New Season Brings Fresh Enthusiasm

The Florida Gators will kick off the new basketball season soon and will do so with a lot of the old faces in new places. In a somewhat veteran team that finished 25-11 last year, the Gators will only be without two players that played a lot last year. The turnover may mean four or more starters on the floor playing new positions. Head Coach Billy Donovan is looking forward to seeing what happens.

With any team that loses only two of the core players from the previous year's team, Donovan will look for a mature team to try and make a difference this season.

"I know that our guys are anxious to get started," Donovan told the media Thursday. "I'm very pleased with the effort that the players put in during the summer and I think that we had a very good off-season.

"I think going into this year is that I can already tell that there is a big change in maturity. Now, how will that translate into wins and losses, I am not sure. I feel like the chemistry, unit and bond of the team has gotten better from what I have seen over the past few weeks. I think those are things you want to start off as building blocks for the season. We have some guys who have really made some great leaps."

Physical maturity is a big part of what Donovan was looking for in the offseason and that would come with training and exercise. For the most part he has been very pleased with the early returns on those workouts.

"Ray Shipman has lost about 16 pounds and is in the best shape of his life," Donovan said. "He has a much greater commitment to his body. Erving Walker has changed his body as well. Dan Werner and Chandler Parsons are also in great shape. Our freshmen, Erik Murphy and Kenny Boynton, appear to be physically able to handle the things that we've thrown at them."

"I think it's interesting to watch freshmen as they go through the first few weeks of conditioning and individual workouts because a lot of times you know that you're in bad shape when they can't even get through a workout. We've had that in years past and those two guys have really been able to handle the things we've asked of them and they've done it with intensity."

Donovan actually has a pretty veteran group of players by college basketball standards. However, juggling the positions of those players is going to be something he works with this year. How that juggling works out will go along way in determining how good the team can be.

"It's interesting because I think we have somewhat of a new team, but with almost the same players," Donovan said. "For two years Alex Tyus has been at center and now he's going to make the shift to his more natural position at power forward...having Vernon Macklin there now and I think Vernon is more of a pure, natural center."

"Erving has been more of a point guard his whole life, but because Nick Calathes was so good with the ball in his hands, Erving played off the ball. So, I think this is the first time he will see significant time at the point guard spot."

"I'm hoping that for a guy like Dan Werner, who I think absorbed way too many minutes last year, he will be able to have some time to rest and be fresher when we need him. I do think we have some guys we can plug into some spots. I only wish we had a little bit more depth in our back court in case we run into foul trouble or a sickness or injury."

There are some issues and questions with this team. The biggest being depth in the back court , but Donovan seems eager to get things started.

"I think that there are a lot of people who have a lot of questions about this team is and what they can become and to me, that's exciting and challenging. I think our guys are working toward that. There are things that I'm seeing that as a team makes me feel like we are moving in the right direction. I don't know how the expectations effect them, we just have to go out and play."

That back court, especially at point guard is really the big issue. The Gators really have one, maybe two true point guards in Erving Walker and Nimrod Tishman. Others are going to have to play the position from time to time just to make things work this year.

"We are going to have to slide Parsons or Dan Werner or somebody back there to help them," Donovan said about the ball handling part of the point guard position. "I think Kenny Boynton has showed that he is a good enough ball handler that we can shuffle some of those responsibilities on him. I think with Werner and Parsons because of their size and their ability to handle and pass the ball that leaves some semblance of comfort that we can slide one of those guys back there. That is not ideal for us, but it helps eliminate a potential problem if one of those guys goes down."

Donovan will likely lean on Walker a great deal this season to be his point man. Walker,m he says, has earned the head coach's trust.

"Erving has been doubted his entire life," Donovan said of the 5-7 Walker. "He's a great competitor and I have a lot of trust in him. I think our relationship is a very very good one because we are close and I trust him."

"There are things that you say to players and you can tell whether or not there is a level of them being bought into what is being said. I told Erving that this season will be the most difficult of his career in basketball. I told him that what he was in store for this year would be like no other year he has experienced playing the game of basketball. I laid out for him what he needed to do. He needed to get stronger and get in much better shape than he was a year ago. He needed to make a commitment in the weight room because there were guys on our team that needed the work in the weight room to improve, particularly our front court players.. I think he took all of those things and really committed himself to getting better in those areas. He's doing everything that I have asked him to do to have himself prepared for this season. I think he believes and understands this will be the most challenging year in his career."

Donovan wants and believes that Walker understands he isn't supposed to do everything himself. He doesn't want Walker to be try and fill all the stat voids lost by Nick Calathes. Donovan just wants him to make his team a better team.

"Because of playing alongside of Nick and Nick made the game easy for him and got him shots, there was a level of relief of pressure there from handling the ball all the time," Donovan said of Walker last season. "There are things Nick did to make Erving better, and I think Erving will embrace and take on the challenge that he has in front of himself."

"I think he knows and cares and that is a concern. To lose a guy that scored 18 points and had all those assists. He is filling those shoes. I don't think Erving looks at it as I need to fill all those points and assists, I think he looks at it as I need to make my team better. I'm excited to see how he does respond because I know he has worked hard and committed to improving on those things."

The newest name to the Florida roster isn't quite on the roster just yet. Nimrod Tishman enrolled from Israel in the offseason and is in the midst of being cleared to play collegiate basketball. Tishman was an unlikely addition, but one that Donovan felt that was necessary.

"We were put in a tough position when Jai Lucas decided to move on and Nick Calathes decided to pursue a professional opportunity," Donovan said. "We went from having two back court players who played a lot of minutes to having none. And now you lose Walter Hodge. So even in that late signing period, it was hard to find a guy late when you have no relationships established. There were some guys we had tried to recruit back in July but they weren't interested because we had those two talented players. So that made it difficult to recruit, but once they left, we felt we needed to bring someone back in."

"Nimrod can handle the ball but I don't have a lot of expectations on him being a high major contributor at all this year. I do feel like he can come in and play for a few minutes and provide us some ball handling back there."

He isn't cleared yet, but Donovan is pretty confident that Tishman will be able to play some minutes for the Gators before the season gets started.

"Our staff probably put the school in a tough spot because he was a late signee and addition to our team," Donovan said of the Israeli star. "There is always a concern about players coming from overseas, because they get concerned about following the amateurism rules and do they follow under being eligible to compete at the college level. There is really no college level over in Europe. A lot of times they are around professional teams, club teams, or around national team. There is a series of checklists that the NCAA has to go through to be cleared to play. He is cleared and eligible to practice, but if we were playing tomorrow, he would not be cleared to play. I think it is a process that the school has to go through."

"I think all the preliminary phone calls that they have made to this point, there has been nothing that has come back to us right now that has created any level of concern or alarm, that he would be declared ineligible to play. We are just waiting for the NCAA to do their due diligence on what they have to do to make him eligible and be cleared to play. This is something that NCAA does in regards with their checklists. I think this ruling for him should come down well before we play the first game."

Probably the largest key cog added to the roster in the offseason is guard Kenny Boynton. Boynton comes in with the McDonald's All-American tag as a shooter and all around player as a point guard or a shooting guard. Donovan thinks Boynton is humble and that has really paid dividends with chemistry with his teammates.

"Anytime there are new players that join a team with a reputation already, there is always a different level of different expectation," Donovan said. "I think that the expectations should really be on the returning players. I think in Boynton's case, for a player who has come in with the level of exposure that he has, he has come in with a great level of humility. Sometimes when you have guys that come in with these huge reputations, they come in with an attitude and the idea that they already have all of the answers and have it all figured out. He has been anything but that. He's has been a great teammate and I think he's made the chemistry on our team better. I think guys on the team like him."

Donovan is not going to allow himself or anyone to put too much on Boynton in terms of helping this team.

"He's not a savior, he is one guy and a freshman," Donovan said. "I hope that guys like Dan Werner, Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus, Ray Shipman, and Erving Walker would want to step up and help provide more for him to help him through what he needs to do to help our team. But we are not going into this putting a lot of emphasis on him to make us productive. He's going to be a good player here, but I think that the expectation that he's going to be this total impact player is totally unfair to him. He needs to understand too, if people are going to write that, it is their opinion, but not our focus"

Sophomore guard Ray Shipman is another player that will provide meaningful minutes at multiple positions. Donovan will use Shipman at the 2 and the 3 spot because of his athleticism. A renewed interest in staying on the court is something Shipman pushed himself to prepare for in the offseason.

"I think he's a huge factor for us because I think he's the one guy that can provide more depth into our back court," Donovan said of Shipman. "I think Ray came in with the totally wrong mindset (last year) and I don't think he bought into the things that we needed him to do to make our team better. He has a much better understanding of who he is and what we need him to do. I don't think he ever pushed himself to get into shape."

"The one thing I always admired about Nick, he had a great ability to play through fatigue. We didn't have a lot of guys that could play through fatigue. A lot of guys when they got tired, they didn't have the ability to play through it. When they got tired, they didn't have the talent to get through it. I think Ray saw that and worked hard this offseason to get himself in much better shape. He is moving better and is more athletic than he was. Is he shooting and handling the ball better? I don't know. But I do know he's in better physical condition to be a better player for us. That's something he needed to address first."

"It would give us great versatility in our back court if he can fill his role of what we need him to do. He came in last year with too much concern on being a scorer and not enough on being a defender. He needs to go in there now and be a guy that is an X factor, playing some two and playing some three and flexibility in how we want him to play."

There is some needed versatility in the back court, but still some concerns. In the front court, the Gators return experience and add center Vernon Macklin to the mix. Macklin transferred from Georgetown a year ago and sat out last season. He will now get a chance to use his brute strength and ability on the floor for the Gators. The muscle was much needed last year, but seems to be in greater supply this season on this Gator roster.

"I think there's no question that physically Vernon gives us a presence inside but I think that he does need to get better at rebounding the ball," Donovan said. "When he is fresh, he is a tremendous runner and shot blocker, but he is not a guy that handles fatigue very well right now, although I think he's in much better shape now than he was a year ago. I do think he gives us some size defensively against some of our bigger opponents."

"Kenny Kadji is another guy that gives us core size and presence in our front court, but he is probably the one guy who has been the most inconsistent up and down. His maturity needs to get better and he needs to become more consistent. If we can get him to be more consistent and Vernon being more consistent, I feel like we will have a presence in size and strength, length, and athleticism at that spot with those two guys."

"Alex Tyus will probably move toward a forward position, you can also add (Erik) Murphy and and we have Werner there. I think we have some flexibility in those spots. I think Vernon's presence physically will provide something for us, but he's got to learn to rebound and alter and change shots at the basket."

Donovan almost lost Tyus in the offseason as well. Tyus was unhappy playing the center position and didn't want to do it for another season for the Gators. Donovan had mixed feelings on Tyus' predicament.

"I think Alex has been fine," Donovan said. "Like anything else, all of these guys want an opportunity to reach their goals. I understood where he was coming from...he didn't come here to play the center spot, and all fairness to him it probably wasn't fair to him, but because Marreese (Speights) leaving early and a couple of things that happened with our team, he was caught playing there."

"On the other hand, I often said to the guys that I didn't care where I played when I was playing, I just wanted the opportunity to play and he had a great opportunity to play. But, I think Alex has worked hard and his attitude has been good. I think he is better than a year ago. I still think there are things he can get better at and improve on."

Dan Werner is the lone senior on the team, but Chandler parsons, Alex Tyus, and Erving Walker have played a lot of basketball. Will there be leaders emerge from this group with the loss of Calathes?

"I don't know if I really looked at Nick a lot as a leader," Donovan said. "The ball was in his hands a lot and he made a lot of plays for us in games. I think if you look at the end of the year, Erving Walker was in a lot at the end of games because of his free throw shooting and ability to make shots. I don't know much about Boynton at the end of games other than to reference back in high school. I would hope that Chandler Parsons can step up and be better at the free throw line and be better at shooting the ball. Dan Werner would be in there. Vernon Macklin is an older guy. I don't know if we have a clear cut leader on the team. Even on the some other teams I've had, I don't think there's ever been a go-to guy."

"You always try to get a guy a shot from an area of the floor where a player has a good chance of making the shot, whoever it may be. I feel like we have some guys that we can use to make some plays at the end of games. I thought for Nick last year, because the ball was in his hands so much, it was hard for him to make plays. I thought at times he tried to do too much. big shot at the end of the game but I'm hoping this year we can spread the ball a round a little bit more."

There are key areas of focus to concentrate on moving forward according to Donovan.

"If you look at the RPI, we have played 15 games against teams ranked from first in the country to No. 50," he said. "Those generally are the best teams in the country and are NCAA Tournament teams. In those 15 games, we are 3-12. The thing that we break down and have realized is that those teams have shot way too high of a percentage against us, we did not defend the three-point line...and the last problem was the rebounding. I think those were the things that prevented us from beating some of those elite teams."

"I do feel like our depth is in our front court so hopefully that's an area where we will be better. We do not have a lot of depth in our back court. So we need to figure out a way to play so that we give our back court guys time to be rested and have the opportunity to go in late in the game and help us out. I think that's critical. We also need to create a situation in which Walker and Boynton, who could potentially be two our leading scorers, are not worn down coming into the home stretch of the game when we need their support."

What is it going to take to get back to an elite level and get in the NCAA tournament?

"I think the challenge is always to try to build that back," Donovan said. "My first two years here were losing seasons and you never really know what the future holds. I can remember being about as down and disappointed as I ever could be after losing to Manhattan in the NCAA Tournament and then two years later we won back-to-back National Championships."

"The biggest thing for me is whether the players and coaches are working to get back to being as best as you can be. Certainly, the goal is to get to the tournament and compete for the SEC Championship. I also realized the uphill battle that would be in front of us after 2007 when we had Jonathan Mitchell, Marreese Speights, Walter Hodge and Dan Werner as our only four guys. It's not like I didn't know that and would think we would go on like we were. I think its all part of that growth process. Competitively, of course that's where we want to be, but it's also a process."

"I made a comment about Kobe Bryant, where he won a championship and it was six-straight years before he ever got back to that point. I think in any career, program, or even professional franchise, there are ups and downs. I don't think anyone is always at the top, every year for the rest of their lives. That's the exciting part and the challenge for me is to get back to that point."

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Donovan talked about guard Adam Allen and his prognosis for returning to the team after injury.

"Adam Allen has been a frustrating thing for `me and more frustrating for him," Donovan said. "A week from this (coming) Saturday was a year to the day that he got hurt. He has been cleared to do some light running. He has had a couple surgeries. Clearly, he is behind. I feel terrible for him because he has been trying to get himself back. He will not be practicing tomorrow. He is doing some light running but is having some discomfort. I think the doctors have determined that there is nothing more he can do to damage his knee any further, it's just a matter of how much pain he can tolerate when he gets in shape and that remains to be seen."

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