The disappointment of losing in the Elite Eight for the third straight year didn't last long for coach Billy Donovan, who looked at the players who were coming back (power forward Patric Young, point guard Scottie Wilbekin, wings Michael Frazier II and Casey Prather), the transfers who would be eligible to play (guard Eli Carter from Rutgers, center Damontre Harris from South Carolina and wing Dorian Finney-Smith from Virginia Tech) and the two McDonald's All-Americans en route to Gainesville (point guard Kasey Hill and forward Chris Walker) and envisioned an even deeper run in the NCAAs. "On paper we looked like a very promising team," Donovan says.
That optimism faded as the season drew closer. The 6' 10" Walker wasn't cleared academically by the NCAA to enroll in school, so he can't join the Gators until after the fall semester. Donovan suspended Wilbekin, Harris and Finney-Smith indefinitely for violations of team rules and will open the season without them. Glue guy Will Yeguete hasn't completely recovered from May surgery on his right knee. Carter isn't yet at full strength after breaking his right leg while at Rutgers last February. Frazier has mononucleosis.
That off-season roster suggested a deep, complete outfit that could run Donovan's up-tempo offense and pressure defense. Now? The coach has no idea what kind of team he'll put on the floor.
Hill could be the key to making Florida go. Athletically, he's the best point guard Donovan has had since Jason Williams in 1997--98. If the 6' 1" Hill can translate the speed and court vision he showed at Florida's Montverde Academy to the Division I level, he'll provide a perfect complement to spot-up shooter Frazier, slasher Prather and post scorer Young. And Hill hasn't missed a practice. "He's shining, man," wing DeVon Walker says of Hill. "He's learning every day."
The Gators will get challenged as they discover their identity. They visit Wisconsin on Nov. 12. A visit from Florida State on Nov. 29 will start a four-game stretch that also includes a trip to Connecticut, a visit to the O'Connell Center from Kansas and a matchup with Memphis in New York. The SEC should be better than last season, most notably because of Kentucky's historically good recruiting class. The Gators face the Wildcats in Lexington on Feb. 15 and in Gainesville on March 8.
Player to watch: Michael Frazier II
Frazier averaged only 5.6 points a game, but shot 46.8 percent from three-point range as a freshman. Frazier's offseason might have made him better. Florida's sharpshooter played for Gators coach Billy Donovan on the Team USA under-19 team at the FIBA world championships. "Being able to play against pro talent, because those guys overseas are already playing pro, was probably the biggest thing, being able to compete on that level," Frazier says. "I had to raise up all levels of my game because I was playing with such high-talented guys. In that kind of atmosphere, playing with those kind of players, it forces you to raise up your game."
Telling number: 14
The average fouls per game committed by Florida last season -- lowest in the SEC. That light touch should help the Gators deal with the stricter contact rules this season.
Q&A with Head Coach Billy Donovan
SI.com: Is there anyone who isn't banged up?
Donovan: "The constants have been Kasey Hill, Devon Walker, Casey Prather and Patric Young. Those four guys have been the only four constants. Everybody else has missed at least three or four days at practice. But the thing about it is our team needs to keep moving forward. Regardless of what happens [in the preseason], the season is still coming."
SI.com: What have been some of the toughest issues?
Donovan: Eli Carter is not the same guy right now that he was when he was at Rutgers. Chris Walker is not here. Will Yeguete is not who Will Yeguete was his sophomore year or going into his junior year before he got hurt. Those are challenges. Our team is not that team on paper."
SI.com: What have you seen from Kasey Hill so far?
Donovan: "He's learning. There have been some moments where he's made really great plays, and there have been moments where he has looked like a freshman. There are going to be some ups and downs for him as it is for most freshmen. He's really fast in the open floor. When he takes care of the basketball, he makes the game easy for a lot of people. His assist-to-turnover ratio so far [in practice] has been fairly good. He's got to shoot a little bit higher percentage. He's not taking bad shots, but the length, the size, the speed of the game coming from high school is a little different -- especially when you're a guard getting in the lane. Shots that normally he'd have made in high school are getting a little bit more challenged or altered. But those are things he'll get better at as he gets more experience."
SI.com: How optimistic are you that you'll get Chris Walker on the roster and on the floor this season?
Donovan: "He's working really, really hard. I'm optimistic that he'll be back here. That's the challenge (getting into rotation) is him trying to play catch up for what he will have missed. We'll have to see how much or how well he can pick it up. That's the unknown for me. You have a guy that could potentially be here in December. If he is here, what kind of condition is he in? How quickly can he absorb what's going on? Do you cut down what you're doing if you have to just to be on floor playing just to make it a little bit more simple for him -- we'll probably have to do that with him being a freshman. If that opportunity presents itself for us, we'll figure out a way to try to utilize him as best we can."
SI.com: What can Patric Young do to get better offensively?
Donovan: "I'm not looking for him to get better. He needs to post up in front of the rim. There is nothing more he needs to do. When he does that, that's all he needs to do. There is no reason for him to be shooting 15-foot jump shots, no reason for him to be taking eight-foot jump hooks. He needs to post up in the front of the rim, run the floor and do that. That's the only thing he needs to do. He needs to master that and if he can master that, he'll be really effective offensively."
SI.com: Defensively, how can Damontre Harris complement Patric Young?
Donovan: "The one thing is last year I think Patric developed into one of the best defensive centers in the country. He was really good in terms of clogging up the middle, he was really good on perimeter coverages and guarding pick-and-rolls, he really moved his feet. He was a defensive problem. Our defense was really good because of what he was able to do. Damontre brings a different kind of presence because Damontre is much more of a pure shot blocker naturally than Patric is. You'd probably move Patric to the power forward spot and play Damontre at the center spot. That would give us a lot of size at the basket if we needed to play that way. Damontre probably has to get a little better. The one thing with him that I'm a little concerned about -- and it's not his fault -- but when you have a whole year of being injured like he was, he has missed out on a whole year of growth. He was around and practiced sporadically here or there, but for the most part, he had a year where he probably didn't improve at the level we would have liked for him to improve because he was hurt."