|Two-time defending national champions begin rebuilding project|
|Written by Admin|
|Tuesday, 06 November 2007 11:03|
A large glass case in the lobby displays several trophies along with signed balls and strands of net. Nearby, monitors replay highlight videos from the two championship seasons. And the practice court has large sections of each Final Four floor hanging on a wall.
Florida's roster endured even more change.
Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Al Horford and Joakim Noah jumped to the NBA, Lee Humphrey and Chris Richard graduated, and the Gators were left with youth, uncertainty and one heck of a rebuilding project.
Now, coach Billy Donovan can only hope his overhauled team turns out as well as that other renovation. The unranked Gators open the season Friday night against North Dakota State.
``This is a tremendous learning experience for these kids because of what's happened the last two years,'' Donovan said. ``Sometimes young people come in and think, 'I'm coming to Florida and we're going to win because it's Florida.' Well, winning is not a right of passage.''
Especially not after what the Gators lost.
Horford, Noah and Brewer were NBA lottery picks, Green and Richard were second-round selections, and Humphrey signed to play overseas.
The six helped the Gators win 68 games the past two seasons, including 18 in a row in the postseason. They won back-to-back Southeastern Conference tournaments and became the first team in 15 years to repeat as national champs.
All that success helped Donovan land a lucrative contract with the NBA's Orlando Magic, a deal he sheepishly backed out of a few days later.
He returned to Gainesville to rebuild his reputation and his roster. Now, he has just nine scholarship players - a junior, three sophomores and five freshmen.
Instead of having two of the best big men in the country - Horford and Noah could shoot, rebound, run the floor, play defense, block shots and handle the ball - and several perimeter players to complement them, Donovan has an undersized, inexperienced group that hopes to camouflage its weaknesses with pressing defense, up-tempo offense and lots of 3-point shots.
``We have to look at what we have to do to put ourselves in position to win and what are some of things that are going to get us beat,'' Donovan said. ``We have to be able to define those things for our guys. That's the hardest part. You can talk about defending, you can talk about rebounding, you can talk about being unselfish, but they have to understand how that correlates into helping you be successful.''
Florida's success depends on junior guard Walter Hodge, sophomore center Marreese Speights and Donovan's most hyped freshman class since 1998 (Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem and Teddy Dupay).
Hodge averaged 5.7 points last season while playing behind Green and Humphrey. He will take on a much bigger role this season, often having to defend the opponent's best scorer and being counted on to make shots at the other end.
``He's the only guy I can say that he understands, he gets it,'' Donovan said. ``I have a level of trust with him right now.''
The 6-foot-10 Speights is Florida's lone low-post threat. He played sparingly last season and showed glimpses of talent, but it mostly came against overmatched teams.
Speights and fellow sophomores Dan Werner and Jonathan Mitchell moved into the on-campus apartment shared by Brewer, Green, Horford and Noah. The new tenants hope living together will help them develop the same kind of chemistry that made their former teammates two-time champions.
McDonald's All-Americans Nick Calathes and Jai Lucas along with Adam Allen, Chandler Parsons and Alex Tyus bring a mix of outside shooting, confidence and versatility.
``The old saying is you don't know what you don't know,'' Donovan said. ``These guys don't know a lot right now. They don't know what it's like to go on the road and play in an SEC game. They don't know what it's like to have two minutes left and be standing up there at the free-throw line and a place going crazy. They don't know how to execute in a situation with time and score.
``They're going to have to learn how to compete and how hard it is just to win a game in college. But they really appear to be very eager to learn and get better.''
And help Florida rebuild.
``We can't worry about expectations or wins and losses,'' Speights said. ``It's a lot different (than last year). We're completely different. All we can worry about right now is getting better and learning to play together.''