Fresh Start for Gator Hoops

Unlike the start to last season, Billy Donovan isn't trying to piece together a team after losing four starters from a back-to-back national championship squad. That doesn't mean there's not questions entering the season for the Gator basketball team.

Donovan officially kicked of the 2008-09 season during Florida's media day on Wednesday afternoon, and the mood surrounding this year's squad is a lot like last year's. Even though Florida made a deep run into the NIT at the end of last season, the Gators are still young – very young.

"The two areas we're trying to focus on with them are development and maturity," Donovan said. "We've had, I think, some very competitive, spirited workouts. Their attitude has been good. They've tried very hard. I've definitely seen a growth in the returning players, in particular the sophomore class right now."

The sophomore class, and the team for that matter centers around sophomore guard Nick Calathes. With Marreese Speights in the NBA, the team belongs to last year's leading scorer Calathes who averaged more than 15 points per game.

Out of Calathes, the Gators will be looking for more than just points. He'll have to join senior Walter Hodge in bringing leadership to this upcoming season. And that comes with questions. He's been out for the last several weeks because of a pulled hip-flexor/groin muscle injury and prior to that he was in Greece playing with the national team.

"He's really not been an active participant for about 12 weeks," Donovan said. "He's there every day trying to do everything he can to help provide leadership. I think it's very difficult to turn into a leader when you're not around all the time. That's going to be something he is going to work at and something he wants to get better at."

Alongside with Calathes in the backcourt are Jai Lucas and Hodge. Both players have increased their strength from last year, and they'll need it to improve Florida's defensive efforts from a year ago. The Gators allowed opponents to shoot better than 37 percent from behind the 3-point line, although they began to recognize the importance of defense during their NIT run.

"I think that Erving Walker, Jai Lucas and Walter Hodge are going to have to become unbelievable defenders and be unbelievable sparkplug energy guys," Donovan said. "If they're not going to be that way, it's going to be very difficult to play two of those guys at the same time on the floor."

Donovan said the decision on whether to play two guys under six-feet tall in the backcourt will rely on their defensive effectiveness. If they can create havoc for opposing backcourts, then they'll play at the same time. Otherwise the coaching staff is going to have to look for other options.

"I'm hopeful [not playing great defense] was a humbling experience for all of us last year," Donovan said. "There's no way in their mind last year that they didn't see themselves competing in the NCAA Tournament. If you would've talked to them in January or February they thought it was a foregone conclusion. … They need to know we were 10th in the league in field-goal percentage defense. We were ninth in the league in guarding the 3-point line and ninth in the league in rebounding. Those are the areas we need to get better. They need to make a commitment to do those things to get better because that's going to ultimately determine us making the type of strides we want to make."

Improving the defense isn't all on the shoulders of the backcourt, it falls on the frontcourt as well. And the Gators have a big hole to fill in after losing first round draft pick Speights.

"That's the question we're going to have to see as we start practice," Donovan said. "When we start practice is there somebody consistent in our frontcourt? Is there somebody we can rely on that we know is going to give us consistent minutes?"

A lot like last year, there will have to be a committee approach to the frontcourt for the Gators. Dan Werner returns more experienced and more physical, but there's also a lot of young talent.

"We really have lost a lot of depth with our frontcourt," Donovan said. "I'm excited about (Eloy) Vargas, (Kenny) Kadji, and Allan Chaney. Dan Werner starts this season in a lot better shape than he was a year ago. The biggest question right now for us is how we play that position. Is someone going to emerge out of that group that is reliable? Or is it a position that we are going to have to play a frontcourt by committee. "

Vargas has some rehabilitation to do, though.

"The one guy that probably is a little bit behind the pack right now is Eloy Vargas, just because he's coming off ankle surgery," Donovan said. "He's now been in practice for the last two weeks. The biggest problem with him is that this is not an injury with him just coming here in the summertime. He had been dealing with this back in his senior year of high school."

With a young team, the Gators will need to make the most of the preseason to develop their talent and chemistry. They have their usual load of cupcakes on the schedule, but they do face some tough talent before the end of November.

"These next three weeks for us are going to be critical because of the way our schedule starts; opening up with Toledo, then playing Bradley, then playing Southern Utah and then going to play Kansas City to play against Syracuse and Kansas," Donovan said. "Coming out of the box with our schedule we're being thrown into it right away."


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