November 13, 2014

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) - Florida coach Billy Donovan doesn't share the same, lofty opinion of his team as the pollsters.

Asked whether the Gators should be ranked No. 7, Donovan shook his head and said, ''No, no, not even remotely close.''

Of course, Donovan expressed a similar sentiment about last year's team, just before Florida won 30 consecutive games, went undefeated in Southeastern Conference play and advanced to the Final Four for the fourth time in his 19-year tenure.

''And I was right,'' Donovan said. ''We were totally dysfunctional. Now, we evolved into a team and hopefully we can again.''

Florida gets its first chance to move in that direction Friday night in the season opener against William & Mary.

The Gators will be without center Chris Walker, suspended the first two games of the regular season for violating team rules. They also will be without forward Alex Murphy, who transferred from Duke in the middle of last season and must sit out the fall semester under NCAA rules. Guards DeVon Walker (knee) and Brandone Francis (academics) are expected to miss the entire season.

Donovan still has plenty of returning talent - point guard Kasey Hill, sharp-shooter Michael Frazier II and versatile forward Dorian Finney-Smith lead the way - but a totally different makeup from a year ago.

Last season's team relied on defense, with guard Scottie Wilbekin forcing tough shots on the perimeter and center Patric Young doing the same in the lane. Both graduated, along with fellow defensive-minded starters Casey Prather and Will Yeguete.

The guys left behind don't have the same rim-protecting prowess, at least not through weeks of practice, an intrasquad game, a closed scrimmage against 15th-ranked VCU and an exhibition against Division II Barry.

According to Donovan, the Gators allowed 82 points in those three games, which included 1.15 points per possession, and gave up 48 percent shooting from behind the 3-point line.

''We're nowhere near where we need to be defensively,'' Donovan said. ''Just to put it in perspective, last year we gave up 59 (points a game). We've got a long, long, long way to go. Whether or not we can get there, time will tell.''

If players had any thoughts about picking up where they left off in April, when the season ended with a 63-53 loss to eventual national champion Connecticut in the Final Four, Donovan quickly stamped those out with constant conversations about the team's defensive problems.

Frazier said the Gators have taken ''major strides on the defensive end of the floor'' since beating Barry 79-70 last week, pointing to improvements in communication and discipline.

''We've got a lot of talent. We're scoring points. But I think, myself included, we have to focus more on the defense end,'' Frazier said. ''We understand there are a lot of things to get better at, and right now, all we're focused on is just getting better every day, not about the future, not worrying about the past, just staying in the moment, focusing on what we can control.''

A big challenge comes Monday against Miami.

''Guys from last year know what a really good defensive team looks like, and we're not quite there,'' Donovan said. ''The expectations, to me, in a lot of ways - and I think our guys understand this - have been given to them based on what's happened in the past.''

Friday's opener doesn't figure to be easy, either. William & Mary was picked to finish second in the Colonial Athletic Association's preseason poll, and has the conference's preseason player of the year in guard Marcus Thornton.

The Tribe lost six seniors from a team that went 20-12 and was seconds away from the first NCAA tournament appearance in school history before giving up a late layup and falling 75-74 to Delaware in the CAA championship game.

But Thornton, the conference's leading returning scorer after averaging 18.7 points, and sophomore Omar Prewitt (11.4 points per game) are expected to shoulder much of the offensive load.

William & Mary led eventual No. 1 seed Wichita State at halftime last Nov. 14 before falling 79-62. This will be the first meeting between the Tribe and Gators.

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