership. Having Walsh and/or Roberson to go with Moss would have made that simple but now Moss will be the only senior on the team and he's coming off back surgery.
"Adrian's at a very strange situation because there is a very large age gap between Adrian and the rest of our team," Donovan said. "Adrian wants to get into coaching … well, he's going to get a good taste of it right now. This is going to be a … this is going to be a tremendous opportunity for him to really provide leadership."
Without stepping on the toes of their upperclassmen, the four freshmen of the 2005 season provided some leadership for the team through their toughness and willingness to play hard every night out. They set the early tone for this team and once they began to blend in well, it was obvious that the Gators fed off their energy and competitiveness.
Now, there will be four new freshmen coming in (Derwin Kitchen, Walter Hodge, Jimmie Sutton and David Huertas) and Donovan has to wonder if they will arrive with the same competitive attitudes that the previous freshman class showed. He also has to hope that his rising sophomores will continue to lead by example.
"They [last year's freshmen] have to be able to lead, coach, teach and be good mentors for our young guys as were Lee, Walsh, Roberson and Adrian Moss for them last year. These guys have to be go from saying whatever I can do to help the team to now as sophomores taking to a true leadership role along with Moss who is capable of leading because he's been here long enough," said Donovan. "There is a lot on the plate of that sophomore class along with that of the junior class (Lee Humphrey and Chris Richard)."
Donovan said that of the four freshmen, at least two of them will have to step in to a key reserve role. Hodge (6-1, Florida Air Academy) has blazing speed with the ball, the ability to distribute and to score. Kitchen (6-4 from Jacksonville Raines) is a player who reminds Donovan of Justin Hamilton because he has a strong all-around game. Huertas (6-4 from Jacksonville Arlington Country Day) is a catch and shoot scorer who is a three-point ace much in the mode of Walsh.
Sutton (6-9, Fort Lauderdale North Broward Prep) tore an ACL about six weeks ago and is presently in rehab. His status won't be known for awhile although he is progressing nicely and expectations are that he will be able to begin practicing with the team in October. He will be way behind the others because he won't be able to participate in the daily summer workouts with the rest of the team.
"It's unfair that they [freshmen] are coming in and we may have to rely on them," said Donovan. "If they can give us what Roberson and Walsh gave us as freshmen or what Noah, Horford, Brewer and Green gave us as freshmen that's great, but I really don't know what to expect with those guys. I believe they are going to be good players in time but I think it is a lot to ask of a freshman class to say once you step on campus you've got to be someone we can rely on. I think one of the toughest things to do is consistently night in and night out rely on freshmen. We've had some here that we could rely on but there have been some that have taken time to grow and mature."
For freshmen, there is a period of adjustment that is sometimes a difficult transition. These are kids who have typically dominated at every level, often as big time scorers who put up Star Wars numbers. When they arrive at a big time program such as Florida, they have to set their sights a bit lower and accept much different roles.
In the previous season, Donovan and his staff were blessed with a group that happily subordinated their attitudes from that of star to just willing to help out the team. The fact that the freshmen accepted roles and never complained was critical.
"Last year I felt we were able to get them to understand their role was with this team and what they needed to do to for us to be successful," he said. "Now we have a basketball team in front of us and I'm not so sure what the roles are. I know what the minutes are going to be. I know that Al Horford is going to play … you know that Taurean Green's going to play at the point guard and that Brewer is going to play at the small forward slot and Humprey is going to have to play more minutes now that Walsh is gone but what are their roles inside their minutes? And now they have to accept the roles that they're getting."
Getting the players to accept new roles is a far greater task than drawing up an X and O on the blackboard and it's a far more daunting task than teaching players better defensive technique or better rebounding position.
"The toughest part of coaching is when young people don't have success and go through adversity for the first time in life," he said. "For a lot of these kids, they've never gone through adversity. They've always been the best player on their team … they've always gotten their 25 or 26 points and now all of a sudden they come in with expectations of what they're going to do in college and when those expectations aren't met and you have a couple of losses you have adversity. The job for our staff is to keep this team close together and tight knit because we're going to have to be a team that's going to have to battle, scrap, claw and fight. I think that's going to be an area where Brewer, Noah, Horford and Green are going to have to be really solid. We've got to have that mentality and attitude going into this season."
Donovan has made these adjustments before. His 2000 team went to the final game but then lost Harvey and Miller early to the pros. Losing Harvey and Miller was bad enough but there was a series of injuries that hit Teddy Dupay, Justin Hamilton and Brent Wright. Still, the Gators won 24 games. Donovan has proven he can coach and that he can win.
Still, the next season might be one of his tougher challenges.
"We've got to try to do a good job coaching staff-wise of putting guys into positions to be effective to take advantage of what they do well," said Donovan. "It's going to be exciting for all of us."