Friday February 1st, 2008

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Chandler Parsons walked off the O'Connell Center court Sunday smiling wide. The Florida freshman forward and his teammates had just thrashed then-No. 13 Vanderbilt 86-64, a victory which featured a 23-0 Gators run and assists on 26 of 29 field goals.

"I thought," Parsons said, "we played flawless."

Two days later, Florida coach Billy Donovan gathered his freshly ranked (No. 20) baby Gators in front of a video screen. He showed them seven occasions when the Commodores missed open layups. He pointed out every time a Gator forgot to box out. Parsons revised his opinion of the win, which, outside the Florida basketball complex, was earning the Gators praise. Parsons wondered, "How'd we get away with some of that stuff?"

A year from now, Parsons and his teammates probably will understand when they walk off the court that even a 22-point win against a ranked opponent can, as Donovan says, distort things. But save for junior guard Walter Hodge, none of these Gators had played meaningful minutes in a win against a ranked opponent. When they walked off the court Sunday, they didn't know how they were supposed to feel.

The lessons come daily for the team that is the two-time defending national champ in name only. The players who won those titles -- the ones who knew how they were supposed to feel after a win or a loss -- are gone. In their place is a raw, talented group made up of one junior, four sophomores and five freshmen that may or may not be overachieving.

Florida (18-3, 5-1 in the SEC East) may crash into a wall during the next five days. The Gators play at Arkansas on Saturday and at No. 7 Tennessee on Tuesday. Lead assistant Larry Shyatt knows the staff can't protect the youngsters from the praise or overconfidence. Like the child who discovers the stove is hot, Shyatt said, some lessons must be learned the hard way.

"Sometimes," Shyatt said, "they burn their fingers."

Donovan and his coaches expected a season full of burnt fingers when they opened preseason practice in October. Shyatt called that first weekend "experimental," and sophomore forward Dan Werner said he wasn't even sure what position he would play. When Shyatt spoke of shuffle-double-doubles and blitzing ball screens, more than half of Florida's nine scholarship players looked at him as if he was speaking Swahili.

Still, the coaches marveled that when a player didn't understand a concept, he would ask them to explain. It seemed the Gators had recruited the only 18-year-olds in the world unafraid to admit they didn't know something. Shyatt, who in 31 years of coaching has seen plenty of freshmen try to fake it 'til they make it, is glad the players are willing to ask, even if they try Donovan's patience. "Kids are going to try to trick you," Shyatt said. "Ours haven't. Thank goodness. That's a great trait."

The trait seems strongest in freshman guard Nick Calathes. A 6-foot-5 swingman from suburban Orlando, Calathes leads the Gators in scoring (16 ppg) and assists (6.0 apg). He also leads in minutes in voluntary one-on-one film sessions with Donovan. The most popular double feature shows Calathes' turnovers and the shots he took too quickly.

Just because they want to learn doesn't mean the Gators correct every mistake immediately. On Thursday, Donovan seemed astounded his players still haven't mastered a transition defense concept most middle school teams have down pat.

"When the floor is spread and gets a little bit chaotic, we still can't get anybody to yell out and declare the ball and guard the ball -- as simple as that may seem," Donovan said. "Now, to me, that's something that seems pretty obvious and pretty easy. ... For whatever reason, they haven't been able to figure that one out yet."

That's why Donovan is occasionally pleasantly surprised when he watches his players attack a defense they've never seen before. He'll wonder if the Gators will need a few trips down the floor to solve it, and then he'll watch Calathes or fellow freshman Jai Lucas pick it apart and find center Marreese Speights for a dunk. "I get confused sometimes dealing with them," Donovan said with a smile.

Donovan knows how to reach them, though. After showing his players video evidence Tuesday that they hadn't perfected Dr. Naismith's game, Donovan told them about Tiger Woods. After an eight-shot victory at the Buick Invitational last weekend, Woods talked about improvements he still needed to make. That resonated with Donovan. "Here is maybe the greatest athlete to ever walk the face of the earth," Donovan said, "and he wins, and he's talking about getting better."

Donovan wants his players to feel the same way, even after beating a ranked team by 22. And he's OK with the Gators' ranking, too. If they can handle it, they'll keep it. If they can't, they'll learn yet another valuable lesson in a season full of them.

"I'm not looking for our basketball team just to fly under the radar and not be ranked," Donovan said. "If you've got a good program and a good team, people recognize that and there's going to be publicity and exposure and attention. We've got to be mature enough to handle that."

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