SCOTT: Florida has to put title in the past

At Florida's Midnight Madness, coach Billy Donovan brought out the $35,000 trophy the Gators earned by winning the national championship back in April. Instead of dwelling on the trophy or its meaning, Donovan dropped it.

The trophy shattered, shocking everyone in attendance, including the Gators themselves.

 

"It was a replica," Donovan said. "It was still the biggest turnover of my life, but thank goodness it was a replica and not the real thing."

 

Donovan's point was clear, though. Forget about trophies, rings and past glories. It's time to start over with a new season and a new team, even if the Gators do return all five starters from a national championship team.

 

"The entire country thinks that with that championship we're still at the mountaintop. And we're not," Donovan said. "Everything you're being fed is poison. And if you take it and swallow what everybody's giving you and believe it, you'll die and this team will die."

 

Only time will tell if the Gators get the message, but so far they're saying and doing all the right things.

 

"We have a lot to prove," Florida guard Lee Humphrey said. "It's a new year. Last year and the championship are over."

 

At the same time, there's nothing the Gators can do to top last season's accomplishments. It's all or nothing this time around.

 

"This year is a different scenario than last year because nobody expected us to win a national championship last year," center Al Horford said. "It's expected of us this year."

How will the Gators handle those expectations? Will they be as hungry as they were last season? Will they handle potential late-season adversity as well as they did last season?

 

Will it matter as much to them as individuals?

 

"I think all the questions about our basketball team are legitimate concerns because they're human beings," Donovan said. "More people suffer through prosperity than through poverty. Prosperity is a difficult thing to handle in our society."

 

This situation is even more complex because the Gators chose their own particular prosperity. Instead of going to the NBA draft, Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer and Horford all decided to return to Florida for another season, saying they'd rather be in college and have more fun than make millions of dollars playing pro ball at this point in their lives.

 

While that's honorable and commendable, you've got to wonder how that will affect the work ethic, drive and expectations of Noah, Brewer and Horford. As Donovan said, they're just human beings, and it's human nature for young people to struggle with everything that comes with newfound success.

 

"It's human nature to kind of take a sigh that you've arrived," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "It's hard to get back over that hump."

 

Then again, if any team can handle it, Florida has a chance. The Gators displayed a lot of maturity, toughness, chemistry and unselfishness on the way to their championship last season.

 

"I think I've got a different and unique bunch of kids," Donovan said. "They are working as hard as they've worked and getting along as well as possible. I have not seen them come in with an attitude. They're receptive to coaching. They're on guard for the whole thing."

 

***

 

Long before the Gators can even start thinking about the NCAA Tournament, they'll have to fight their way through an SEC schedule loaded with land mines – especially the ones named LSU, Alabama and Tennessee.

 

"I think it could be a phenomenal year," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "I think LSU, Florida and Alabama are teams that can compete for the national championship."

 

LSU made it to the Final Four last season and returns a slimmer, trimmer version of Glen "Big Baby" Davis, as well as point guard Tack Minor, who missed most of last season with a knee injury.

 

Alabama returns four starters, led by point guard Ronald Steele and forward Jermareo Davidson.

 

Tennessee returns three starters from a team that won the SEC East, led by guard Chris Lofton and forward Dane Bradshaw, as well heralds the arrival of freshman point guard Ramar Smith.

 

Who did we forget? Oh yes, Kentucky. It seems like a lot of people are forgetting about the Wildcats this time around, except, of course, the SEC coaches.

 

"They've got a great blend of some very experienced, talented guys along with some very, very good freshmen that were heavily recruited," Donovan said. "They're one of those teams to me that could have an off-the-chart year. They could get to the Final Four this year. I don't think there's any question about it."

 

The Wildcats might be flying under the national radar at this point, but as Smith himself said, "Kentucky is Kentucky."

 

"We've been the program many people measure themselves by," Smith said. "Kentucky has been the flagship program of this conference for a long time. We expect to continue to be one of the best teams in this league, but it's going to take a Herculean effort with so many new faces and with how much more competitive the conference has become."

 

***

 

The SEC will be particularly competitive in the low post, where some of the nation's better players will be banging around this season.

 

Several of those post players are back because they learned a valuable lesson in 2005, when seven SEC players entered the draft and only one was drafted.

 

"They've learned from some of the mistakes of the past," Pearl said.

 

That's a big reason why the SEC is loaded with talented post players such as Noah, Horford, Davis and Davidson, Kentucky's Randolph Morris, Ole Miss wide-body Dwayne Curtis and Arkansas 7-footer Steven Hill.

 

"I don't think there can be a basketball conference in the country that has the quality of post play and post players that our league does," Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said. "There are some terrific bigs."

 

And that's all despite the loss of Tyrus Thomas, who left LSU after his freshman season to become the third pick in the 2006 NBA Draft. While Thomas took the jump, Noah, Horford, Davis and Davidson all chose to return for at least one more season of college basketball.

 

"Ten years ago, our collection of post players wouldn't have been a big deal," Georgia coach Dennis Felton said. "In today's era, it is because those guys with size just seem to bolt so quickly to the NBA. They just don't spend as much time in college to accumulate a collection across a team, much less a conference."

 

Between the return of those players and the expected growth of Morris, Hill, Mississippi State forward Charles Rhodes, LSU forward Magnum Rolle and Arkansas forwards Darien Townes and Vincent Hunter, driving the lane, posting up down low or battling for a rebound could become a dangerous risk for many of the SEC's small forwards and guards.

 

"It's certainly going to require some defensive commitment to play those guys, because one-on-one there are several of those guys who can't be guarded," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "So all of us are going to have to think about what we do defensively to deal with Glen Davis, or deal with those two kids from Florida."

 

***

 

The number of quality big men in the conference makes Tennessee's offseason loss even more painful for the Vols.

 

The Vols will have a difficult time replacing would-be senior forward Major Wingate, who was dismissed from the team due to a failed drug test and is now playing professionally in Greece.

 

"It was huge. He left a pretty big hole," Pearl said. "It was a failure of mine that I could not reach him more."

 

At least Bradshaw is making good progress in his recovery from offseason surgery to repair torn ligaments in his right wrist. The wrist proved to be a problem for him throughout the second half of last season.

 

"What the doctor told me is you need to have 60 degrees both ways to shoot a basketball," Bradshaw said. "I have that, so it seems like it's ready to go, but I'm looking forward to getting stronger and stronger in weeks to come."

 

While Ole Miss doesn't carry the same expectations as Tennessee, LSU, Alabama and Florida, there's no doubt that the 6-8, 280-pound Curtis is extremely valuable to any chances the Rebels have for a winning season. That's why first-year coach Andy Kennedy has to be concerned about a stress fracture in Curtis' right foot.

 

Curtis, who averaged 13.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game last season, will likely miss the first two weeks of the season, including the Rebels' opener against Mississippi Valley State on Nov. 10.

 

"They don't want to do surgery," Kennedy said. "But they want to give it more time to do its own healing."

 

Without Curtis, Ole Miss will turn to junior forward Jermey Parnell and junior college

transfer Kenny Williams in the post.

 

***

 

The best quote from the SEC Media Days came from South Carolina coach Dave Odom: "Nobody starts out or wants to finish their coaching career saying, ‘Well, I was a really good NIT coach.'"

 

The Gamecocks, of course, have won back-to-back NIT championships.

 

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Richard Scott is a Birmingham, Ala..-based sports writer, author and freelance columnist for Tiger Rag. Reach him at rscottsec@yahoo.com.


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