A New Era Begins

The words 'it's a new year' have never meant more than what Billy Donovan and the Florida Gators men's basketball program face in the next five months. Coming off back-to-back national championships, the Gators don't resemble anything close to what they've had in Donovan's first 11 years as head coach.

The Florida Gators don't hit the hardwood until Friday, but Billy Donovan took center stage on Wednesday afternoon to address the media on the upcoming season. He was the usual upbeat and positive coach whose rhetoric resembled past basketball media days, but there is one thing for certain. Donovan has no idea what to expect out of the 2007-08 version of the Florida Gators.

The Gators lost their nucleus, they lost heir identity, they lost their leadership, and more importantly, they lost 87 percent of their scoring. Two years ago, Florida faced a similar situation after Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh joined David Lee and entered the NBA Draft. The Gators went on to win their first national championship in that season, but back then, they only lost about 60 percent of their scoring. They also returned McDonald's All-American Corey Brewer, and there were great things expected from Al Horford and Taurean Green. Joakim Noah's improvement was the icing on the cake.

This year's team has it's share of McDonald's All-Americans in Nick Calathes and Jai Lucas, but neither one of them have played at the collegiate level. This year will have to be a year of learning, growing and adjusting to a new game and a new life.

"My expectation is for us to be the best team that we can become and embrace the process and take ownership of what we can control," Donovan said. "They have to understand what will get them beat. If we don't rebound the basketball because of our lack of size, we're going to be getting beat. If we turn the ball over at a high rate, we're going to be getting beat."

The struggle for the Gators as they begin preparations for a new chapter goes beyond youth and inexperience. For starters, Florida lacks inside presence with only one player over 6-9 – Marreese Speights. The sophomore is drawing lots of attention for his potential, but Speights only averaged 5.7 minutes per game and just more than 4 points a game coming off the bench.

"I think Marreese has made a lot of strides, and there's been a lot of hoopla surrounding him, which shows me that there's no one else to hoopla around," Donovan said. "I've never seen a guy play two minutes a game and come into his next year and get so much attention in my entire life. The guy makes a baseline jump shot against Ohio State, and I really thought we had Wilt Chamberlain coming back."

In fact the only Gator to return who averaged more than nine minutes of playing time last season is junior Walter Hodge. The 6-0 sharp-shooter came off the bench to give Taurean Green a rest at the point guard position or came in at the two-spot to give Lee Humphrey a breather. Now, he will be looked to as the Gators' veteran leader.

"Walter's got a lot on his plate right now, but it's great to have one guy there who cares," Donovan said. "He's got a great opportunity, and I know he wants to be successful and I think he can provide a lot from his experience to help these guys."

Over the next several weeks, Donovan will learn his team since he really has no clue coming in. Changes to the NCAA rules a few years ago allow teams to have short workouts prior to the mid-October first practice date, but most of that time Donovan spent on the road recruiting the future crop of Gators. Starting Friday, they have three weeks to form an identity and develop chemistry before the new era begins. It's a situation that reminds Donovan of when he first arrived in Gainesville.

"The first year I came here, I walked into a situation where I saw the players and didn't know what they could do," he said. "There's a lot of things I need to do to put these guys in a situation to make them successful. If we try to play like we did last year we probably won't be very successful. This is a very unique situation and last year was very unique with all the guys returning. I look at it as a different experience from a coaching perspective."

The goals of the team may be different, and the expectations are certainly different, but the way this group of Gators plays basketball this upcoming season should be reminiscent of some of the things the last two teams did en route to national titles.

"These guys in this program have a great model of what to be looking to do," Donovan said. "If we create great chemistry and try to play the game the way it should be played and take advantage of each other's great strengths then I think we're headed in the right direction. I think if we have guys that aren't taking high percentage shots and are turning the ball over a lot then I think I'll be disappointed. We could have some games where if we play really well we might not have enough to get over the hump."

Florida's exhibition season begins on November 1 when they face Flagler. The real games begin on November 9 when they face North Dakota State. Their first big challenge will be a home date with Rutgers from the Big East Conference on November 17.

In lieu of Midnight Madness, the Gators will host a fan fest on Sunday, October 21. The event begins at the O'Connell Center at 2:30 with doors opening at 2 p.m.

Questions or comments? Contact FightinGators.com's Chris Chmielenski


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