An Axe To Grind

The Numbers have been impressive. The wins have piled up and the record book has been rewritten. Over the past four years, no team in the SEC has done it better than the Florida Gators. In that period, Florida has won a league-high 97 games and has won the SEC East title three consecutive years, while sharing the outright league title two of those years.

But previous success doesn't guarantee future success, which is why Florida head coach Billy Donovan has his 2002-03 team working harder than ever. Rather than be content with the standard that has been set, Donovan chooses to push his team harder as they continue to build upon the foundation laid by such former Gator standouts as Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller, Brent Wright and Major Parker.

"I look at it as going forward into next year right now," Donovan said shortly after the 2001-02 season ended. "I hope our basketball team has an axe to grind. Everybody has to have something to prove in life. These guys will hopefully have something to prove as we move into next year."

Since dropping an 83-82 double overtime decision to Creighton in the NCAA Tournament, the Florida men's basketball program has been committed to moving forward and using last year as a learning experience.

A year older and a year wiser, the Gators return three starters, a pair of All-SEC performers and a strong nucleus from a team that posted the school's fourth consecutive 20-win season and fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance. Add six solid newcomers to the lineup, including another McDonald's All-American and the Danish League Player of the Year, and Donovan has arguably his deepest squad ever as he enters his seventh season in Gainesville.

"The big challenge right now is getting some of our guys, who are talented, to understand that talent doesn't mean anything," says Donovan. "If you don't have an axe to grind with your talent, then I think your talent gets wasted. We need to be the basketball team starting as a team that has an axe to grind."

One of the most experienced teams in the league, the Gators boast three seniors, led by All-SEC performers Matt Bonner and Brett Nelson, while Justin Hamilton returns to the backcourt after starting 29 games a year ago.

David Lee and James White demonstrated tremendous potential in their freshmen seasons a year ago, while junior center Bonell Colas will pick up an expanded role with the departure of four-year starter Udonis Haslem.

Donovan and his staff got a late, but very welcome present when Christian Drejer accepted a scholarship offer on July 24. Drejer comes to Florida from Denmark where he was a member of the Danish National Team and was the Danish League Player of the Year after averaging 31.6 points per game for SISU of Copenhagen. Drejer's presence immediately bolsters the Gators' perimeter attack.

Factor in freshmen Anthony Roberson, Rashid Al-Kaleem, Matt Walsh, Mario Boggan and redshirt freshman Adrian Moss and the Gators will have as deep a roster as anyone in the league.

The Gators' backcourt will be among the most talented in the nation with a variety of ball-handlers and three-point threats gracing the roster. Justin Hamilton posted a team-high 109 assists a year ago and a better than 2:1 assist to turnover ratio, while Brett Nelson dished out 101 assists in his junior season.

Anthony Roberson's presence, however, will likely enable Nelson to spend more time at the two guard spot, a more natural position for the 2001 All-American. Roberson was a McDonald's All-American in his senior season at Saginaw High School (Mich.) and possesses a lightning quick first step, as well as incredible vision and the ability to push the ball up the floor.

Nelson has averaged better than 14.0 points per game each of the past two seasons and figures to lead the Gators' perimeter assault once again. Nelson hit nearly 40 percent of his shots from downtown a year ago, draining a school record 98 three pointers while leaving him just 16 shy of breaking the Florida career mark in the category.

The Gators got much deeper in the backcourt with the addition of Drejer. The silky-smooth Danish star possesses tremendous range on his jumper, as well as uncanny court vision and an ability to put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket.

The athletic James "Flight" White figures to play a more prominent role after averaging 6.1 points per game as a freshman, while seeing action in 30 games. Rashid Al-Kaleem helps bolster the Gators' depth at the two guard spot, as the Gators can go three deep in the position.

Drejer, and White will also see plenty of action at the three guard/small forward position, as will newcomer Matt Walsh, whose ability to knock down the open jumper will stretch defenses out.

Matt Bonner continued to develop into one of the nation's premier power forwards a year ago and enters his senior season as the Gators' top returning scorer and rebounder. The 6-10 Bonner can score from a variety of positions on the floor, as witnessed by his 37 percent accuracy from beyond the arc, while also demonstrating an ability to play effectively with his back to the basket. The 2002 Verizon Academic All-American of the Year, Bonner ranks in the top five in the SEC among returning scorers and rebounders.

David Lee gives the Gators another strong presence who will be counted on to crash the boards with his 6-9, 240-pound frame. The former McDonald's All-American was the first player off the Gators' bench 13 times a year ago and saw action in all 31 games. His 145 rebounds a year ago are the second highest total of any returning Gator and he is the top returning shot blocker on the team with 28 swats a year ago.

Bonell Colas, Adrian Moss and Mario Boggan will all vie to fill the Gators' void in the post as they lose the consistent 16 points and eight rebounds of four-year starter Udonis Haslem. Colas and Moss are both capable rebounders with shot blocking ability, while Boggan enters with a very Haslem-like 6-6, 313-pound frame and can battle underneath the basket.

The Gators enter the 2002-03 season in search of their fifth straight NCAA Tournament appearance and an unprecedented fifth consecutive 20-win season. They enter the new season having been ranked in the last 61 Associated Press Polls, the third longest streak in the nation.

With the level of talent and depth available, as well as the wisdom of another year under their belt, adding to those totals is certainly a realistic goal.

"The University of Florida has enjoyed pockets of success in men's basketball," says Donovan. "Our goal is to bring some consistency to the program. We want to be in a position where we are winning and advancing in the NCAA Tournament on a consistent basis. The more times you play in the NCAA Tournament, the more chances you have to be successful."

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